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Knowing Doing Governing: Realising Heterodyne Democracies


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Global politics is blighted by frustrated needs for transformation (Scoones et al. 2015), but it is also invigorated by the associated hopes. Either way, the many widely acknowledged (but persistently neglected) imperatives centre around poverty and oppression, inequality and injustice, climate change, ecological destruction, toxic pollution, nuclear risks and all the obscenity and waste of war (UNESCO/ICSU 2009; UNEP 2012; Griggs et al. 2013; UN 2013; UNDP 2013). Despite the formidable material drivers, every one of these scourges is socially constituted. And — although progress remains painfully slow at best — history shows all to be politically remediable. So, each imperative presents a defining challenge, spanning all the multivalent aspirations and possibilities for what might count as ‘human progress’. What then could be more compelling as focal priorities — equally in the knowing and the doing of ‘governance’?
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Reflexive Knowing: Doing Knowledge Politics
Knowing Doing Governing: Realising Heterodyne
Andrew Stirling
Imperatives for transformation
Global politics is blighted by frustrated needs for transformation (Scoones et al. 2015), but it is
also invigorated by the associated hopes. Either way, the many widely acknowledged (but
persistently neglected) imperatives centre around poverty and oppression, inequality and
injustice, climate change, ecological destruction, toxic pollution, nuclear risks and all the
obscenity and waste of war (UNESCO/ICSU 2009; UNEP 2012; Griggs et al. 2013; UN 2013;
UNDP 2013). Despite the formidable material drivers, every one of these scourges is socially
constituted. And although progress remains painfully slow at best, history shows all to be
politically remediable. So, each imperative presents a defining challenge, spanning all the
multivalent aspirations and possibilities for what might count as ‘human progress’. What then
could be more compelling as focal priorities equally in the knowing and the doing of
To some, stating such commitments so baldly may seem overly normative for an
academic account. But if this is so, it is not normativity itself that gives this impression. What
may grate is rather the form of the normativity and the candour with which it is acknowledged.
In fact, knowledge of all kinds is necessarily value-laden not least in the knowing of
governance. For instance, academic disciplines are typically quite parochial about their empirical
foci, theoretical paradigms and methodological styles. So, whether declared or not, the
production, constituting and interpreting of knowledge is always deeply pervaded by values. The
question is therefore not about whether any given effort at knowing governance is normative,
but what this normativity is and in what ways this is explicitly accountable. For the above focal
priorities in the knowing and doing of governance, then, key accountabilities rest not on any
particular disciplinary framework or academic mission, but on the extent to which associated
knowledges are judged to aid or impede those kinds of progressive global transformations.
Nor, despite the particularities, need such an explicitly normative starting point be seen
as politically partisan in any more general sense. If the current high-level international policy
discourse is taken at face value, aspirations to progressive global transformations in the above
dimensions constitute widespread common ground. The listed imperatives are, after all,
recognised (albeit inadequately) in longstanding, carefully negotiated, globally adopted
governance instruments like ‘Millennium (UN 2014b) and ‘Sustainable Development Goals’
(UN 2014a). Ambitions for transformative (rather than merely incremental), social (and thence
political) change are likewise increasingly widely voiced even in sober academic accounts
(Skolnikoff 1993; Jacobsson/Lauber 2006; Weizsacker et al. 2009; Bingham/Conner 2010;
Olsson et al. 2014). And to affirm such ends, says nothing about specific political means. So, all
the above-mentioned imperatives and their responses are conceivable in radically contrasting
forms. The aim of global progressive transformation is, therefore, arguably less partisan than the
more restricted disciplinary normativities that otherwise typically frame academic
understandings of governance.
Yet, despite the worldwide commotion and sincere and inspiring efforts of many kinds
global progress on the above imperatives remains perennially disappointing. Key challenges
persist, if not intensify. Advance in one area (e.g. poverty) is needlessly attended by regress in
another (e.g. inequality) (Kerry et al. 2010; Piketty 2014). On issues like climate change, political
rhetorics far exceed policy action (Newell/Paterson 2010). And there remain persistent
contradictions, striking hypocrisies and ubiquitous special pleading. For instance, despite the
many cases of genuinely progressive commitment to scientific and policy agendas around
sustainability and development, it remains the case that the single largest area for global research
and innovation lies in preparations for organised projection of mass violence (OECD 2013). So,
whilst nominally highlighted aims of ‘governance’ are progressive and humanitarian, global
efforts and resources actually concentrate disproportionately around war. It would therefore be
difficult to view as rational, objective or robust any analysis of governance that neglects this
manifest dissonance between discursively declared understandings and aspirations, and more
material patterns and priorities of realised action. However viewed, real-world governance is
evidently pretty different from how it is seen, still less aspired.
Governing knowing
Political divides are therefore intense, not only around the means to stated shared ends in
governance nor just concerning what any particular declared intent might imply in any detail.
Substantive general questions also emerge about the credibility, sincerity and the very meaning
of existing governance understandings and discourses themselves. Indeed, fundamental queries
arise not only about the modalities and instantiations of governance as an objective focus, but
about what kind of phenomenon the knowing of governance as a subjective process actually is.
For instance, how literally should the knowing be taken as a separate process from the doing of
governance? Are as is conventionally portrayed practices ostensibly concerned with the
knowing of governance, a prior factor informing subsequent intentions and actions? Or are
understandings themselves better understood as functions of already-realised practices and
interests? Perhaps it is this that helps explain the dissonance noted above?
To cut straight to the chase, serious questions might be asked over the entire performance
of governance as a field for supposedly disinterested academic or policy analysis. Under such
a view, all the stories, models and methods of governance discussed in this book, for instance,
would not (as the title suggests) really be about shaping political reality at all. Nor would such
a shaping role be true, in general, of the very concept of governance itself. Any efforts in this
domain ostensibly intended to inform political action might more reasonably be seen as
themselves (if unconsciously) conditioned by it. And it does not require that this concern be
accepted wholesale for queries to be entertained over the resulting pictures of explicit (or
implicit) motivations, rational (or irrational) deliberations and various orderly (or disorderly)
patterns. The dilemma is whether these should be taken at face value. Or are all such objectifying
images better seen as a category mistake invoking linearly sequential orderings of individual
cognition, followed by aggregative deliberation, followed by governance action, that are at
best romantic?
Such questions apply even where understandings of governance are intended to be
reflexive or critical. Even if inadvertent in the context of the immediately associated actors,
governance knowledges may still conceivably be conditioned by encompassing political
environments. After all, instrumental pressures for justification need not indicate some kind of
deliberate conspiracy. As iron filings align in a magnetic field, such pressures can arise as
distributed social cognitions and emergent intentionalities in encompassing flows and gradients
of power. So, even the strongest of intended criticism in explicit argument can be
instrumentalising in its implicit categories.
For instance, a framing that aspirationally discusses progressive aims as if these are
comprehensively shared (by an apocryphal we, as if uncontestable), may yield unintended
effects in its uncompromising assertiveness. Despite its progressive intent, such a presumptive
approach can inadvertently reinforce an overarching hegemony, which tends to privilege those
regressive perspectives better able to subsume other interests into a singular societal ‘we’. And
this framing may also reinforce a more generally regressive category mistake under which
political acquiescence is taken as societal consensus. So, irrespective of the potency of a
particular critique, simplistically rationalist framings can obscure and legitimise much more
material drivers and far less choate relations between normativity, cognition and action. Albeit
only implicitly, inadvertently and emergently, then, even just the idea of something called
‘governance’ involving coalesced deliberate social intentionality can help reinforce
incumbencies by obscuring actualities, obfuscating accountabilities and dissipating dissent.
Seeing like power
Despite the immanence of such questions, however, much academic and policy literatures in
this field takes at face value those values, priorities and processes that are declared to shape the
various understandings of governance. In short, even where there might be a progressive aim of
challenging incumbent power, the perspective taken is still that termed by Gyawali as the
eagle-eye view, as if looking down on processes of governance from a privileged incumbent
position (Allouche et al. 2014). Akin to James Scott’s notoriously more-specific and situated
phenomenon (Scott 1998), then, there is a general conceit presumptively to see like power. As
a result, the primary dynamics of governance are implicitly taken less critically, as being about
a notionally singular aggregated social agency driven by deliberate intentionality. Whether
viewed as concentrated or distributed, covert or explicit, authoritarian or democratic, stochastic
or mechanistic, governance is held to be about some kind of ‘control’. A progressive challenge
may be conceded around orientation or legitimacy, but the focus remains essentially on control.
Here, practical difficulties may be acknowledged to be formidable, but criticism and
prescription alike tend to be constituted by deterministic causality, located intentionality and
singular deliberate agency.
But what if these constituting notions are expedient myths? What if discrete deterministic
causes are better conceived as distributed fields and flows of dispositions? What if located
intentionality is more about emergent social cognition? What if deliberate agency reflects
collectively unconscious orientation? What if notionally material power to control Macmillan’s
reputedly lamented events, dear boy, events (Knowles 2006), is better understood as relational
privilege in discursively surfing what are actually far more recalcitrant currents of consequences?
What in short if Gyawali’s real-world toad-eye view is more salient than the eagle-eye view
of idealised governance (Allouche et al. 2014)? To ask such questions, is not to urge wholesale
abandonment of conventional models of governance. Even if incomplete or misleading, focal
concepts of intentionality, deliberation, agency and control may still be valued if only for
purposes of accountability as civilising effects of hypocrisy (Elster 2011). And these notions
still hold salience in more qualified, plural, distributed and allegorical forms (Jessop 2003).
But for such values to be realised, deeper critical questions also need to be raised. To always see
like power and take such governance-talk too much at face value risks ironically suppressing the
very processes it propounds.
In the vertical ‘eagle eye’, ‘face-value’ account of governance, the focus is on the
dispositions, motivations, capacities, relations, (mis)conceptions, (un)certainties and
(in)tractabilities constituting actors and processes forming the objects of understanding. Similar
key challenges are neglected around the subjects of understanding. In other words, the focus of
attention remains within the page’ of governance accounts, not on processes of attention
themselves. This is how it is possible, for example, to become preoccupied with questions (or
laden with assumptions) over whether variously defined instances of governance might be
(supposedly self-evidently) ‘better’ or ‘worse’, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’ (as if not co-
constituting), state-led or market-driven (ignoring mixes and alternatives) or restricted simply to
instrumental design (privileging means over ends). In all these ways and many more, wranglings
between instrumental legitimisation and substantive legitimacy are not just axes of enquiry about
some specific focal form of governance, but constitute the conditions of enquiry itself.
This is where the normative commitments concerning progressive global political
transformations declared above come to the fore. Transcending disciplinary doctrines and
expediencies, deeper responsibilities arise to challenge regressively concentrated power not only
among the objects of governance understandings but in the subjects. Knowings of governance
can be challenged not just as specific instances but as a general field. Perhaps most importantly,
there arise clear implications in recognising normativity as being as much about the conditioning
of knowledge as the other way around. It becomes unreasonable to assert a separation between
the knowing and doing of governance. In this horizontal toad-eye view, ways of knowing
governance come into focus as being among the most important governance practices in their
own right. And the doings of governance by variously powerful and divergently oriented
interests carry profound implications for shaping diverse wider knowings. This is why this
chapter avoids addressing one in the voice of the other but entitles both explicitly together as
knowing doing governing.
Knowing power
It follows from this discussion, that knowing governing means governing knowing. As well as
being implemented in action, governance knowledge is, generally, motivated by action,
produced by action, constituted by action, communicated by action and interpreted by action.
So, it is distributions in dispositions for all these kinds of action that shape the resulting fabrics
of knowledge. And this also defines a central role for various kinds, modes and media of
power. The more apparently authoritatively ‘scientific’, or disinterestedly ‘academic’, or
politically ‘neutral’ the aspired or asserted understanding, the more (rather than less) this is
As Francis Bacon momentously observed when pioneering the archetypally objectivist
view of the constituting practises of natural science: knowledge itself is power (McGovern
2005). The implications for the knowing of governance extend far beyond the many challenges
of speaking truth to power (Price 1965; Wildavsky 1987). Indeed, perhaps the deepest
significance of Bacon’s insight lies in the reverse ways in which power inscribes knowledge
(Stirling 2015). And this is arguably nowhere more true than in the knowing of governance,
when so much of the object of knowledge are the complex multidimensional processes of power
itself. So, where there are progressive aspirations concerning the imperatives at the opening of
this chapter, one of the most obviously practical responses is clear. More than seeking to speak
truth to power, those engaged in ‘knowing governance’ should speak about power and
especially about the imprints of power in what is seemingly true.
Of course, this efficacy of power-in-knowledge is not manifest primarily as the
mechanical propagation of explicit consciousness in deliberately conspiring individuals. The
intentionalities in play are irreducibly societal not atomistically psychological. Power is plural
(not singular) in its forms, emergent (not located) in its drivers, ambiguous (not determinate) in
its dynamics, contextually situated (not universal) in its meanings, fractal (not separately scaled)
in its structures and multivalent (not self-evident) in its outcomes and normative implications
(Gramsci 1971; Simon 1991; Luhmann 1995; Bourdieu 1998; Sen 2000; Lukes 2005;
VeneKlasen/Miller 2006). It is about diversely distributed, chaotically layered, recursively
entangling relational processes more than specifically located or neatly structured categories of
capabilities or resources.
But even in this complex picture of dynamic multidimensional manifolds of cross-cutting
fields and interlocking networks in many-layered flows (spanning both the subjective and
objective conditions of knowledge), a focal notion of power does nonetheless retain some
crucial practical traction for progressive interests. Seen in terms of one strand of classical social
theory, for instance, all these features constitute different ways in which variously construed
kinds of agency are asymmetric in their relations with whatever is held to be the relevant actors
and structures. In these terms, despite the diversities, complexities and indeterminacies, the
simple central idea of power reflects the ubiquitous actuality that agency is both asymmetrically
structured and asymmetrically structuring (Stirling 2014b). This is equally so in the formative
origins and the onward potentialities of all kinds and contexts for social intentionality. And,
under unchallenged conditions, these asymmetries are themselves dynamically self-reinforcing.
So, it is in this sense that power remains a coherently meaningful phenomenon, as
asymmetrically structuring agency. And this is why (unlike so much else in social science)
notions of power are so clear, accessible and potent in colloquial discourse. Despite recognition
being expediently suppressed by incumbent interests and self-indulgently obscured in
disciplinary complexifications, power is, quite simply, the single most important social fact.
So, retaining this pragmatic focus on the challenges discussed at the start of this chapter,
the most crucial questions concern the kinds of action that offer the most consistently progressive
ways to respond to these specifically categorically complex but relationally generally simple
dynamics of power. In order to overcome the established regressive structures implicated in all
the above kinds of imperative, transformative progressive action will require multiple kinds and
settings for careful collective structuring of distributed agency. Here, it is not necessarily the
particular agencies or structures that are regressive in asymmetrically structuring agency, but the
asymmetries. So, it is not just the specific orientations, but the concentration of power itself that
is a central part of the problem. And this is all the more so, because power has such a dynamic
propensity to self-reinforcement. History repeatedly shows how asymmetries of agency initially
justified in progressive struggle can go on to acquire their own regressively self-stabilising
dynamic. Indeed, it is arguably this dilemma that is most responsible for the repeated failures
mentioned at the beginning of this chapter and poses perhaps the greatest challenges in
achieving progressive social transformations (Stirling 2014a).
From sustainability to control
One way to approach these challenges is to reflect on a concrete example of how such
dilemmas play out. Arguably the principal instance of this arises in the global governance
agenda around sustainable development (Leach et al. 2010) discussed at the start of this
chapter. The ascent of this momentous body of knowledge and practise in international politics
emerged only as a result of decades of emancipatory collective action. It arose from hard-
fought struggles by diverse social movements in various causes around peace, development,
social justice and environment. From these converging political streams, there formed the three
canonical commitments of the Brundtland Report around values of social equity, ecological
integrity and human wellbeing (Brundtland 1987). And these in turn were codified and
implemented with varying degrees of success in the multiplicity of instruments, strategies and
institutions around the Rio Convention (Mintzer/Leonard 1994), Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992),
Millennium Development Goals (UN 2014b) and Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2014a).
As this process unfolded, the early emancipatory aspects of Sustainability causes were
undergoing some striking transformations. What began as grassroots collective action was (and
is) increasingly appropriated by elite concerns with social control. For instance, it was social
movements that first identified and championed the social and environmental problems towards
which high-level governance interventions like injustice, climate change, war and pollution
are ostensibly oriented. In each area, progressive aims were vigorously contested or strongly
dismissed by precisely the established governmental, business and academic cultures whose
current organisational missions these imperatives now increasingly shape. And a similar picture
applies for many of the key innovations, practices and strategies that policy now strives to ‘scale
up’ as ‘solutions’ like renewable energy, ecological farming and closed cycle production.
These were also themselves pioneered in civil society in the face of oppressive attempts at
exclusion by governments, businesses and academia. As with science itself many centuries
before, it seems sustainability practices are historically highly socially mobile.
The very forms of unruly distributed collective action that defined both initial knowings
of problems and early enactings of responses, then, are increasingly marginalised in current
moves towards more orderly and concentrated forms of ‘sound scientific’ methods, ‘risk-based’
analysis, evidence-based policy and ‘pro-innovation’ strategy. Early diverse subaltern
struggles for different kinds of open-ended, hope-driven political transformations are
increasingly replaced by more-specific expert-mediated, fear-driven, technically managed
transitions (Stirling 2014a). As this occurs, the extensive potentialities of collective action are
substituted by restrictive ‘planetary boundaries’ defining the control variables of the Earth
(Rockström et al. 2009). And language of revolution is also nowadays shunned in polite political
discourse and mocked when raised as if self-evidently irresponsible (Brand 2014). Yet
breathless ‘revolutionary’ polemics remain ubiquitous at an organisational level (Weick 2009)
and especially in the fields of science and technology (Drexler et al. 1991; Fukuyama 2002;
Oyelaran-Oyeyinka/Rasiah 2009; Adamsky 2010; Kamal 2010; Rifkin 2012). It seems open
discussion of revolutionary social changes can only be tolerated where institutional structures
can align these with incumbent interests.
In a series of instrumental compressions, public discourse over contending general
political ends is replaced by expert negotiation over specific technical means. As governance is
depoliticised, space for democracy constricts and humilities of care are replaced by hubris of
control. The advent of ‘Earth systems management(Steffen et al. 2011) invokes with absolutely
no uncertainty and brooking ‘no compromise the non-negotiable planetary preconditions that
humanity needs to respect (Rockström 2010). So emerges the supposedly undifferentiated we
(Lövbrand et al. 2009) of humanity as a self-conscious control force that has conquered the
planet (Schellnhuber 1999), pursuing the destiny of taking control of Nature’s realm
(Crutzen/Schwagerl 2011). It is in these scientistic and technocratic forms that ostensibly
progressive forms of ‘Sustainability governance’ are in increasing danger of subverting their
own defining roots, aims and values.
Further ironies and paradoxes
The predicament described above, resolves a striking irony concerning the role of intentionality
in governance. It might be thought that the more deliberate and ambitious the change, the
greater the role for more clear-cut notions of intentionality. Yet, in many ways the opposite is
true. The greater the focus on wider, more socially deliberated transformation (rather than
automatically conservative continuity), the more necessarily hazy become the associated
notions of social agency. A sign of this is the fact that the more ambitiously progressive the
normative aims (like the original visions for Sustainability), the greater becomes the need to
harness a diversity of misaligned forms of interest. Recognition of this is a key factor in
increasing moves in normative policy analysis away from emphases on narrow concepts of
government and towards wider notions of governance (Jessop 2003; Hendriks/Grin 2006; Voß
et al. 2006; Voß/Bornemann 2011).
Governance extends attention beyond government actors, to business, civil society and
even wider culture (Stoker 1998; Bevir/Rhodes 2006; Sørensen/Torfing 2006; Bevir 2010;
Boyd/Folke 2012). A diversity of organisational, legal, economic, institutional, cultural,
discursive and cognitive structures and processes come to the fore variously co-ordinating
socio-political orders and influencing directions for historical change. These in turn involve tacit
ways of knowing, valuing and imagining as much as codified rules, norms and procedures.
Indeed, ‘government’, ‘business’ and ‘civil society’ move from separate Platonic silos to
pervasive styles of relation. And the dynamism and complexity of these more variously oriented
gradients of agency make it tricky to condense out the many liquid currents of commitment into
seeming solid moments of ‘decision’ or ‘choice’ (Wynne 1997). Just as experimental
neuroscience is raising similar predicaments for notions of individual intentionality (Baumeister
et al. 2010), so does a governance focus tend to render the more important kinds of social agency
ever more elusive, distributed and volatile.
But when the focus is on ‘government’, even knowledge itself takes a more
‘domesticated’ form. A more categorical and deterministic approach is taken in representing the
focal institutional procedures. Even if radically critical in their orientation, understandings tend
to be more explicit, homogeneous, codified and contained: prescribing more organisationally
instrumentalised ‘missions’. When the focus is on ‘governance’, on the other hand, knowledges
themselves tend to be ‘wilder’. More relational and indeterminate approaches are taken to the
social processes in question. Understandings are more implicit, plural, contending and
unbounded. Prescriptions centre not on policy missions, but more around culturally constituted
(political) ‘causes’. Yet the greater the aspiration to transformative change, the more likely it is
that associated knowledges will implicate governance in general, rather than just government.
So, the more intense and ambitiously transformative the challenge for social agency, the more
amorphous and distributed this concept itself seems to become.
This then leads to a further more-specific irony in relation to progressive understandings
of democracy. This is a fraught and complex field, to which it is not possible to do justice here.
But the above general definition of power, as asymmetrically structuring agency, does despite
all the diversities, complexities and context-dependencies offer a useful pivot for a general
working understanding. In these broadest of progressive terms, any democracy with serious
progressive aims in relation to power must in some way be about access by the least powerful,
to the capacities for challenging power (Stirling 2014b). And it is in this overarching sense that
the above irony is compounded. If social agency itself grows more amorphous in the face of
further ambitiously progressive aspirations to transformation, then it becomes correspondingly
more difficult to identify and so challenge contexts in which social agency is more or less
asymmetrically structured. One practical implication of this, for instance, is the diminishing
tractability of accountabilities. To compound the earlier dilemmas around the self-stabilising
dynamics of power, it is in such ways that there forms an apparent tension between
transformation as a progressive end and democracy as a progressive means.
Heterodyne democracies
How then to resolve this paradox? Taking a cue from the above discussion, what seem needed
are ways to understand and enact democracies in less ‘domesticated’ – agency concentrating
ways. Tight organisationally mediated attempts at accountability, notionally concerned with
wider control over centralised missions, can actually have the perverse effects described above
of consolidating new forms of concentrated interest. Wilder enactments of democracies, by
contrast, are constituted not so much by vertical control over institutional missions, but by
horizontal associations between political causes. Instead of indirectly structured chains of
rigidly codified rules, norms and procedures, this involves more direct co-ordination among
ambiguously apprehended pluralities of knowing, valuing and imagining.
Fields of democratic struggle thus extend outwards from the confined space of merely
alternative understandings, normativities and actions within a notionally shared, objectively
singular domain of governance. Instead, democratic struggle ‘comes out of the page’, to
encompass contending knowledges and practices that also constitute the understandings of what
governance itself might be. Among subjects as well as objects of governance knowledge, then,
the scope moves from means to ends. What is at stake is not simply how to govern, but what
governing itself even connotes. Crucially, this move addresses the dual valences of power
discussed above, because asymmetrically structuring agency is recognised to be as formative of
subjective processes of knowing governance as of the objectively material actions that
implement it.
Instead of idealised, discretely speciated procedural determinisms of cause, effect and
control, then, democracies can be understood and practised in more messy and dynamically
relational ‘ecological ways. Celebrating the resulting radical plurality of movements and
diversity of orientations made possible by this escape from procedural structures, the ‘wilder’
results might be called heterodyne democracies. Whatever the terminology, though, there arise
a range of quite practical implications. Before turning to specific kinds of action and
understanding, a summary of some of the main distinguishing features shared by this diversity
of deeper possible capacities for challenging power asymmetries, made possible in heterodyne
democracies, is presented in Illustration 12.1.
What this conveys, is that the implications of heterodyne democracies extend beyond the
implementation of particular institutional trajectories in specific domains according to singular
notions of ‘the public good’, no matter how ‘tolerated’, ‘accepted’, ‘trusted’ or ‘accountable’
these might be held to be. Instead of notionally singular ‘sound scientific’, ‘evidence-based’
aggregations of knowledge, values, ethics or concepts of ‘shared interest’, the qualities of
heterodyne democracies described above sustain pluralities of ontologies concerning ways of
being in the world and enacting processes of collective governance themselves. In the lower left
of Figure 12.1, then, it can be seen that understandings of what constitute the ‘social choices’ in
any given domain are correspondingly broadened out. This involves explicit deliberation over a
wider array of options, issues, contexts, uncertainties and perspectives across a greater diversity
of institutions concerned with the appraisal of social choice and the informing of wider political
So far, however, this simply describes the kind of broad-based integrative understanding
that is sometimes already explicitly aspired to in conventional governance, for instance, in more
ambitious forms of integrated assessment. Yet, it has already been described for the field of
Sustainability how the diversity and scope of the values and interests in play are typically
restrictively ‘closed down’ by political pressures for justification (Stirling, 2008) An example
lies in the move from the original emancipatory pluralities of collective action, to more technical
social control agendas around planetary boundaries and transition management. In this respect,
heterodyne democracies are also distinctive not just in broadening out the methods and practices
for appraising knowledges and values in specialist institutions and areas, they are also
distinguished by the ways they open up the space for general political discourse and the
associated struggles this sustains. This is illustrated in the lower right of Figure 12.1, which
shows the notion of governance itself to be enacted and realised in more plural and conditional
ways recognising incommensurability and appreciating qualifying conditions for closure.
Finally, at the top of Figure 12.1, it is illustrated how heterodyne democracies are
characterised not only by greater ontological, epistemic and normative diversities in the ways
described above, but also by ‘letting go’ of more material pluralities and plural materialities.
Qualities of plural materiality involve greater space for institutions and strategies constituted
around plurality focused on qualities like socio-technical flexibility, resilience and
reversibility. Qualities of material plurality involve greater degrees of diversity in the concrete
forms of technologies, infrastructures and institutions that are realised. This involves deliberate
resisting of mechanisms like lock-in, autonomy and entrapment variously analysed in
governance literatures concerned with path dependencies in institutional trajectories.
So far, however, all that has been sketched are the overarching characteristics of
heterodyne democracies, and how these are distinct from (albeit related to) many currently extant
forms and notions of governance. It remains to discuss the particular ways in which these
characteristics might be realised. But for present purposes, the argument can be summarised that
imperatives for transformation do not as is often assumed necessarily compel concentrated
power, definitive assertions, unyielding structures or determining control. Indeed, when it is
appreciated how power exerts an imprint on the knowing of governance itself, these can be
recognised as expedient fictions that can aid incumbent interests in the impeding of progressive
change. The prospect instead lies in knowings and doings of progressive transformation that
engage the inherently unruly, distributed and incommensurable natures of social agency.
But this in turn presents a further challenge: How is it possible to realise these more
radical forms of plurality and diversity in understanding and action at the same time as seeking
to achieve unprecedented progress in relation to demanding hitherto unresolved imperatives for
social transformation? In short, how is it possible to be so reflexive and so committed at the same
time? It is to this challenge that the discussion will now turn.
Reflexively committed transformation
One aspect of this challenge of addressing reflexivity concerns the difficulty in accounting for
the emergent coalescing of commitment from plurality, without the exercise of controlling
forms of power (as asymmetrically structuring agency). Here, it may help that debates over
governance are not the only domain in which there arise practical reasons to take reflexivity
more seriously. And it is interesting that this can apply even when the systems in question are
ontologically remote from social systems and their essentialised human attributes for
instance, with recursive interconnectivities in chemistry, biology, neurology and ecology.
Interestingly, there arise under such conditions spontaneous processes of ‘teleogenesis’ in
which phenomena acquire immanent qualities resembling ‘purpose’, ‘function’ and ‘meaning’
(Porra 2010). So, without in any way implicating analogues to the deliberate exercise of
societal power or indeed any conscious intentionality at all (Ziv et al. 2011) means and
ends can arise as simple corollaries of recursively constituted evolutionary process (Tuomela
2002). With processes of distributed, emergent teleogenesis so evident in the physical world,
why not also in governance (Lichtenstein/McKelvey 2011)?
To see this one needs to look behind expedient fictions of the kind described above, as if
‘knowledgesand ‘intentions’ are separable and necessarily prior to action. Instead, we have
seen how the social dynamics of agency as in all complex evolutionary processes involve
restless webs of multivalent, recursively nested configurations. And even simply taken on their
own, such relational ontologies (involving multiple ‘turnings back’) of themselves yield cross-
cutting dances of path-dependence and transformation. To this is then added the inherently
polythetic nature of social phenomena (like institutions, practices, networks, structures or
agency), in the sense that whatever are held to be the salient dimensions and properties in any
given context will only be a subset of those that constitute the phenomenon (Ritzer 2000). So,
the turning back of recursive ontologies involving particular attributes present crucial
opportunities for associated characteristics that are more entrenched in their own trajectories, to
nonetheless become transformed. Resolving the conundrum of simultaneous reflexivity and
commitment need not invoke any special pleading or romantic aspirations on behalf of
transcendent virtues in intentionality or qualities of agency. The co-constituting duality of
reflexivity and commitment is quite simply inherent in any ontology of polythetically
multidimensional phenomena entangled in contrasting recursive flows in different dimensions.
In other words, whether nurtured or even acknowledged or not, reflexivity is a fact of social
Just as any turning needs a fulcrum, then, so too does reflexivity need commitment. The
two are not paradoxically contradictory, but mutually co-constituting qualities arising out of
contrasting properties in complementary dimensions of polythetic wholes. And realising this is
as challenging for conventional notions of reflexivity (as a situated quality) as the above critical
discussion might be for instrumental notions of power. A cherished privilege of self-consciously
critical sensibilities is to lay claim to reflexivity as a transcendent-but-located virtue (Lynch
2000). Seen in these terms, reflexivity is (ironically like the objectivity against which it is often
counterposed) autonomous, self-conscious and situated distinctly and independently of the
governance processes over which it supposedly presides. What is underscored here is that such
a view is an oxymoron.
So, as with the discussion of power, taking reflexivity seriously in governance also
demands that attention ‘comes out of the page’. Reflexivity is not so much a quality situated
within any given body of governance knowledge, but about it. Accepting the emergent
implications of pervasive recursivity in diversely viewed multidimensionality also breaks the
hard distinction between subjects and objects of governance. The dimensionalities of pivoting
and turning, after all, are constituted both subjectively and objectively. More practically, this
shows how it can be that incumbent power (though, by definition, committed) can also
sometimes prove highly reflexive in its apprehension of contending interests. It is a failure to
realise this and romanticise the faculties of subaltern critical sensibilities that can sometimes
render progressive causes especially vulnerable. Progressive criticism holds no monopoly on
Beyond this salutary point, however, there is nothing about recognition of these complex
dynamics of reflexivity and commitment that is in any way inconsistent with practical
progressive action. That constitutive processes of governance are not tractable, determinate or
even knowable does not mean they are unresponsive to action. Just as neural activity is
constituted in physical phenomena, so it is arguably only through embedded patterns in material
social practices that governance may come to ‘know’ anything at all. It is in this sense that
recognising that knowing and acting are inseparable and co-constituting is far more than an
intellectual commitment. By showing how reflexivity can co-exist with commitment, a highly
practical fulcrum emerges for transformative political hope. Radical pluralism is entirely
consistent with a commitment to ambitiously progressive transformation.
This leads to a further point concerning the mutual implications of the present
understanding and enacting of social reflexivity, with and for the variously construed roles of
‘civil society’. In short, diverse concepts of ‘civil society’ might in many ways be addressed as
crude recognitions for the reflexive ‘sub-politics’ described here (Beck 1994). This hinges on
the generally polythetic character of the social actors, structures and processes discussed above.
Any given ordering of relations between instances of any of these phenomena will implicate only
a subset of salient attributes. In other intimately associated dimensions, rhizomic connections
will entangle outwards such as to transcend any reduced or generalised representation of social
order (Deleuze/Guattari 1987).
Rather than being a discrete domain involving particular kinds of social institution,
practice or relation, then, civil society (like ‘the market’ or ‘the state’) is not a categorical silo
containing ‘types’ of actors or sociality. It is an irreducibly plural, pervasive and omni-accessible
manifold of relations. Unlike market and state relations, however, civil society is typically less
comprehensively monolithically structured. For all their diversity, after all, market processes
tend to be more coherently ordered by relatively narrow economic metrics, structures and
practices. And state structures likewise tend generally to display more restrictively orderly
articulations of identities, responsibilities and accountabilities. Of course, individual civil society
organisations or networks will display localised orientations and hierarchical structures of just
these explicit kinds. But it is a distinguishing feature of civil society as a whole that overarching
knowledges, normativities and relational orders are all less monolithically structured across this
field of relations as a whole. It is in socially implicit, relationally juxtaposed
incommensurabilities, then, that civil society constitutes an especially pervasive medium for
wider social reflexivity. It helps build the connected juxtapositions of disparities that constitute
the distributed nature of social reflexivity.
This said, there arise a series of crucial, more practical questions. If the imperatives with
which we began are to be responded to in genuinely progressive and transformative ways: What
to do? How to know? How to realise in practise greater progressive political traction in the kinds
of ‘broadening out’, ‘opening up’ and ‘letting go’ described above? None of the qualities,
sensibilities or dynamics discussed so far are self-evident in their instantiation. In medium as in
message, they offer only invitations and pivots for less visible dancing partners. As ever, the
strongest hopes for genuine transformation lie not in directly linear extrapolations, but in
recursively more nested turnings back. On the same theme in minor chord, it is to these final
finer-grain ironies of social agency that we will now turn.
Barriers to reflexive transformation
A basic predicament of subaltern agency is that the quality of incumbency on the part of
concentrated power itself forces expressions of contending agency onto a reactive back foot
taking primarily critical and negative forms. What begin as hopes for different worlds get
translated into fear and anger about the ones that persist. Before turning to suggestions for
practical positive actions, then, we will first criticise four quite specific impediments to
progressively committed reflexivity of the kind discussed above. As syndromes to avoid, these
are equally practical in their implications for action and knowledge alike. And they are as
perilous for minor incumbencies in critical and progressive movements, as they are in more
major concentrations of political, economic and cultural power.
The first is misplaced concreteness about the world and its dynamics. This refers to the
error of reifying what is abstract and malleable, as if it were fixed and definitive. Such fallacies
are endemic throughout governance discourse, where singular assertions suppress scope for
dissent over what counts as ‘evidence’, ‘science’, ‘Sustainability’, ‘innovation’, ‘risk’ or
‘knowledge’ as well (as we have seen) as ‘power’, ‘progress’ and ‘reflexivity’. Prominent
examples of this syndrome in mainstream governance discourse include notions of progress as a
one-track race, rather than many branching counterfactual paths. Also reified are notions of
salient actors typically self-fulfillingly privileging incumbents’ own networks.
The second syndrome is presumed normativity about the emergent consequences of
incumbency. It is by this means that incumbent trajectories are taken as paradigmatic of
‘progress’: not only as necessary and inevitable, but as somehow intrinsically positive.
Cumulatively, this leads to Panglossian judgements that whatever is contingently shaped by
extant power gradients is self-evidently ‘for the best’ (Midgley 1985). Structured by the same
categories and axes, scholarly pretensions to eschew such normativity simply by positioning
somehow ‘in the middle’ are no less related to prevailing gradients and so all the more deceptive
in any claims to independence or objectivity.
A third syndrome is the suppression of agency in the apprehension of social phenomena
in general. Heroic individuality is often emphasised at key moments in affirming set-piece policy
‘decisions’ or ‘choices’. But these are generally instrumentalised to concern the means for
implementing committed socio-technical trajectories, rather than constituting the ends of the
trajectories themselves. At this level, far more deterministic assumptions prevail, with social
agency effectively deleted. For instance, ideas of ‘systems’ or ‘ecosystems in innovation treat
structuring system ontologies as given, thereby occluding roles for distributed social agency.
The fourth and final syndrome is the fallacy of control. This arises from the expedient
failure to acknowledge the complex indeterminate social realities discussed so far. Forgetting
Macmillan’s lament over the challenge of events to power, they misportray as control, actions
that are really more about response. Social processes are seen as constituted by linear chains of
discretely determinate causes and consequences. Just as particular privileged individual
ancestors can be plucked for strategic purposes of inheritance claims from a far more open-ended
genealogical web, so individual causes and actions can be associated with specific impacts. Such
fallacies help sustain existing incumbent patterns of socio-culturally situated privilege, as if these
were justified by politicaleconomic capacities to control.
Together, misplaced concreteness, presumed normativity, suppressed agency and the
fallacy of control compound many of the other ‘expedient fictions’ discussed so far. They assume
that social categories are more fixed than is really the case, that agency is more determinate, that
subjects knowledge is more sufficient, that normativities are more aligned, that objects are more
tractable to action and that subjects and objects are more separable. It is on the basis of
combinations of such fallacies, for instance, that the open-ended emancipatory collective action
around Sustainability can be converted into instrumental agendas of social control around the
management of planetary control variables (Rockström et al. 2009).
Together, these hegemonic features of worldwide high-level political discourse are self-
stabilising, both by their own individual expediencies and their mutually reinforcing dynamics
as resources for instrumental justifications of power. And as has been noted at several points
these syndromes do not only exercise their regressive effects through assertions by incumbents.
Some of the most potent implications arise from their unconscious assimilation by critics.
Nothing is more impeding of progressive transformation, then, than when subaltern
understandings and actions themselves assert misplaced concreteness, presumed normativity,
suppressed agency or fallacies of control. As we have seen, this can be a tendency even among
ostensibly progressive interests, which drop the realities of the toad-eye view and aspire instead
to the eagle-eye view in an idealised condition of seeing like power. And so are enacted the
perverse effects, in which overtly progressively critical understandings may, through their
constituting categories and structures, act inadvertently to reinforce the deepest of the hegemonic
power concentrations they seek to challenge. So, it is in these instrumental warpings of notions
of governance themselves that incumbency asserts its greatest defence.
Knowing doings
So much, then, for what not to do. The interests, obstacles and pressures militating against
progressive social action are certainly formidable. And the complexities and associated
reflexivities make the challenge all the more daunting. But what can be said about what to do,
in order to best help realise progressive transformation.
A response here follows quite straightforwardly from the discussion so far. Action and
knowledge are not separate and sequential (as the instrumental fiction has it), but mutually co-
constituting. Social agency is also more distributed and unruly than suggested by the
expediencies of power. And the crucial quality of reflexivity is also less individual, contained
and coherent than supposed. What all this suggests is that interventions aiming at ambitiously
progressive transformations are not best addressed in the usual hierarchical choreography
typically favoured (for reasons explained in the above discussion of fallacies) by incumbent
In the conventional model fostered by exactly these syndromes, the first steps are often
assigned to idealised elite visionaries who first conceive of the ‘game changing’ possibilities.
The next stage is to undertake sophisticated formal analysis, usually by very particular,
restrictively accredited elite actors (like researchers). This is followed by carefully codified
design again by dedicated professionals of particular kinds of action intended directly and
deterministically to engineer the intended vision. Crucial here is also the role of heroically
individual social and business entrepreneurs, who forge the networks necessary for successfully
realised interventions. These are then in turn evaluated by another distinct cadre of practitioners
and institutions in supposedly synoptically rational (sometimes also elaborately legitimated)
processes. Finally (and typically widely separated across time and space), successful instances
are ‘scaled-up’ and ‘rolled out’ in massively concentrated ways.
This entire process is notionally organised into highly ordered action programmes
overseen by large, massively resourced networks of incumbent ‘stakeholders’, which they serve
to justify. Credit is also typically appropriated by those elite actors among these claiming the
strongest and most prestigious institutional associations and cultural entitlements. The whole
business is rigidly orchestrated by assertive ‘theories of change’, neatly partitioned into
‘implementation phases’ according to precisely defined ‘policy cycles’ operating across starkly
differentiated ‘organisational levels’. This is what the managing of a ‘technological transition
looks like in conventional governance accounts that seek to see like power.
The message of the present discussion and historical experience alike is very different.
Here, effective radically progressive transformations are best achieved instead by far more
diverse, emergent, distributed, ambiguous, disorderly and situated small-scale interventions.
These variously combine in microcosm many of the functions and features of the above stages
intimately articulating practises of understanding and learning with material and symbolic
actions in ways that might most clearly be summarised as a multiplicity of knowing doings.
The salient metaphors here are very different. Instead of comprehensive frameworks for
action conceived in rigidly structured Cartesian co-ordinates on a map, knowing doings work
not through externally imposing gridlines but internally expressive compasses. Resulting
alignments in gradients of interlinked normativity and action are more like multiple interacting
magnets and their co-conditioning fields, than like the hierarchically marshalled mechanisms of
an engine or manoeuvres of an army. The overall dynamics resemble more the exquisitely
coordinated murmurations of flocking behaviours in birds (and other animals). These
demonstrate quite graphically how the most agile, rapid and comprehensively transformative of
reorientations are achievable only by distributed horizontal rather than concentrated vertical
co-ordination. And it is telling that a term for what is arguably one of the most precise forms of
co-ordination murmuration should also hold a meaning of dissent.
That a picture of horizontally co-ordinated murmurations may be more salient and
accurate as a metaphor for radically progressive social transformation certainly seems the clear
general message derived from the cumulative worldwide history of emancipatory struggle
(Stirling 2014). This is the repeated pattern, for instance, in unfinished progress in reducing
slavery, ameliorating colonialism, enfranchising citizens, establishing unions, liberating women,
challenging racism, asserting sexual rights, respecting animals and protecting environments.
Although each cause is formidably complex and defiant of simplification, none of these were
primarily driven by hierarchical control. All were initially clearly shaped and driven in their
formative dynamics, by distributed pressures from multiple, diverse, emergent, disorderly,
ambiguous and situated interventions. These integrated multifarious forms of locally-positioned
co-constituting knowings and doings, in ways that might be characterised as ‘knowing doings’.
Of course, each of these radically different kinds of transformation involved intricately
reflexive dances with various kinds of incumbent order. As in the more general discussion of the
dynamics of reflexivity, traction for distributed agency often required very explicit pivoting
around highly particular structures (both in action and in knowledge). In every case, enlightened
elites, hierarchical organisations and structured forms of practice and understanding fulfilled
essential roles at particular moments. And the rhizomic interconnectedness of civil society
relations also meant that the distinctions between these different aspects of change are artificial
since each works to co-constitute the other. But the point is that none of these historical
progressive transformations were achieved in the fashion typically emphasised in idealised
programmes of sustainability governance involving evidence-based action aiming at pre-
envisioned transitions.
Perhaps most crucially for an academic study of governance, both the present argument
and the weight of historical lessons go beyond the dichotomised sequencing of knowledge before
action. As has been discussed, the bigger the transformation, the more that action is knowledge
(in the sense of constituting both understanding and learning). Progressive political agency
works not just antagonistically against concentrated power, but seeking reflexively to subsume,
subvert and redirect it. And here again, reflexivity and commitment are not separate but co-
constituting. As we have seen, situated commitments in some dimensions are not only
reconcilable with, but essential to, collective reflexivity in encompassing dimensionalities.
What might be said, then, about these knowing doings? In some ways, governance
literatures are full of them. Often characterised in terms such as war of the flea(Taber 2002)
or ‘weapons of the weak (Scott 1987), they are typically discussed most clearly in relation to
the conditions for subaltern action. But recognition of the fallacies of power discussed earlier,
mean that these modalities for conditioning transformation are also typically far more relevant
to incumbent actors than is often conceded. Albeit highly privileged (and often capable of
enacting massive collateral social implications), elite agency is, as discussed earlier in relation
to Macmillan’s ‘events, still forced by intractability to be incapable of exerting such fine grain
control as is often romantically supposed (and claimed). So, the point is not that the exertion of
agency through knowing doings is an exclusive preserve of marginal interests. Rather, it is the
ubiquity of this inherently less controlling mode of understanding and acting that offers such a
progressive opportunity for marginalised critical interests.
As to what such progressive knowing doings might look like in detail, or in any
systematic terms, this is a challenge that lies beyond the scope of the present chapter. All that
can be attempted at this stage is the impressionistic illustration in Table 12.1. In ways that are
highly perspective- and context-dependent, it itemises 21 indicative examples of candidate
knowing doings of kinds that address some of the characteristics of progressive social dynamics
and transformative change discussed in the preceding account. Each is labelled with a phrase
intended to address the central thrust and accompanied by a tightly space-constrained gloss and
a hint at an illustrative context or example. Their formative effects emerge not in their individual
or additive potency, but in the prospect of massively resonating synergies. As Josef Stalin is
reputed to have said, quantity has a quality all of its own. And this arises not so much in any
deliberate ‘scaling up’ as in the rhizomic cross-scale connectivities mediated, for instance, in the
many media, dimensions and channels of civil society and wider culture.
Two instances might be slightly elaborated to underscore the general idea. Political judo,
for instance, might refer to ‘David and Goliath’ moves made in the green movements of the
1980s, effecting the ending of ocean nuclear dumping or tactical nuclear weapons deployments
by the US Navy. In both cases, it was the very entrenchment of incumbent power and its political
conspicuousness that offered the pivotal vulnerability (Parmentier 1999). Each target presented
a ‘weakest link’ in wider networks and structures constituting the incumbency. Responding to
contingent opportunity, the requisite pressure at the right moment on the appropriate point with
some vital luck helped condition a radically progressive change.
Likewise, the case of Trojan horse moves, involve non-linear cross-scale relational
dynamics in polythetic phenomena of the kinds mentioned above. Here, a minor example might
lie in the ‘multicriteria mapping’ method, whose quantitative idiom allows a policy exercise to
be expressed in the genre of an ostensibly instrumental quantitative decision analysis and so look
safe at first sight to incumbent interests (Stirling 2010). Only when the detailed features of the
method unfold, however, does it emerge that salient effects have been exercised in an entirely
different way. Instead of closing down’ around an expediently singular policy justification, the
method ‘opens up’ a space of equally valid alternative interpretations. With luck, exogenous
dynamics can use this opportunity to destabilise the host structures in a fashion that aids
progressive transformation. Other examples might include metrics of diversity, quantitative
techniques that do not aggregate or perhaps even (in a very small way) the construction of an
elaborate academic analysis like the present chapter as a means to help legitimate and normalise
subaltern ‘Trojan horse’ interventions in the governance of progressive transformation.
Knowing doing governing
In conclusion, it is easy to restate the main message of this chapter. Ways of knowing
governance are themselves a crucial factor in the doing of governance. An array of incentives
pressure understandings of governance to take particular forms that tend generally to favour the
interests of incumbent power. Knowledge and action are represented as separate and
sequential. Categories are asserted in unduly concrete ways. Normative orientations are simply
assumed. Capacities for incumbent control are exaggerated. The roles of other kinds of agency
are suppressed. Elaborate but unrealistic frameworks are asserted that privilege elite and
disciplinary interests, but suppress the prospects for subaltern action. The overall effect is one
of seeing like power with an example lying in the increasing moves in global Sustainability
governance away from distributed political causes shaped by collective action, towards
centralised technical missions driven by social control (Meadowcroft 2009; Leach et al. 2010).
As a result of such moves, progress is further impeded towards the addressing of urgent
politically remediable global imperatives like poverty and oppression; inequality and injustice;
climate change, ecological destruction, toxic pollution, nuclear risks and war. A progressive
response lies in directly addressing the realities that power not only drives action, but also shapes
knowledge including knowledges of governance itself. Deliberate efforts are therefore required
to engage more directly with power-in-knowledge and to counter the resulting expedient biases.
More horizontal and situated interventions are needed and need to be emphasised that more
explicitly combine the knowing and the doing of governance.
What this enables is: the ‘broadening out’ of social appreciations for the potentialities for
progressive social transformation; the ‘opening up’ of associated political spaces; and the ‘letting
go’ of greater diversity and flexibility in the strategies, practices, institutions and technologies
that actually materialise. Recognising that reflexivity and commitment are not antagonistic but
co-constituting in turn helps nurture the benefits of distributed reflexivity, without losing the
energy of progressive commitments. If a term is needed, the result might be called heterodyne
democracies highlighting more vibrant, dynamic and multivalent forms of distributed
contestation and challenge. Crucially, these transcend the reified separations of understanding
and action, combining them into myriad small-scale knowing doings.
Similar lessons can arguably be learned from centuries of transformative collective action
against other forms of oppression and injustice. And the analogy of flocking behaviours in Nature
shows how radically agile and exquisitely choreographed reorientations are possible in other
complex dynamic systems, without relying on apparatus for deterministic control. Prospects for
radical progress do not therefore necessarily lie in greater social control. Even when ostensibly
aimed at progressive ends, this can foster new forms of regressive concentration. Rather than
efforts at vertical control, progressive hopes lie more instead in the horizontal culturing of
change. The emphasis here rests in more intimate and less choate civil society relations that
pervade all social actors. It is by such means that diverse, distributed and ambiguous knowing
doings can surge (when emergent conditions are right) in waves of closely aligned murmurations.
This is how real progressive transformation emerges.
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Table 12.1 An indicative, incomplete, experiential summary of illustrative examples of
‘knowing doings’
Knowing doings
Horizontal moves to exert distributed agency in both knowledge and action
towards progressive transformation (i.e. against deliberate incumbency or
contingent inertia)
Specific description
General rationale or example
1: Balance needs bias
‘neutrality’ and ‘fairness’ require
direct action to counter power
Deliberately privilege direct
engagement of most marginalised
interests in analysis and action.
As with the Rawls Criterion, this asserts
social justice and helps ensure equity is
not diminished.
2: Challenge incumbency
progressive action should subvert
(not build) power concentrations
Focus scepticism and challenge
most intensely on the overall most
privileged and powerful interests.
Poor if focal power is progressively
oriented. But resists subversion and
helps enable space for self-correction.
3: Talk about power
it is progressive just to render power
visible: in knowledge and action
Likely suppressive reactions to this
reveal and make more vulnerable
a target incumbency.
Counters the primary regressive
tendency, under which power excludes
even discussion of itself.
4: There are always alternatives
simply showing more than one path,
in itself destabilises incumbency
Extends attention to radically
different pathways, exposes
unjustified conservatism.
Regressive if highlighted options are
less progressive. But deliberate choice
helps make this self-correcting.
5: Ends matter more than means
to challenge power, escape the focus
on means, to interrogate ends
Disrupt circumscribed focus on
specific technical means by
highlighting alternative ends.
It is inherently subversive of power to
show that favoured means are
conditional rather than self-evident
6: Keep it complex
subvert justification with indirect,
interactive, cumulative uncertainties
Extend attention of policy practice
to greater diversity of variously
defined implications and
Counterproductive if distracts from a
progressive focus, but resists a key
general kind of exclusion.
7: Plurality is progressive
giving room even for reactionary
dissent makes crucial political space
Pressure politics to recognise
institutionally that knowledge is
inherently plural and conditional.
Backfires if marginal knowledge is
regressive, but general space counters
power-driven closure.
8: Be ‘toad’ not ‘bird’
horizontal understandings help
forestall vertical fictions and actions
Enact processes, categories and
relations as lateral / empathetic, not
vertical / superordinate.
An opposite vertical ‘bird eye view’
understanding affirms particular kinds
of action and relation.
9: Pivot shocks
‘never let a crisis go to waste’ is most
true for the least powerful
If agency is too small directly to
exert change, some contingent
kind of shock can reduce inertia.
Even if under-determining of immediate
outcomes, disruption can free space for
onward action.
10: Harness stress
if subaltern agency is insufficient,
ratchet with contingent pressures
Help effect under-supported
change by linking to unrelated
trends with parallel orientations.
Climate change favours politically
decentralised energy, which is also
more widely progressive.
11: Trust the people
expectations embedded in actions
help prefigure realised conditions
Interventions predicated on
cooperative responses will
contribute to creating these.
Regressive power is generally most
strongly asserted when subaltern
interests are fragmented by contention.
12: Treat risk with fairness
address vulnerability: prioritising
equality is a response to any risk
Shifting relative distribution more
onto privileged groups will in itself
accelerate addressing of risk.
Inequality is key to vulnerability. Move
from regressive narrow fears to
progressive broad solidarities.
13: Tug the emperor’s clothes
exposing hidden conditionalities
breaks hegemonic narratives
Incumbent commitments typically
rest on expedient assumptions,
often prejudicing other interests.
Establishing how it could be different
helps empower subjugated narratives.
14: Let many flowers bloom
reflect at system level, on pros and
cons of plural repertoires of actions
Restriction of attention to any
single kind of action typically
reinforces associated interests.
Normalising parallel pursuit of a
diversity of actions affords space to
what is otherwise neglected.
15: Play the ball not the player
positive interpersonal relations can
offer progressive strategic traction
Multivalent personal relations can
help transcend and subvert
dimensions of political interests.
Avoid the ad hominem, tactically
enacting commonality can offer
strategic progressive traction.
16: Humility can be assertive
self-irony and deprecation can help
bridge stark strategic divides
Arenas contain multiple axes of
contention. So humility on any one
of these can earn surprising allies.
Noting qualifications, uncertainties and
conditionalities can be strengthening,
not weakening of a position.
17: Use Trojan horses
superficially instrumental methods
can mask (so aid) radical critique
Effective methods do not have to
wear hearts on sleeves. Apparent
instrumentality can be subversive.
Subversive quantitative ‘opening up’
can exert greater critical force than
overtly qualitative critique.
18: Practice political judo
deft targeting can find that power
itself is its own greatest vulnerability
Rather than set-piece frontal
challenge, strengths of incumbents
can be their greatest weaknesses.
Incumbency attracts diverse strong
antagonisms, allowing subaltern
orchestration to amplify impacts.
19: Try for ‘edge balls’
restrictions by power can be relaxed
by repeatedly precise careful testing
Constraints can be destabilised by
ostensibly respecting them, but in
repeated micro-transgressions.
Such incremental subversions are
different to the challenging of limits by
pushing them to breaking point.
20: The radical roots in the familiar
paralysingly distant aims are more
tractable in serial proximate steps
What is dauntingly transformative
for a long straight plan can be
easier in many little turning moves.
By analogy and tiny connections,
everyday contexts can offer strong
levers in challenging interventions.
21: Seek emergence not control
real progressive transformation is
achieved despite, not due to power
To deploy concentrated power can
subvert in other ways the same
progressive ends at which it aims.
Global control regimes against climate
change can be key in enabling climate
Figure 12.1 Broadening out’, ‘opening up’, and ‘letting go’ – enabling more heterodyne
... -Reflexive governance and experimentation Smith et al., 2005;Voss & Kemp, 2005) -Transdisciplinarity and transformative science Brandt et al., 2013;Lang et al., 2012;Polk, 2014) -Action research and research-practice (Baxter & Eyles, 1997;Bradbury et al., 2019;Wittmayer et al., 2017) -Systemic interventionism (Midgley, 2003;West et al., 2019) Reflexive governance has been particularly influential in informing prescriptive transitions approaches that exist today. Carrying the view that transitions are not only historical processes to be studied, reflexive governance sees coordinated and directed systems change as necessary in averting the catastrophic changes expected e.g. in a warming planet (Meadowcroft, 2009;Stirling, 2016). It conceives of systems change as both political and agential, where agency is scattered across multiples levels and sectors (Elzen et al., 2004;Iuel-Stissing et al., 2020). ...
... Reflexive governance is both normative and interactive, meaning that it shifts the focus of governing -already implying decentralized decision making (Marinetto, 2007) -away from external systems to be steered. Here "reflexivity is not so much a quality situated within any given body of governance knowledge, but about it" (Stirling, 2016). Instead, current modes of governing may be partly responsible for reinforcing multiple system conditions that are undesirable and unsustainable (Voss & Kemp, 2005). ...
... (Voss & Kemp, 2005, p. 8) Of broad relevance for this thesis are situated forms of learning from practice (West et al., 2019), experimentation (Bosch-Ohlenschlager, 2010;Caniglia et al., 2017;Fazey et al., 2018;Pesch et al., 2018;Weiland et al., 2017) and systemic intervention (Bai et al., 2016;Bosch-Ohlenschlager, 2010;Fazey et al., 2018). This is for two reasons: 1) they exist as purposive efforts that call into question and challenge the boundaries between "knowing" and "doing" (Stirling, 2016) by openly engaging with processes of change characterized by uncertain outcomes Rotmans, Kemp, & van Asselt, 2001;Smith, Stirling, & Berkhout, 2005;Voss & Kemp, 2005) and 2) within debates concerning transitions and transformation they are often suggested as settings where radical alternatives can be co-produced, shaped and performed in a limited space and time. ...
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In 2015, the necessity of fundamental change was outlined in the universal, transnational agreement, Agenda 2030, under the headline of “transforming our world”. Underlying transformation, integration, and universality, Agenda 2030 calls for guided ethical and moral action in addition to earnest scientific and technological change. Sustainability transitions provide an organizing frame to conceptualize change at the level of systems. It does this within an explicitly normative field of research and practice, committed to understanding and navigating transitions towards sustainability. Alongside socio-technical niches and experiments, labs in real-world contexts have emerged as appealing entities that situate and localize around complex sustainability challenges. Their diverse form and positive connotations suggest a novel form of experimentation with purposeful and transformative aspirations. Yet, labs in real-world contexts hold different normative commitments, many of which are arguably tangential to sustainability. The purpose of this thesis is to establish a normative understanding of laboratories in real-world contexts through the adoption of sustainability as an organizing concept. Methodologically, my research emerged from and was shaped by one interconnected process, a systematic yet exploratory review. In this thesis, I generate knowledge claims on a collection of labs that intersect disciplines and areas of application. I derive seven research communities linked to sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts, and present labs as a combination of spaces, processes and ways of organizing. I develop an empirically grounded typology of labs according to engagement with sustainability as a generic matter of concern, substantiated in place. This typology illuminates similarities and differences across six different lab types. I then point towards reflexive governance as a helpful extension for further understanding labs in the context of transitions towards sustainability. Moving forward, I plan to adopt learning as a lens for qualitative case-based inquiry, enabling a contextual understanding of lab processes in practice.
... Crucially, reflexive governance assumes that such governing takes place within systems that are co-evolving. With feedbacks between process and system, as well as within process, 2 nd -order reflexivity attempts to anticipate, modulate and learn amidst uncertainty (Meadowcroft, 2009;Stirling, 2016). Here "reflexivity is not so much a quality situated within any given body of governance knowledge, but about it" (Stirling, 2016, p. 20). ...
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We live in a time of compounding ecological and social change. Given the uncertain and urgent nature of ongoing transformations, contemporary forms of governance are experiencing a central tension. The tension between controlling the present and nurturing collective capacities to enact transformative change. Amidst a wave of interest in transitions and transformations in-the-making, labs in real-world contexts have entered the discussion. Labs have emerged as appealing, novel and highly complex entities that situate and localize engagement around complex sustainability challenges. Labs carry a systemic view of change; they comprise alternative and experimental approaches; they carry a normative assumption that research has plural roles; and they hold an explicit learning orientation that infuses knowledge with action. Given the unfolding of labs in the real world, my involvement in their design, and ongoing interests in treating both meanings and processes of sustainability, this thesis is organized around a curiosity. Its overarching aim is to investigate how sustainability-oriented labs could be unpacked, designed and evaluated in the context of sustainability transitions and transformations. Underlaboured by a critical realist philosophy of science, this thesis investigates sustainability-oriented labs by way of a qualitative-dominant, case-based research strategy. It does this across three overlapping research phases, culminating in four appended papers. In research phase one, we adopt a systematic review of sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts, exploring and classifying a global sample of labs according to their engagement with sustainability. In paper II, we identify and unpack 53 sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts. Through a mixed-methods analysis, we explore the distribution and diversity of these labs, discerning the research communities which conceptualize labs and the dimensions of their practice. In Paper III, we present an empirically grounded typology, arriving at six different types of sustainability-oriented labs: 1) Fix and control, 2) (Re-)Design and optimize, 3) Make and relate, 4) Educate and engage, 5) Empower and govern and 6) Explore and shape. In research phase three, paper II presents a qualitative case-based inquiry into Challenge Lab (C-Lab), a challenge-driven learning environment. Paper II conceptualizes challenge framing as embedded within an open-ended learning process, both on a level of practice and space. Experiences related to framing in C-Lab shed light on how students situate themselves and see their role within existing challenges, how they navigate limits to knowledge in complex systems, and how they self-assess their own sense of comfort and progress. In addition, we introduce three dilemmas that are not owned by teachers or students but emerge, as contradiction, within the learning space. In research phase three, paper IV presents a multi-case comparison of evaluation practices in various sustainability transition initiatives. We conceptualize and compare the role of evaluation as a tool that can enhance the transformative capacity of sustainability-oriented labs and its broader family of transition experiments. This thesis and its appended papers provide practical-experiential, empirical-conceptual and methodological contributions on the topic of sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts. In addition, it contains a layered account of an undisciplinary doctoral journey. I do this by (1) reflecting upon each research phase, (2) providing transparent accounts of positionality in relation to my research, (3) conceptualizing and reflecting upon undisciplinarity as a process of becoming, and (4) providing a mobile autoethnographic account of staying on the ground as part of a broader commitment to interrogate knowledge practices. Moving forward, I find myself motivated by three convictions: (1) transformations are needed, and labs are invitations in between dualisms, (2) invitations hold the possibility of flipping big assumptions and ethical practices, and (3) transformations presuppose fundamental change from within both research and education knowledge systems. They hinge upon the questioning of what both are, who they are for, and what they might need to become. In conclusion, they compel us think big, start small, and act now.
... Indeed, he underlines the need for mainstreaming and rather constant monitoring, updating, and recalibration of policies and institutions across government in the face of emergent and "unforeseeable and uncontrollable dynamics of migration and diversity" (Ibid.: 5). Scholten's recommendations fit well alongside other, complexity-based approaches to policy making such as that of Andy Stirling (2010Stirling ( , 2016, who advocates that policy decision-making processes must remain plural and conditional in light of the inherent uncertainty of complex systems (also see Geyer and Rihani 2012; Klijn and Koppenjan 2014). Scholten wishes to foster a complexity governance perspective that should underlay the structural process of mainstreaming matters of migration and superdiversity across departments and scales of government, public institutions, and society more broadly. ...
... First, rather than developing new methods to enact new policy concepts, 'Do No Significant Harm' is being operationalized using established and technical approaches to assessing what counts as harm. Thus, what was originally articulated in quite profound terms, akin to the Hippocratic oath or the precautionary principle, in practice is relying on dominant modes of thinking and doing (Dunlop 2010;Stirling 2016). Given that such dominant modes of thinking and doing bear responsibility for generating significant harms in the first place, turning to them to also determine what counts as harm is likely to prove insufficient. ...
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The European Union’s Green Deal and associated policies, aspiring to long-term environmental sustainability, now require economic activities to ‘do no significant harm’ to EU environmental objectives. The way the European Commission is enacting the do no significant harm principle relies on quantitative tools that try to identify harm and adjudicate its significance. A reliance on established technical approaches to assessing such questions ignores the high levels of imprecision, ambiguity, and uncertainty—levels often in flux—characterizing the social contexts in which harms emerge. Indeed, harm, and its significance, are relational, not absolute. A better approach would thus be to acknowledge the relational nature of harm and develop broad capabilities to engage and ‘stay with’ the harm. We use the case of European research and innovation activities to expose the relational nature of harm, and explore an alternative and potentially more productive approach that departs from attempts to unilaterally or uniformly claim to know or adjudicate what is or is not significantly harmful. In closing, we outline three ways research and innovation policy-makers might experiment with reconfiguring scientific and technological systems and practices to better address the significant harms borne by people, other-than-human beings, and ecosystems.
... This implies a radically networked kind of governance, in which state actors are not necessarily leading (Johnstone & Newell 2018). Moreover, transitions are complex processes of societal evolution that as such cannot be implemented, 'managed', or controlled (Rip 2006;Walker & Shove 2007;Stirling 2016). Transitions can be imagined and pursued, but even purposive transitions are to a large extent emergent, i.e. resulting from the largely autonomous interactions between institutions, technologies, cultures and infrastructures (Smith et al. 2005). ...
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Technical Report
LAMARTRA addresses the interlinkages between transition processes of decarbonisation and ‘labour market’ - understood more broadly as work and employment. The salience of these interlinkages is increasing as processes of low-carbon transition are progressing beyond their initial stages of pioneering and niche markets. This salience speaks from the increasing political weight of the ‘just transition’ discourse promoted jointly by the European Trade Union Confederation and the EU Commission. Much uncertainty remains about the possible directions that these ongoing transition processes may take.
... In transitions research, ambitions now exist to 1) describe and analyze historical processes of socio-technical change assumed to be desirable (Tziva et al., 2019), 2) analytically inform future socio-technical trajectories with an overtly normative stance (Rosenbloom et al., 2018), and 3) simultaneously understand and induce desirable socio-technical change (Loorbach, 2007;Meadowcroft, 2011;Stirling, 2016;Williams & Robinson, 2020). ...
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Sustainability is high on the political agenda, with its analytical and practical importance underscored in the field of sustainability transitions. Experiments, arenas, and laboratories are frequently highlighted as real-world objects to investigate sustainability in place. Despite existing lab studies, attempts at comparison at the empirical level remain unconvincing. Here, sustainability remains oversimplified, warranting further investigation to unpack how labs compare in their orientation towards sustainability. This article presents a rigorous and transparent empirically grounded typology, intended to discern ways to engage with sustainability. We outline and elaborate upon six distinctive types entitled: 1) Fix and control, 2) (Re-)Design and optimize, 3) Make and relate, 4) Educate and engage, 5) Empower and govern, and 6) Explore and shape. This study highlights similarities and differences between labs, and across different types. These findings are discussed with reference to ongoing conceptualizations on directionality, providing a fruitful point of departure for ongoing transitions research.
... The value of a message, e. g., a tweet promoting renewable energy by an official public relations account, depends on its position within the discourse: Who speaks about renewable energy in what way? What are the dominant terms, phrases, emblematic issues (Stirling 2016), discursive markers (Viehöver 2006) as patterns of interpretation, etc. (Stücheli-Herlach and Perrin 2013: 29)? This comes close to the structural perspective (Saussure 1959) that the value (valeur) of a meaning depends on its relation to other meanings. ...
... The strategy we suggest is along the lines of statactivism (Bruno et al., 2014): counteracting traditional and conventional scalar indicators with new forms of quantification that illuminate the inconsistencies of narrow 'performance indicators' and offer more plural alternatives. Thus, our proposal subverts the view of indicators from tools of control to tools of emancipation -thinking of indicator frameworks as Trojan horses than can be planted in evaluations processes for opening up critical debates and perspectives (Stirling, 2016). ...
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Citizen and stakeholder engagement is frequently portrayed as vital for socially accountable science policy but there is a growing understanding of how institutional dynamics shape engagement exercises in ways that prevent them from realising their full potential. Limited attention has been devoted to developing the means to expose institutional features, allow policy-makers to reflect on how they will shape engagement and respond appropriately. Here, therefore, we develop and test a methodological framework to facilitate pre-engagement institutional reflexivity with one of the United Kingdom’s eminent science organisations as it grappled with a new, high-profile and politicised technology, genome editing. We show how this approach allowed policy-makers to reflect on their institutional position and enrich decision-making at a time when they faced pressure to legitimate decisions with engagement. Further descriptions of such pre-engagement institutional reflexivity are needed to better bridge theory and practice in the social studies of science.
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Adaptive governance is an approach that can potentially help societies navigate uncertainty, change, and surprise, as well as issues that span sectors and scales. In this chapter, we use this concept to refer to flexible and learning-based collaborations and decision-making processes involving both state and non-state actors, with the aim to adaptively negotiate and coordinate management of social-ecological issues. We identify critical questions in the adaptive governance literature and provide an empirical contribution to these. We draw on a case study of the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region in South Africa, focusing on the people, practices, and politics involved with adaptive governance in the Global South. Our findings illustrate that the practices of generating knowledge, sharing information, collaborating, and responding to change are shaped by the navigation of tensions between diverse values, norms, and routines. A lens of people, practices, and politics highlights adaptive governance as situated and involving agency, meaning, and creativity.
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Multiple ‘green transformations’ are required if humanity is to live sustainably on planet Earth. Recalling past transformations, this book examines what makes the current challenge different, and especially urgent. It examines how green transformations must take place in the context of the particular moments of capitalist development, and in relation to particular alliances. The role of the state is emphasised, both in terms of the type of incentives required to make green transformations politically feasible and the way states must take a developmental role in financing innovation and technology for green transformations. The book also highlights the role of citizens, as innovators, entrepreneurs, green consumers and members of social movements. Green transformations must be both ‘top-down’, involving elite alliances between states and business, but also ‘bottom up’, pushed by grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs, and part of wider mobilisations among civil society. The chapters in the book draw on international examples to emphasise how contexts matter in shaping pathways to sustainability Written by experts in the field, this book will be of great interest to researchers and students in environmental studies, international relations, political science, development studies, geography and anthropology, as well as policymakers and practitioners concerned with sustainability.
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This article was first published in the Journal Ecology and Society at Vos, Jan-Peter; Bornemann, Basil: The politics of reflexive governance: challenges for designing adaptive management and transition management. - In: Ecology and Society : a Journal of Integrative Science for Resilience and Sustainability. - ISSN: 1708-3087 (online). - 16 (2011), 2, art. 9.
This second edition of a seminal work includes the original text, first published 30 years ago, alongside two major new chapters. Power, Freedom and Reason assesses the main debates about how to conceptualize and study power, including the influential contributions of Michel Foucault. Power Revisited reconsiders Steven Lukes' own views in light of these debates and of criticisms of his original argument. With a new introduction and bibliographical essay, this book will consolidate its reputation as a classic work and a major reference point within social and political theory.