ECPR 2021 General Conference
Stream ‘Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges’
Session: Integrating Complexity Theory and Action Research for Policy Change
Paper: Ecological transitions and the welfare state.
A pragmatist-systemic approach in eco-social policy research and design
Author: Matteo Villa, University of Pisa - Department of Political Science
firstname.lastname@example.org - https://people.unipi.it/matteo_villa/
Key words: ecological transition, sustainable welfare, eco-social policy; pragmatist-systemic approach,
cybernetic; abduction, action-research.
The paper discusses the contribution of the pragmatist-systemic logic of inquiry in social policy research and
design for analyzing and dealing with the combined challenges of welfare and environmental sustainability.
Concepts such as sustainable welfare, eco-social policy and just transition arise from the growing awareness that
welfare systems are an important driver of a model of development that is proving incompatible with the
ecological limits of the planet (Gough 2017; Koch and Mont 2016). The emergence of this problem is linked to a
sort of triple dynamic in which increasing social risks and demand for protection occurs alongside the fiscal crisis
of welfare states (Pearson 2011), as well as the urgent need to tackle the environmental crises threatening the
ecological balances of the planet (Raworth 2012; Rockström et al. 2009). The resulting triple crisis of
sustainability gives rise to so called “super-wicked” problems (Levin et al. 2012; see also Ison 2008: 145-6) and
ensuing calls for more holistic and integrated visions for policy-making and between social policy and
sustainability research (Gough 2016).
An emerging literature has provided some important insights on this subject. however, studies on sustainability
and especially on social policies risk continuing to be mainly sector-specific and based on large-scale research
frameworks, steady anthropocentric visions (Bateson 1972; Eriksen 2016), and over-simplifying assumptions as
part of a sort of reductionist trap (Byrne 1998; Room 2011). The latter, in particular, makes it difficult to observe
and deal with the complexity of the ongoing dynamics (Espinosa and Walker 2011), the inherent trans-
contextuality of policy-making (Brans and Pattyn 2017; Clarke et al. 2015; Vanderbroucke 2017) and eco-social
processes (Büchs and Koch 2017), the methodological implications of transition processes, and the ways in which
organizational, learning and co-evolutionary processes make welfare systems more or less ecologically sustainable
or parasitical (Villa 2016, 2020).
To take a step forward, the paper introduces a pragmatist-systemic logic of inquiry in eco-social policy research
and design (Villa, forthcoming). This approach is actualized by blending complex-system analysis, based on
cybernetic epistemology, with pragmatist observations, with a particular regard for the role of abduction as a
legitimate part of the investigation processes and a useful analytical and change strategy (Bateson 1972; Burnes
2004; Granovetter 2017; Harries-Jones 1995; Lewin 1951; Peirce 1958; Swedberg 2014). Research methods
identified to actualize this approach refer to action action-research (Adelman 1993; Lewin 1951) and particularly,
to systemic action-research (SAR; Burns 2007; Flood 2006; Ison 2008) which fits well for this purpose and the
aim of promoting both research- and action-driven fieldworks acting “from within” and “from below”, and
through collaborations between researchers and social and political actors also trespassing sector-specific
The paper introduces the topic of sustainable welfare and the problems of complexity in this research field; it then
discusses reasons and main assumptions of a pragmatist-systemic logic of inquiry and the use of action-research in
this field; finally it presents some insights from case-studies to conclude with further reflections on the
methodological challenges for the ecological transition.