STS - conferences, IST2012

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A choice based approach to regime shifts
Allard Van Mossel, Frank van Rijnsoever

Last modified: 2012-08-21


This paper forms the introduction to the special session dedicated to the role of choice in transitions processes. Both the transition literature and research into the management and governance of social-ecological systems address transitions using holistic frameworks on the regime or system level. Though valuable, these perspectives tend to disregard the role of individual agents in the transition process. Little empirical attention has been dedicated to understanding how choice-processes on the micro-level contribute to transitions at higher levels.

I argue that socio-ecological-technical systems and regime shifts are directly linked to choice processes of individual agents. I link these choice processes to the system level.

First, I combine organizational ecology theory with innovation systems thinking. I conceptualize an innovation system to consist of separate heterogeneous populations of agents (e.g. consumers, firms, universities, ect.) that co-exist in one system, but that are subject to different institutional demands. These institutions constrain individual choices by agents within a population.

Second, I explain how, given these constraints, choices on the individual level can be explained using Random Utility Theory (RUT), how RUT can be applied to different populations, and I give a short empirical demonstration.

Third, by drawing on insights from regime shift theory in bio-ecology and theory innovation diffusion, I link the outcome of these choice processes back to the population and system level.

I argue that in order for a transition to occur, it is required that the choices on the individual level result in sufficient legitimacy for change within each population and eventually on the system level. When sufficient legitimacy for change has been gained a tipping point is reached after which a rapid regime shift takes place. Changes within the institutional environment of each population can influence individual choices and thereby help gaining the critical amount of legitimacy required.