Transforming transformation

Kelman, Ilan | April 27, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

"They transformed paradise and put up a parking lot"Photo by Ilan Kelman

A transformation is haunting Europe. The transformation of a discourse.

Sustainability research is being driven by a purportedly new approach which demands “transformation”: Transformation in our lives and livelihoods; transformation in societal processes and functions. The transformation ethos emerges from those who have focused almost exclusively on climate change, meaning that their thoughts and work are framed by a single issue.

Does that matter? Not necessarily, if the approach is indeed useful and constructive. With transformation, these criteria are not being met.

As with much other jargon, “transformation” definitions are rampant –and they are sometimes almost mutually exclusive! Vagueness manifests with the birth of phrases such as “Transformational Change” and “Transformative Change”. Given that in English, “transformation” and “change” are synonyms, we might as well use “Changeable transformation” or “Changeative transformation”. What about transmutation instead?

Meanwhile, the word and concept do not always translate readily into other cultures. Words such as “transition” and “transformation” might not be differentiated. It is certainly clear that not all transition, transformation, or change is good, useful, or needed.

In fact, as with many other supposedly “new” ideas, the “transformation” approach simply re-hashes ideas which have long existed. Little evaluation or critique is provided regarding reasons for successes and failures of the older approaches.

So is “transformation” useful for “sustainability”? As part of a buzzword-fest encompassing Sustainable Holistic Integrated Transformation, it might be. But it does not seem direct, robust, or useable enough to charge forward with a discourse which has not been fully examined.

Ilan Kelman is a reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London. You can follow him on Twitter @IlanKelman.

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  • Tom Burns

    Ilan Kelman points rightfully to the confusion around such concepts as “transformation,” “transition,” “change,” etc. A major part of the problem is the lack of an established theory which would enable us to make precise distinctions in these terms in our discourses.

    Transformation, according to some social scientists (see below) refers to structures – changes in structures such as institutions and cultural formations. This is not the same as “change” in general. Much change is not transformational – it leaves structures in place. Thus, there is “change” and “change”. Similarly, transition does not necessarily imply structural transformation. Communities and groups make transitions in relation to the seasons of the year – with more or less particular fixed structures corresponding to each of the seasons of the year.

    This notion of transformation – as structural change – may be useful when embedded in a theoretical framework that also addresses questions such as the conditions of transformation and the forces and agents causing transformation (or the failures of transformative initiatives) (see T.R. Burns and Tom Dietz, Cultural evolution: Social rule systems, selection and human agency (International Sociology, 1992); Burns and Peter Hall, The Meta-Power Paradigm: Impacts and Transformations of Agents, Institutions, and Social Systems –– Capitalism, State, and Democracy in a Global Context (Peter Lang, Frankfurt/Oxford/New York, 2012)).

  • John Weyland

    excuse me, but what discussion? a few comments, 2 days ago?
    if we can’t be engaged, we can’t be empowered, we won’t change, the planet dies!

  • Mike Hanauer

    Too many terms, perhaps all terms, seem to eventually get perverted for profit and marketing purposes. When we use a term, it should be hyper-texted to a definition that matters to long term ecological thinking.

  • If people are eager for change, then “transformation” will excite their interest and passion. If people are happy with the way things are, or fed-up with too much change and disruption, the same word will excite only negative feelings. Know your audience.

  • A transformation in climate futures is not possible without transformatio in practically all the strucures of society, but we are asking people to bail out of what they have without taking seriously their anxiety about how to arn a living, where to live, what happens to existing equity in say a house or community. People won’t shift on climate issues (energy use, raw materials using concentional manufacturing to get to products), unless they have some vision of how they can do it. We are not talking mostly about 60 something retirees with the mortage paid and kids already through college and employed. We are talking about a huge part of society that is just having trouble getting through the day. My sense is that those people understand us and our perspectives better than we understand them.

    We also need them to be working the issues with us as any possibility of local experimentds and initiaitves emerge. Treat them, the great mass of humanity, as potentially intelligent partners. As things get rought we need to be able to work together as much as possible.

  • Charles Johnston

    The word “transformation” gets used in a lot of ways, some helpful, many not. The work of the Institute for Creative Development (a Seattle-based think tank and center for leadership training) has been exploring the need for fundamental changes in how we think and relate if we are to address critical questions before us for over thirty years (see The ICD blog teases apart different ideas about transformation and what that kinds of transformations needed for going forward look like (see