Explaining Sociotechnical Transitions: A Critical Realist Perspective

Working and conference papers

This paper examines whether the core assumptions underlying the so-called multilevel perspective on sociotechnical transitions (MLP) stand up to scrutiny. The paper clarifies the explicit and implicit assumptions within the MLP about the nature of reality (ontology), the status of claims about that reality (epistemology), and the appropriate choice of research methods, and assesses the consistency of these with the philosophical tradition of critical realism. The paper highlights a number of weaknesses of the MLP, including: the ambiguous distinction between systems and regimes; the problematic conception of social structure; the use of theory as a heuristic device rather than causal explanation; the ambition to develop an extremely versatile framework rather than testing competing explanations; the tendency to incorporate an increasing number of theoretical ideas, while at the same time paying insufficient attention to the necessity or contingency of particular mechanisms; the reliance upon single, historical case studies with little use of comparative methods; and the rejection of potentially useful methodologies such as agent-based modelling. However, the paper concludes that there is sufficient ambiguity and flexibility in the MLP to accommodate changes to the underpinning assumptions as well as the use of a broader range of research methods.