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Societal transformation in response to global environmental
change: A review of emerging concepts

Guiseppe Feola


Foundational text

The study of societal transformation in response to
environmental change has become established, yet little consensus exists regarding the conceptual basis of transformation.
This paper aims to provide structure to the dialog on
transformation, and to reflect on the challenges of social
research in this area. Concepts of transformation are identified
through a literature review, and examined using four analytical
criteria. It is found that the term ‘transformation’ is frequently
used merely as a metaphor. When transformation is not used as
a metaphor, eight concepts are most frequently employed. They
differ with respect to (i) system conceptualization, (ii) notions
of social consciousness (deliberate/emergent), and (iii)
outcome (prescriptive/descriptive). Problem-based research
tends to adopt concepts of deliberate transformation
with prescriptive outcome, while concepts of emergent
transformation with no prescriptive outcome tend to inform
descriptive-analytical research. Dialog around the
complementarities of different concepts and their empirical
testing are priorities for future research.

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