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Contentious, yet compatible: taking stock of social practice approach and multi-level perspective in research on sustainability transitions.
Multi-level perspective (MLP) and social practices approach (SPA) - having evolved side by side over the last decade – have been considered two of the most relevant and useful approaches (Sovacool & Hess 2017) for studies of socio-technical change. At the same time, calls for their better integration have also been made (Köhler et al, 2017). The two frameworks share several assumptions: a processual orientation towards systemic change as a co-evolution of elements involving multiple actors, who are constrained by routines and lock-in and a focus on tensions between reproduction of normality and seeds of change (e.g. McMeekin & Southerton 2012). The present literature review takes as a starting point the work done so far searching for synergy between MLP and SPA - that Geels et al 2015 have demarcated as the “reconfiguration” approach to sustainable production and consumption. The present paper contributes by a systematic stock-taking of the existing work, by identification of fruitful analytic co-applications, as well as of conceptual gaps, which lead to outlining potentials for further development for sustainability transitions research. A literature review is conducted in the databases of Scopus, Web of Science, ScienceDirect. Also, a focused search of papers was carried out in addition, based on relevant references, totalling in a sample of 95 works from 2010-19, where both MLP and SPA have been explicitly utilised. The preliminary results suggest that full merging of the approaches has not been embarked on due to some ontological and epistemological underpinnings that the “strong” practice theory considers irreconcilable (Schatzki, 2011). The papers explored fall into two broad categories: firstly, empirical analyses (primarily on food, energy and mobility systems) that draw on both frameworks in varying combinations, yet without the ambition to build further conceptual tools. The other category, with fewer papers – a significant number of them within consumption studies – directly aims at theoretical development, wherein three conceptually somewhat distinct sub-groups emerge. The first zooms in on the intersections between transitions in practices and transitions in regimes focusing on potential points of lock-in (Hargreaves et al 2013, Seyfang et al 2019). The second systematically compares practices on the niche and regime levels (e.g. Crivits & Paredis 2013 is) with a highlight on (consumer) agency (see also Spaargaren & Oosterveer 2012). Thirdly, systems or complexes of practices approach (Watson 2012) aims at moving beyond single practices and focuses on how they interconnect. Preliminary analysis indicates that most prominent gaps lie in the lack of research on professional, industry (not consumer or domestic) practices and in insufficient investigation on the “junction” between consumption and production. From an applied point of view intersections of regimes and niches and their emerging and entrenched practices provides a worthwhile avenue for intervention design and governance implications.