A framework and approach for examining power in transitions-related formal policy settings

M.C.G. Brisbois

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperOther research output


There is ongoing attention to power and politics as inherent components of sustainability transitions. However, tools for effectively addressing power in in political transitions contexts remain underdeveloped. This paper presents and tests a conceptual approach for understanding how power shapes the formal political processes that govern policy aspects of transitions. It integrates theory on policy process, political power, institutions, actor coalitions, and the multi-level perspective in order to provide a tool for the empirical examination of power in policy contexts.

The analysis of power is structured using Lukes’ (2005) three dimensions of power, augmented by the work other power theorists (e.g., Arendt, 1970; Bourdieu, 1990). The integration of perspectives on power is necessary in order to account for the interplay of domination and empowerment that is inherent in transitions studies (Partzsch, 2017).

Using this approach, insights from power theory are operationalized over policy cycle stages, and the larger system context, to reveal tangible manifestations of the ways that power impacts, and is impacted by, policy processes. These are organized into an iterative collection of power “proxies” that ground power in the actions, decisions, and non-decisions of actors and institutions. The collection of proxies is not intended to be a defining list of all the ways that power operates in transitions-related policy contexts; rather, it provides tangible foci as an aid to empirical analysis. For example, a proxy that directs attention to who produces the information that inform policy development can reveal that some actors have significant hidden influence because they can present information in ways favourable to their interests. The proxies also recognize larger landscape level variables that define policy contexts but that are also increasingly contested in sustainability scholarship as manifestations of problematic historical institutional structures. For example, a proxy examining the arguments used by politicians to justify policy selection can reveal that the expansion of GDP is often a major factor in decisions despite ongoing critiques of its use as a viable economic development metric. The proxies therefore address whole systems and reveal barriers to transitions, but also spaces where there are opportunities to leverage transformative change through civic or political action, intermediaries, or the promotion of alternative discourses and narratives.

The paper first develops the set of power proxies using the above theory, incorporating insights from transitions scholarship on power, the multi-level perspective, actors and advocacy coalitions, and institutional approaches. The explanatory value of the approach is then tested through empirical application to the provincial policy case of electricity policy in Ontario, Canada. Application reveals significant visible, hidden and invisible institutionalized barriers to energy transitions in Ontario. However, it also reveals emerging shifts in regime-landscape level dynamics that present real opportunities for energy system transformation. The end results demonstrates the conceptual and practical value of using a formal structured approach to analyze power in transition-related policy processes.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Event9th International Sustainability Transitions Conference (IST) 2018: Reconfiguring Consumption and Production Systems - The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 12 Jun 201814 Jun 2018


Conference9th International Sustainability Transitions Conference (IST) 2018
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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