Framing in innovation. Towards sustainable agro-food systems

J.V. Zwartkruis

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


Sustainability issues in the agro-food sector have become increasingly important, and in order to deal with these sustainability issues, innovations are deemed necessary. Only introducing new technologies is not enough, system innovations are needed in which changes in the whole socio-technical system are required. However, because the Dutch agro-food system is very complex and involves a great diversity of actors, varying from farmers to processing businesses, and from societal organizations to farmers’ associations, innovation is not very simple. These actors have different backgrounds, goals, ideas and stakes, which make the interaction between them sometimes difficult. The phenomenon highlighted in this thesis is that different actors have their own way of framing issues related to the challenges of sustainability. Framing is the phenomenon that actors are limited in the way they think and act due to underlying cognitive structures, interactional patterns and/or material characteristics. In particular, umbrella terms such as ‘sustainability’, involving different meanings, can be expected to be framed in different ways by various actors. In this research we suggest a typology of framing based on three different levels of social dynamics, on which frames reside and operate in distinct ways, namely the level of the global discourse (societal discourses), localized collective (project level) and face-to-face interaction (between individuals). Furthermore we make a distinction between cognitive frames that are relatively static structures in one’s mind that enable and constrain understanding, action and interaction; interactional frames that are the fluid frames that condition interaction; and material frames that are the characteristics of artefacts that enable and constrain understanding, action and interaction. In topic biographies we followed framing of topics over time, and we typically see differences in framing, struggles about problems and solutions, and alignment of frames in various forms and degrees. We can make a distinction between internal and external aspects influencing the framing in a project. The cases show that the sense of urgency among the actors can be influential in determining whether a collective solution should be found or not. Alignment may lead to different situations: multiple frames can exist beside each other; frames complement each other and that actors combine ideas in a ‘distributed’ frame; or actors have the same frame, namely a ‘collective’ frame. Typically, innovation processes become difficult when they run into limits of existing ideas and developments. This research shows why problems can be difficult to tackle; especially in the case of transitions that entail complex changes and involve many actors, and where solutions are not straightforward. Often, local visions and strategies are coupled to more general ideas and discourses. We demonstrated that a creative solution can reconcile diverse frames and thereby help to realize a system innovation. Heterogeneous actors will have different frames, and should deal with these differences in order to get a project up and running. The practical lesson is, then, that it helps when actors are aware of their own frames and the frames of others and make them explicit.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Moors, Ellen, Primary supervisor
  • van Lente, H., Supervisor
  • Farla, J.C.M., Co-supervisor
Award date11 Oct 2013
Print ISBNs978-94-91602-15-3
Publication statusPublished - 11 Oct 2013


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