Epistemic outsiders: Unpacking and utilising the epistemic dimension of disruptive agency in sustainability transformations

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Disruptions (systemic disturbances) are crucial to initiate and accelerate sustainability transformations of large-scale social systems (be they socio-ecological, socio-technical, or socioinstitutional). Their emergence, characteristics and effects strongly relate to the role of agents who aim to disrupt and transform the status quo, and which thus possess what we call disruptive agency. In this paper, we highlight the epistemic dimension of disruptive agency in social transformations, first by conceptualizing disruptive agents as epistemic outsiders with respect to the social system that they intend to disrupt and transform, and second by connecting this conceptualization to notions of belief, social practices, social networks, discourses, or institutions. We identify five advantages of this approach. Firstly, it informs and conceptually enables various promising interdisciplinary avenues to explore and potentially influence transformative change towards sustainability. Secondly, an epistemic
conception of disruptive agency offers a key for an integrated analysis of the individual and collective levels of agency involved in sustainability transformations. Thirdly, the notion of epistemic outsiders conceptually connects agent positions across system boundaries that are understood to be of crucial importance for sustainability transformations respectively (e.g., “niche innovators” or “regime intermediaries”) but which lack an integrated understanding. Fourthly, an epistemic perspective additionally highlights the changing requirements and challenges resulting in two principal stages of transformations unfolding over time, namely before/after a new epistemic layout is shared by a majority of agents. Finally, the above features allow to derive and conceive of new intervention formats and strategies.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0000097
JournalPLOS Sustainability and Transformation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2024

External IDs

ORCID /0000-0002-4408-6016/work/161406827
ORCID /0000-0002-9962-2074/work/161406881
ORCID /0000-0002-9064-6408/work/161409322


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