Network presentation

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Critical Approaches of Sustainable Development

The notion of sustainable development is part of many researchers’ critical work. However this research is often fragmentary and the “sustainable” object is often secondary. Those two aspects can conceal the critical transversalities that lie within the topics of sustainable development.

Thus it would be appropriate to adopt a reflexive approach examining the theoretical, empirical and scientific foundations of these terms and the research objectives so many researchers focus on. Consequently, we would like to identify all the scientific disciplines involved in these critiques, depict their potential coherence but also the differences they face regarding the practical, the epistemological, the theoretical or any other aspect of the scientific work.

Therefore, this network should be the occasion to debate on these questions uniting researchers carrying a reflexive approach onto their own work and other professionals.

In order to achieve these goals we set out four research axes which are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. They rather represent a framework which might help researchers to situate their approach.

Axis 1 : An unsustainable development ?

The social conventions structuring the situations and the communities currently suffer from a double process of globalization and fragmentation of society. Supported by most of the international institutions, the analysis of this double process distracts the attention paid to social inequalities towards ecological inequalities, for instance the ecological inequality linked to water-level rising. Consequently nature itself becomes a tool for the creation of a common good. In general, the question of ecological inequalities can be broached by considering the “relative rarity”[1] of environmental goods. It rather focuses on « what nature can endure »[2]. More radical, the concept of degrowth reveals some essential contradictions in the approach of sustainable development[3]. However, to what extent can this radical alternative be nourished from other critical approaches in order to inspire them?

Axis 2 : A governance of conducts ?

Approaches towards sustainable development try to control people’s conduct by inventing new practices of social responsibility, a governance able to organize a socialization going beyond the law[4]. The inflation of characteristic indicators for these approaches show the increasing importance of governmental practices of change in terms of maintaining public order and regulating behaviors. In a broader approach, this justifies the deployment of these governmental politics regarding the environment, which is contrary to the dominant liberal construction. However can these governmental politics though also give some instruments able to surpass themselves?

Axis 3 : A democracy by plan ?

Notably, the question of the environmental politics is broached through the subject of technical democracy consisting essentially in knowing « how to enter sciences in democracy »[5]. In this framework, the sense of sustainable development relies on the performance of its tools in order to deal with the stakes it raises. Concepts drawn by this research stream (hybrid forums[6], ballistics[7] etc) are based on the principle of symmetry, which leads researchers to tackle to the construction processes of environmental struggles (GMO, High Speed Trains lines). However, is the focus on the procedural dimension of sustainability based on an excessive confidence in the critical potentialities of these measures?

Axis 4 : An ecological justification ?

Often starting from an approach in terms of “arenas of public involvement”[8], the sociology of justification regarding environment firstly tried to identify the strategies, interests and justifications mobilized in infrastructure planning conflicts. Depending on the importance of transformations required, the “green greatness »[9] highlighted by the actors on this occasion, tries either to integrate nature in existing justification orders or to lead to the elaboration of an additional order or even to profoundly question the common matrix of these orders and the support it offers to those critical approaches. Sustainable development is based on the belief in this last alternative in order to reverse the critique. Indeed institutions are the ones which often support this green greatness, facing atomized individuals. However, the latter daily put to the test the different measures which are stipulated.

Axis 5 : A technicist sustainability ?

The emergence of sustainable development tends to redefine the organization of work in the mode of production of new technical objects and thereby report that humans have been maintaining with their environments in everyday life. This questions the “friendliness”[10] of eco-contemporary techniques, their ability to enroll in both the know-how and savoir-vivre in use, but also in the widening project individual autonomy. In view of the foundations of political ecology, it involves a dispute over the control possibilities of technical tools by users[11]. This paper questions the conditions of existence of face-powers against the logic of objects renewal inherent in the operation of capitalism[12].

The theme of the conference suggests many research leads from which only a few are described here. The stakes of this work in progress measure up the importance of a model which saturates the current legitimization modes of the institutions and of the experiences frameworks they try to implement.

You can also freely join the network “Critical approaches of sustainable development”

These research groups are potentially open to researchers :
A.    Working on development and sustainable city issues and wanting to broaden the critical dimension of their research,
B.     Having a critical approach in their work and wishing to tackle development and sustainable issues,
C.    Interested in the critical work performed by actors and users about sustainable « objects », paying particular attention to current and potential links between actors and users.
D.    Different profile to suggest
To formalize this network, we set out four research axes which are neither exclusive nor exhaustive. They rather represent a framework which might help researchers to situate their approach.

•         Axis 1: An unsustainable growth?
•         Axis 2: A governance of conducts?
•         Axis 3: A democracy by plan ?
•         Axis 4: An ecological justification?
•         Axis 5: A technical sustainability ?

•         The following axes: make a proposal

You can subscribe to this network by sending an email to team

Including :
•         A Curriculum
•         The profile A, B, C or D in which you think you are situated (specify the content for profile D)
•         The axis on which you want to work within a multidisciplinary research group

Conference proceeding


[1] Rawls J. (1987), Théories de la justice, Paris, Seuil

[2] Jonas H. (1990), Le principe de responsabilité. Une éthique pour la civilisation technologique, Paris, éditions du Cerf

[3] Latouche S. (2003), « L’imposture du développement durable ou les habits neufs du développement », Mondes en développement, Vol.31-2003/1, N°121

[4] Gautier C. (1996), « A propos du « gouvernement des conduites » chez Foucault : quelques pistes de lecture », La gouvernabilité, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France

[5] Latour B. (1999), Politiques de la nature. Comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie, Paris, La Découverte

[6] Callon M., Lascoumes P., Barthe Y. (2001), Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la démocratie technique, Paris, Seuil.

[7] Chateauraynaud F. (2010), De l’alerte au conflit, la sociologie argumentative et la balistique des causes collectives, Séminaire bimensuel annuel, EHESS, 105 bd Raspail 75006 Paris.

[8] Cefaï D., Trom D. (dir.) (2001), Les formes de l’action collective. Mobilisations dans des arènes publiques, Paris, Editions de l’EHESS, Collection « Raisons pratiques »

[9] Thévenot L., Lafaye C. (1993), « Une justification écologique? Conflits dans l’aménagement de la nature », Revue française de Sociologie, 34 (4), p. 495-524

[10] Illich Ivan, 1973, La convivialité, trad. de l’américain par L. Giard et V. Bardet, Tools for conviviality, Ed. du Seuil, Paris, 160p.

[11] Bosquet Michel (Gorz A.), 1978 (1ère éd. 1975), Ecologie et politique, Paris, éd. du Seuil, 244 p. (coll. «Points Politique»)

[12] Schumpeter Joseph, 1951 (1ère éd. 1943), Capitalisme, socialisme et démocratie, Paris, Payot, 462 p..