April 2019 to March 2022
Community-based initiatives have pervaded the discourse on sustainable development in recent years. Often communities are regarded as actors paving the way towards a more viable future. Likewise, groups linked to the concept of sustainability explicitly identify themselves as communities (Gemeinschaften). However, the complexity of “community”, as a phenomenon and as a concept, has not always been grasped by previous research, which frequently attributes to communities both a capacity to act and the ability for change.
The transdisciplinary project “Transformation by Community” therefore adopts a more differentiated perspective, inspired by theory and informed by empirical evidence, in order to elucidate why communities are often perceived as powerful actors by policy makers, academia and the public. We examine three empirical examples of community-based initiatives in northern Germany and scrutinize their potential for innovation and societal change. Our aim is to generate knowledge and know-how that will be useful both for policy makers and the communities themselves. To this end, we focus on the following questions: How do sustainable communities, understood as collective subjectivities, come into being? What are the relational ties between people, non-human actors and technologies within communities? What intended and unintended effects does the formation of community have – on the community itself and on society? Finally, to what extent do these effects contribute towards more sustainable development?
We adopt five different approaches to analyse the three case studies – an ecological intentional community, a village community and a community supported agriculture initiative: historical study, discourse analysis, practice theory, analysis of female entrepreneurship and psychology. These multiple perspectives shed light on the self-description, ideas and practices of sustainable communities and the ways that individuals cope with the community’s demands and expectations. Complementing these approaches, we focus on the role of feeling and emotions in collective subjectification and how they interact with specific practices. The different viewpoints and the results of the research are shared and discussed at every stage of the project, both among the project team and with the respective communities. We seek to inform and challenge each other across disciplines, standpoints and types of knowledge.
Our project seeks to elucidate the conditions under which sustainability-oriented communities become collective subjects and the extent to which they are successful in developing their transformative potential. A further aim is to reflect on the possible political and social consequences of such subjectification processes and the challenges they pose for academia, politics and society.