Working to Align Energy Transitions and Social Equity: An Integrative Framework Linking Institutional Work, Imaginaries and Energy Justice

Jesse Hoffman, Megan Davies, Thomas Bauwens, Philipp Späth, Maarten A.Hajer, Bleta Arifi, Amir Bazaz, Mark Swilling | 2021


Recent academic evidence suggests that, in contrast to what is often thought, the introduction of renewable energy infrastructures often leads to negative, not positive, social equity outcomes. Against this background, this paper aims to develop and empirically illustrate an integrative framework for analysing the work – or ‘agency’ – exercised by actors operating within and across different global contexts to align renewable energy and social equity. To this end, the paper first reviews three generative conceptions of agency in the energy transitions literature: institutional work, imaginaries and energy justice. In reviewing their explanatory power as well as their shortcomings, the paper concludes that these different conceptions of agency can be integrated meaningfully in an expanded conceptualisation of institutional work that spans three distinct domains: i) ‘reimagining’, ii) ‘recoding’ and iii) ‘reconfiguring’. This article demonstrates that the three domains can be understood to reiteratively feed into each other in what we call the ‘triple re-cycle’. These iterations produce either bolstering effects that strengthen the potential for positive social equity outcomes or evaporative effects that diminish or undermine this potential. We empirically illustrate the framework in case studies from Germany and South Africa. Overall, we argue that the triple re-cycle, as a heuristic, can provide new insights by conceptually connecting multiple domains of agency in energy transitions, including discursive and material aspects, across different global contexts. Our hope is that identifying potential agency in this way supports work to improve the social equity outcomes of energy transitions globally.