Users, consumers, citizens: a systematic review of their roles in sustainability transitions

B. Verhees, G.P.J. Verbong

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Despite the widely recognized importance of users, consumers and citizens in sustainability transitions, transition studies offer highly fragmented perspectives that make it difficult to discern their various roles in sustainable innovation. This paper therefore has two aims: (1) to clarify how users, consumers and citizens have been conceptualized in transition studies literature, and (2) to synthesize a typology of user, consumer and citizen roles. Because expert reviews tend to be highly selective and interpretive, we opted for a systematic literature review and compiled a set of 349 papers that refer user, consumer or citizen in their title or abstract, and also cite one of 100 ‘core publications’ in the transition studies field. To decrease bias and increase reproducibility, we use a systematic software-assisted content analysis that facilitates the disentanglement of multiple perspectives on a phenomenon of interest. It allows deep exploration of large collections of texts through classification of documents, the discovery of recurring themes, the identification of keywords, and the extraction of meaningful contexts in which these appear. A bottom-up thematic document classification (on the level of integral abstracts) reveals four categories of abstracts that correspond with the empirical domains of energy, mobility, food and water. A bottom-up thematic analysis of elementary contexts (on the level of sentences) highlights six significant themes across these empirical domains: transition, stakeholder, user, practice, market, and methodology. We interpret the significance of these themes and how they relate to our research interest. Then, to explore our research interest more in-depth, we use top-down (supervised) methods for exploring the contexts in which user, consumer and citizen appear. We find that though there is some degree of overlap, the terms are used mostly in different contexts and methods, and with different aims. Finally, we synthesize our findings into a typology of user, consumer and citizen roles along two dimensions: resist – produce, and individual – collective.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationEindhoven
PublisherTechnische Universiteit Eindhoven
Number of pages39
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Publication series

NameECIS working paper series


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