UNMAKING: a research programme on the disruption of capitalism in societal transformation to sustainability


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UNMAKING: Societal transformation to sustainability through the unmaking of capitalism?

This project uses a novel interdisciplinary theory to explain whether, when and how grassroots initiatives unmake environmentally disruptive institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies.

Short project description


Modern capitalist societies engage in destructive modes of interaction with the natural environment. The notion of sustainable development was proposed in the 1990s as an attempt to resolve such tension, but improvement has been limited. Destructive interaction with the natural environment is now recognized not simply as a remediable side effect of modern capitalist societies, but instead as one of their characterizing traits. The need for a societal transformation to sustainability is increasingly accepted. However, the question of how a societal transformation to sustainability can actually come about is still open. Grassroots initiatives may hold the potential to transform society toward sustainability, but their capacity to generate such transformation is unclear.

What is ‘unmaking’?

The concept of unmaking, which was originally proposed in this research programme (see here and here), denotes multilevel processes to deliberately ‘make space’ for alternatives that are incompatible with capitalist socioecological relations. They can vary from open confrontation to ‘exit’ from the dominant system. For example, members of the global Transition Towns Movement undertake a so-called ‘inner transition’ to liberate themselves from habitual and addictive tendencies, and enable harmonious engagement with people and nature. Urban gardeners physically deconstruct spaces to give them new meaning and innovative food producing uses. The ecovillage of Lammas lobbied the Welsh Government to reject standard land use classifications and change planning legislation, which permitted access to land for self-built ecohousing. Fordhall farm in England refused economic growth imperatives, which created the need for innovative ‘popular shareholding’ governance arrangements

Primary research question

To what extent, under what conditions and through what processes do grassroots initiatives unmake modern, capitalist institutions and practices?

Case studies and methods

UNMAKING focuses on whether and how capitalism is already being unmade by grassroots initiatives informed by visions of societal transformation and holding the potential to lead such transformation. A sample of Community Supported Agriculture initiatives and other collectives will be studied over five years in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Spain.


This research

  1. approaches societal transformation from the novel perspective of unmaking, rather than the introduction of innovations,
  2. mobilizes and innovatively integrates theories that have so far not been considered in the analysis of transformation to sustainability,
  3. originally employs mixed methods to capture trajectories of change, and to generalize causal mechanisms in complex social-ecological systems.

Five PhD research projects are conducted within the UNMAKING programme. Read about them here.