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For a geography of territorial transitions? Conceptual frameworks, methodological challenges and critical perspectives

Pour une géographie des transitions territoriales ? Cadres conceptuels, défis méthodologiques et regards critiques
Vincent Banos, Sabine Girard, Marie Houdart et Salma Loudiyi

Do territories accelerate transition? Yes, they seem to, according to recent reflections on the contributions of the territory – its actors, proximities, heritage, resources and scales – to transitions in ways of living, producing and consuming, systems of governance and relationships with living organisms, etc. (Bouisset and Vaucelle, 2020; Buclet, 2021; Gasselin et al., 2023; Tabourdeau, 2021; Loudiyi et al., 2022; Durand et al., 2022). But what are the analytical, methodological and ethical underpinnings of this territorial focus? Does it truly reflect the emergence of a “geography of territorial transitions”? What are its contours, characteristics and visions of transition? What are the relevance and limits of this approach to tackling the ecological emergency and the associated issues of justice?

Outside France, the geography of transitions has emerged in response to the “spatial naiveté” (Coenen et al., 2012; Lawhon and Murphy, 2012) of the theories that dominate the interdisciplinary literature of Sustainable Transitions Studies (Geels, 2002; Kholer et al., 2019). These theories consider transition as a process of socio-technical innovation guided by the co-evolution of technological, institutional, economic and social changes. As a consequence, they tend to overlook the influence of geographical contexts, the logics of territorial differentiation and the multi-scalarity of organizations and actors. These theories are also accused of being too centered on experts and elites, who are assumed to be the only ones capable of driving a dynamic of change, and of idealizing transition by glossing over the struggles and conflicts induced by the redistribution of risks and resources, wealth and power (Lawhon and Murphy, 2012; Sovacol, 2021). Ultimately, these criticisms have fostered the emergence of a body of research structured around three key entry points: the socio-spatial anchoring of transitions and geographical inequalities; the articulation of scales and the dissemination of innovations; and power relations and the recompositions of capitalism (Murphy, 2015; Truffer et al., 2015; Loudiyi and Cerdan, 2023). While emphasizing the importance of territorial singularities, proximities and coordinations situated in the dynamics of transition, this research agenda therefore also reminds us that spatial scales and categories, such as “the local,” “cities,” “region” or “the Global South,” do not constitute predefined geographical entities but are part of horizontal and vertical interdependencies that evolve and are the subject of definitional struggles. In particular, it calls for the development of concepts and methods for thinking about how processes apparently specific to a territory influence and are influenced by “distanced” political interventions, narratives, enterprises or regulatory mechanisms (Labussière and Nadai, 2018; Binz et al., 2020). Thus, this geography of transitions remains a field of research under construction, shaped by the influences of economic geography and political ecology, largely based on case studies and is yet to clearly lay out its theoretical contributions and definitions of transition (Hansen and Coenen, 2015; Binz et al., 2020).

Examining the contributions and specificities of a possible “geography of territorial transitions” requires us to consider how transitions, in their diverse acceptations, affect the very foundations and purposes of territorial development. Indeed, ecological constraints and the finiteness of material resources are upending the primacy accorded to socio-cultural factors and the economic exploitation of resources (Gonin, 2021; Durand et al., 2022). The renewed interest in “bioregions,” conceived a minima as living territories that take better account of the ecological and geographical limits of natural systems inhabited by human communities, also points to the recompositions underway around the dynamics of re-attachment to ecological environments (Giard et al., 2021). While bioregionalism is a source of relocation and re-inhabitation, decentralization and autonomy, it is not, however, immune to ideological fantasies and ambivalence, as its territorial propositions navigate a precarious path between emancipation and reactionary project (Pelletier, 2008; Rollot, 2018; Dubiau, 2022). More broadly, the inadequacy of sustainable development policies (Theys, 2002) and the emergence of “climate” capitalism (Newell and Mulvaney, 2013) demonstrate the difficulty of achieving a “just” transition, one that can achieve social justice while taking on the ecological challenge (Laurent, 2023). Similarly, food and energy autonomy or self-sufficiency for territories – irrespective of whether seen as utopias, fields of possibility or realities – require a multi-scalarity of problems to be addressed and the scaling up of collective experimentation. The switch from one scale to another is both urgently necessary and fraught with danger, between renewal of collective action, injunction by the State and misrepresentation by markets (Nadai and Wallenborn, 2019). Concepts such as “trans-localism” (Blay-Palmer et al., 2016), “territorial transition operators” (Durand et al., 2022), “territorial metabolism” (Buclet, 2021) are, without doubt, all fertile avenues, amongst others. But the few pitfalls mentioned above serve as a reminder that, just like transition, territory too has a strong normative dimension, and the supposed convergence of the local with the sustainable does not preclude ambiguity (Banos et al., 2020).

It also seems important to clarify the conceptions of transition associated with the “geography of territorial transitions.” The territory is sometimes presented as a relevant scale for implementing ecological alternatives to the dominant productive model (Lenglet and Caurla, 2020) or even as a path to radical socio-environmental transformation, resolutely democratic and renewing relationships between humans and non-humans (Durand et al., 2022; Koop, 2022). On the other hand, some authors suggest that the frameworks of transition most widely found at territorial levels are top-down logics and instituted models of sustainable development and, more recently, of the bioeconomy (Ginelli et al., 2020), while others emphasize the diversity, coexistence and confrontation of models (Gasselin et al., 2023; Loudiyi et al., 2022). The conceptual vagueness around the notions of transition and transformation is certainly no stranger to these uncertainties (Hölcher et al., 2018; Feola, 2015). But while these terms, often used interchangeably, may be complementary, they do not refer to quite the same processes. Transition refers to the way in which a (sub)system moves from state A to state B in a relatively stable world, whereas transformation implies a more global, structural change in power relationships and relations with nature (Hölcher et al., 2018; Feola, 2020). And since transition and transformation are far from being the only possible options, territories could also be seats of an adaptive resilience which, given the chronic instability of the world, is conducive to the development of a capacity to adapt that evolves with the effects of degradation (Nadai and Wallenborn, 2019). This plurality of trajectories with clearly differentiated political implications ultimately raises the question of the conflicts and power relationships they underpin, the ways in which they are expressed and regulated on a territorial scale, and the role of the geographer, his or her posture and commitment, in these processes of (de-)politicization.

The reflexive exercise proposed by this special issue is aimed at all geographers working on territorial transitions, which can be understood not only as a geography that tackles the territorial dimensions of socio-ecological transitions, but also more broadly as a geography of territories in transition. Its objective is to provide a forum for dialogue that, going beyond the diversity of subjects and issues addressed (food, energy, mobility, etc.), will enable us to draw up an overview of this field of research, its advances, blind spots and horizons within French and international geography. To this end, we propose three lines of inquiry.

What geographical communities for and around the geography of transitions?

It is a matter here of examining the contours of the geography of transitions, its characteristics and its various currents, by paying particular attention to territorial approaches, their contributions and their possible specificities. How and by whom is this emerging field of geography appropriated and asserted or, on the contrary, contested and rejected? Around what issues, themes and objects, influences and theoretical filiations (Sustainable Transitions Studies, economic geography, political ecology, etc.) are found the points of convergence and the fault lines? What are the originalities and advances offered by territorial approaches? How can these approaches provide a better understanding of the drivers, rhythms and methods of implementation of transition trajectories? Ultimately, what are the contours and attributes of a “geography of territorial transitions”?

How are transition dynamics renewing the territorial toolbox?

This is a matter of asking how socio-ecological transitions, through not only the interdependencies they bring into play but also the conflicts they crystallize, are changing our ways of conceiving and investing the territory. Contributions could focus in particular on the challenges posed by: the upsurge in non-humans and the return in force of ecological and material constraints; the renewal of collective action modalities and their multi-scalar dynamics, both horizontal (North-South relations, urban-rural, etc.) and vertical (multi-scale governance, increasing the scale of collective experimentation, etc.); the recompositions of capitalism and narratives of a “green” reindustrialization of territories; and the accentuation of inequalities between territories or the consequences of friction and political tensions induced by the transition on the coexistence of actors and activities within territories. What concepts, methodologies and relationships to the field have been developed to address these challenges? What are the sidesteps and borrowings involved and interdisciplinary dialogues that have been forged? With what relevance and what limits?

Between transition, transformation and adaptation: what are the research approaches adopted?

The aim here is to clearly lay out how we conceive of transitions and the way in which these conceptions do or do not transform research practices, postures and associated forms of engagement, as well as their potential disadvantages and difficulties. What are the ethical foundations that form the basis for the questions, subjects and approaches of a “geography of territorial transitions”? What are the dysfunctions that territories can provide the solutions to, and in what ways do they constitute an alternative at this time of socio-ecological transitions? Does the significance of territorial approaches lie in their systemic and integrating dimensions, in their operational and prescriptive scope? Are they capable of identifying the winners and losers of the transition, of questioning the structural dimension of the changes taking place, and even of taking on issues of justice in the very practice of research, and ultimately of providing a critical perspective of the dominant models? What postures can researchers adopt to be able to contribute to just forms of territorial transition? Finally, what avenues for (de-)politicization are opened up by a territorial language? Is it part of a reformist and adaptive vision of transition, or does it embody a transformative and emancipatory project?

Deadlines and Guidelines for Authors

Final articles are expected by November 15, 2023, for publication in late 2024. They should be sent to the coordinators of the issue, Vincent Banos,, Sabine Girard,, Marie Houdart,, Salma Loudiyi,, with a copy to the editorial secretary, André Buisson,

The proposal should be submitted in Word or Open Office format, Times New Roman font, and should include: a title, an abstract of between 3000 and 5000 characters presenting the article’s main thrust, the theoretical framework, the field(s) of study on which the proposal is based, and 3 to 5 key words. Two versions should be sent: one including the author’s personal data, and an anonymized version (no identifying information such as author’s name, “personal information” embedded in the Word file, and in illustrations).

The article must comply with the journal’s submission requirements. Please see: (note that a Zotero style is available). Articles should be between 40,000 and 60,000 characters in length, including spaces and bibliography. Articles will be double-blind peer-reviewed.


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