A mixed-methods approach to investigating the Circular Economy: Mapping the concept, the field, and their co-dynamics

Student thesis: Phd


Operationalising the notion of sustainable development is a complex endeavour that has received much attention yet remained without satisfactory answers. To this end, many concepts have been proposed which undergo their trajectories, some reaching heights of popularity and some remaining within small circles. Amidst the quest to operationalise sustainable development, the Circular Economy (CE) concept is receiving immense attention across policy, practice, and academia. The prominence of CE is becoming such that whether one is sceptical or supportive about CE, it’s an escapable concept in sustainability-related discussions. Motivated by the aim to deconstruct this prominence, this thesis is geared towards understanding how and why this prominence came about and what it means to CE research and practice. Is it just a buzzword or an emerging field? With CE-related discussions doing the rounds for almost two decades now and with its increasing prominence, at this juncture, this thesis takes a step back to analyse how did this prominence come about and what is the status of the CE concept and its related field now. Such perspectives about CE are essential because they offer valuable insights on how the contemporary conceptual understanding has emerged, increased awareness of the social pressures that affect certain kinds of research, investigations of the impact of science on policy and vice versa, which serve as the foundations for a more rational science policy. This thesis is presented in two parts- A and B. The latter has three published research papers; Research paper 1 serves as the starting point that analyses the vast literature on CE by characterising the corpus, identifying the underlying research topics in the literature, and conducting a pilot workshop to assess the validity of the research findings before scaling it up to a larger group. This paper also employs an advanced text mining technique, i.e., topic modelling. Research paper 2 assesses the changes in the CE concept compared to its competing concepts, which has not been addressed in Research Paper 1. This paper relies heavily on computational techniques and uses CE as a case study to develop a computational pipeline through which changes in concepts used in the academic discourse can be detected. The insights from this paper are especially useful in drawing comparisons between CE and its competing concepts. Research paper 3 harvests the opinion of experts to provide the first systematic expert-based assessment of the CE academic discourse. The results from this paper allow us to understand the pattern of change in the CE concept, the reasons for the pattern observed and the positioning of CE in the broader sustainability discussions through the opinion of the experts. Part A is written in a monograph format drawing from the insights of the three published papers. Using actor-network theory, part A provides a detailed investigation of the CE concept and its related field, outlining the specific field characteristics and evolution of the CE concept and its related field. The analysis indicates that the CE is showing certain instances of deep institutionalisation within academia, policy, and practice; however, the conceptual meaning is getting highly segregated as the CE concept is associated with various actants. The field also exhibits steering of research priorities in a way that an optimistic narrative about CE is being created. The evolution of the CE concept and its related field directs attention towards the combination of a lifecycle and teleological process typology. This also indicates a relative absence of any dialectic processes within the field. The relative absence of dialectic process leads to the optimistic narrative of CE fostering continued growth and the narrative that aims to align CE with a strong sustainability narrative such as degrowth or steady-state economics to exist as segregated parts of the field. Lastly, the CE concept’s po
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulia Handl (Supervisor), Riza Theresa Batista-Navarro (Supervisor) & Frank Boons (Supervisor)


  • Mode 2 knowledge production
  • actor-network theory
  • sustainable development
  • process study
  • circular economy
  • text mining

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