Engaging with sustainability in everyday transitions: An ethnographic study of an international airport operator

  • Vivian Liang-Bradbury

Student thesis: Phd


The past decade has seen the emergence of the Transitions Management theory rise to fame as the leading approach for dealing with the complex problem of sustainability. Its underlining principle considers sustainability as inherently difficult and requiring radical system changes to the wider society. Defined as a deliberative and prescriptive framework, it sets to influence governance activities through a gradual structured process. However, concerns have been raised which question the scope and practice of Transitions Management, including the criticism of its simplistic and narrow view, focussing primarily on technological innovations and policy influence while having little reflection on the dynamics and social relations involved in transitions. This research thesis aims to develop further insights to understand better the dynamics within the transitional process towards sustainability. By looking at the case of an international airport's ongoing efforts to become more sustainable, this thesis argues that the social dynamics offer a significant contribution to the shaping of a sustainability agenda, by enabling practices that also seem vital in the framework of Transitions Management.This thesis applied ethnography as the primary approach to this research inquiry. The data collection involved qualitative interviews, documentary analysis, and participant observations spanning over 18 months between the periods of 2010-2012. Drawing on the critical studies of management and organisational theories, the research focus was on addressing the three key questions of what is the sustainability agenda, who decided on the agenda and how has the agenda been decided, within the context of airport operations. While other key issues have emerged from this research study, those aspects have underlined the tensions constituted in the everyday practices of an airports operations, how the conditions of tensions have enabled a positive influence, and how this is seen as significant to contribute to the theoretical understanding for dealing with the sustainability transitions process. Building on this perspective, this thesis further explored the dynamics of the individuals' struggle, and suggests that it is part of a sense making process that also helps to construct the meaning of sustainability. In addition, it has identified how this experience of struggle has facilitated resistance "for changes" among individuals, and how this permits positive outcomes which are continuously shaping the agenda of sustainability and practices at the Airport.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPaul Chan (Supervisor) & Margaret Emsley (Supervisor)


  • Sustainability
  • Everyday transitions
  • Airport operations

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