Exploring the role of market activism in driving a circular economy transition: a mixed-method social network approach

Chia-Hao Ho, David Monciardini

Contact: ch761@exeter.ac.uk

Circular Economy (CE) has been an active field of research for over two decades. It has been regarded as an antidote to deal with problems such as resource scarcity, environmental impact, and the challenges from the research of sustainability. The CE suggests designing a closed-looped flow of materials to reduce pollution. Its central objective is to challenge the dominance of unsustainable linear economic models, based on the assumption that there is an unlimited supply of natural resources and that the environment has an unlimited capacity to absorb waste and pollution. However, how the transition towards a CE can be realized in practice is still undertheorized. The system theory paradigm that dominates CE gives little attention to the agency at micro-organizational dynamics. In particular, we know little about individual struggles and cooperation within the existing market logic (i.e. linear economy logic) to foster or discourage the development of circular business models. Recently, various types of market activism have been discussed by organizational scholars, insofar that researchers have increasingly tried to reconcile the domains of activism and markets. Specifically, the focus has been on CEO activists; social intrapreneurs; institutional entrepreneurs; grassroots activists; and tempered radicals. These individuals usually speak out on a specific social or sustainable issue and are devoted to solving it within their organization. This research aims to contribute to filling this research gap by focusing on the role of market activism in the transition towards a CE. With this aim in mind, there are two key elements that stand out this enquiry related to the collaborations between various market activists engaging in this transition. One concerns about the individuals’ mobilization process and collaborative dynamics within the existing market. The other one relates to the metaphor or sense-making embedded in market activists’ participation, that is: to understand how CE value is constructed and diffused through market activists. Since the core question revolves around how to investigate agency in the context of a structural change, we have developed a mixed method of social network research through the integration of quantitative and qualitative data collection and data analysis. The focus here is on a confined area and limit the scope to an emerging circular economic network (around 200 SMEs) in Cornwall County, South West England. Our data collection methods comprised an online survey, semi-structured interviews, and secondary sources. Then, an integrated mixed method design which combines network text analysis with actors’ network is also adopted to investigate the role of market activists in CE collaborations. In doing so, this research contributes to providing policymakers and practitioners insights on how to support and guide such CE transformation processes and the advancement of current understandings in agency and structure.

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