Centre for Research on Environmental and Social Change (CRESC)

Identity and mission

CRESC is a research center within the Department of Sociology at the University of Antwerp. The center focuses on sociological research on environmental and social change, in an urban context and the wider living environment. Dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion, new forms of solidarity and citizenship in super-diversity, social work, governance of transitions and risk management and the role of science, knowledge and culture in social and environmental change form the core of the research.

Examples of environmental and social changes that we study include sustainability transitions in the energy, materials and food system, the development of waste and integrated water management, policy innovation in spatial and urban planning, social innovations in poverty reduction, network formation between social organisations, innovation in civil society organisations, identity building in a diverse society, governance of sociotechnical change processes and science and the changing role of expertise in society.

Based on our interest in the interaction between social and environmental change processes, CRESC wants to focus specifically on research that focuses on:

(1) social stratification and exclusion in environmental risks and social questions;

(2) the co-production of knowledge on social and environmental change processes; and

(3) social innovations, social work practices, policy dynamics and sustainability transitions.

We are mainly (but not exclusively) inspired by insights from urban and environmental studies, poverty studies and social work research, cultural sociology and science and technology studies.

We strive for conceptual innovation to better understand processes of environmental and social change, innovation and transformation, but always anchor conceptual work in a thorough empirical research.

We use a wide range of research methods, with a strong focus on qualitative or mixed methods research. We have developed methodological expertise in social network analysis, social mapping and policy evaluation; and we strongly focus on in-depth interviews, focus groups, (participatory) observation, document analysis and debate formats.

We share a social-constructivist perspective on research and, as public or policy sociologists, often engage in action research, with other disciplines (from multi- to interdisciplinary) and individuals and organisations outside the academic world (transdisciplinary). The interdisciplinary experience extends to other social sciences as well as to engineering, natural sciences and medical sciences.

The interdisciplinary nature of our research is also embedded in the involvement of CRESC members in two interdisciplinary research platforms at the UAntwerp, namely the Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development (IMDO) and the Antwerp Urban Studies Institute (USI).

We conduct both fundamental and policy-oriented research. To this end, we often work together with local organisations and authorities, with European organisations and actors at all intermediate levels of government. CRESC also participates actively in the ‘Universitaire Stichting voor Armoedebestrijding’, a university based foundation aimed at poverty reduction (USAB).

We explicitly strive for social impact by involving relevant actors in the various phases of the research process and by valorising scientific knowledge in products that various actors can actively work with. Academic research is the raison d'être of CRESC, but we also consciously reflect on the role and position of scientists in processes of environmental and social change.

History and future

CRESC was created in 2018 through the merger of two research groups with a long tradition: OASeS and ‘Milieu en Samenleving’ (Society & Environment). OASeS was founded in 1989 as a sociological research center focused on poverty and social exclusion, but has gradually extended its domain to the city and urban policy, (social) housing and housing policy, migration and diversity, science and technology and social work.

Milieu & Samenleving specialised in social-spatial issues of location, urban expansion and networks, social ecology and social impact analysis. Driven by the growing interest in environmental problems, the full development of environmental policy in the 1990s and the success of the interfaculty programmes at IMDO, this has evolved into the study of environmental and technology issues, boundary work with experts and civil science, environmental justice and socio-technical transition.

The merger of the two research groups in CRESC responds to the growing need for knowledge about the interaction between social and environmental problems and change processes.

About policy and practice

Today, policy and practice development is no longer only about the question of what combination of instruments is needed to achieve the objectives set by a decision-maker or organisation. Developing policy and practice also requires foresight, transcending the compartmentalisation of competences and organisations in different policy sectors, coordination across different administrative and geographical levels (from local to global) and cooperation between governments, entrepreneurs and civil society organisations.

Governance implies the elaboration of a problem definition and the direction of a solution by taking into account various perspectives together with all parties involved and thus increasing the chances of the implementation of the decisions taken or  the agreed strategy. This is all the more important in the more complex issues of social and environmental change where knowledge and societal perspectives are the subject of disagreement or even conflict.

CRESC therefore conducts critical research into new ideas, policy opinions and action perspectives such as environmental justice, social resilience and solidarity in diversity and into the knowledge and policy arrangements they support.  Building on the tradition of public sociology, the research group actively sets up experiments in which all kinds of public and private actors, including civil society organisations and citizens, have a contribution to make in the public debate, in knowledge production or in the development of policy and practices.

CRESC also sees policy as more broadly than government policy. Companies, non-profit and public organisations, households and citizens' initiatives take all kinds of initiatives and hence develop policy just as well. CRESC therefore wants to focus not only on substantive research for policy-making, but also on policy itself, if desirable by developing process-oriented research.

This requires an innovative view on evaluation of policy and policy practices. Other than policy evaluation in terms of goal attainment, effectiveness and efficiency, the scientific evaluation of policy dynamics and social and environmental transitions is relatively new. It requires an interaction-oriented approach in which policy is viewed as a goal-seeking process with many actors involved, but also requires a critical review of institutional barriers and levers that map stability and (policy) change. CRESC wants to contribute to the methodological underpinning of this new research niche.