Bending the Line: The Emergence of the Circular Economy Field in Europe

Dragos Alexandru Mihai & Maria Paula Amiama

Student thesis: Master thesis


The circular economy is a new socio-economic paradigm to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. As a promising solution for sustainable development, the concept has gained significant momentum across sectors, especially within businesses and government. Given the cross-sector engagement with circular economy, the concept is shaped by a variety of actors that hold different interpretations. In order to explore this growing interest, our inquiry is twofold: we first look at the different actors that are driving the momentum, considering the lack of agreement on the concept boundaries. Secondly, our analysis focuses on the field dynamics that have led to the current momentum in Europe. We use Fligstein and MacAdam’s (2012) theory of Strategic Action Fields (SAFs) as an analytical lens and contribute to the circular economy academic discussion by providing empirically-based insights on the world-views and dynamics that are leading this transition. Our findings reveal that there is a shared understanding of the need for systemic change and the environmental imperatives for this transition. However, some actors emphasize the economic and business rationales for a circular economy, while others focus on social imperatives. Actors that emphasize economic risks and opportunities of the circular economy appear to exert disproportionate influence on the field. Our analysis further points to six dynamics that drive the momentum, and we argue that social skill employed by dominant actors is the main force behind the emergence of the circular economy field in Europe. We further argue that this social skill is used not only for creating new frames, but also for constantly switching and managing between frames, a process we call frame management. This process is especially important for the circular economy, as this transition implies a paradigm shift in our system. We conclude by proposing that a collaborative frame for the circular economy should be protected by field actors in order to invite a diversity of voices to develop the concept and recommend further research on the relevance of our analysis for a more comprehensive theory of fields.

EducationsMSocSc in Organisational Innovation and Entrepreneurship , (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2018
Number of pages135
SupervisorsEster Barinaga