Crisis, transformation, and agency: Why are people going back-to-the-land in Greece?

Karina Benessaiah, Hallie Eakin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Transformations are fundamentally about agency: human intention, motivation, and power to influence and to resist. Most studies focus on deliberate system-level transformations, usually guided by a set of influential actors. However, system-level transformations may also occur as the result of the cascading effects of multiple individual transformations in response or in anticipation to various crises. Little is known about how crises foster these individual transformations, and how these may relate to different types of system-level change. This article fills this gap by looking at how crisis fosters two different types of agencies—internal and external—and how these link to individual transformations in the case of Greece’s back-to-the-land movement whereby urbanites sought to reconnect with land-based livelihoods during the economic crisis (2008 onwards). The article draws on the qualitative analysis of 76 interviews of back-to-the-landers to further understand why people are going back-to-the-land (their motivations), how these relate to the concept of agency and individual transformation, and what implications might there be for system-level social-ecological transformations. This article makes three key points. First, crises create different opportunity contexts that may lead to rapid changes in what is valued in the broader social discourse. While social values and discourses are usually considered to be “deep levers” and slow to change, we found that they can rapidly shift in times of crises, challenging notions of the role of fast vs. slow variables in system transformations. Second, agency is needed to respond to crises but is also further catalyzed and enhanced through crisis; activating one’s internal agency leads to personal transformations as well as collective transformations (linked to external agency), which are mutually co-constitutive. And third, systemic-level transformation emerges through multiple pathways including through the aggregation of multiple individual transformations that may lead to emergent system-level changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1841-1858
Number of pages18
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Agency
  • Back-to-the-land
  • Economic crisis
  • Food systems
  • Prefigurative politics
  • Social-ecological transformations
  • Sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Health(social science)
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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