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Over the last number of years, social acceptability (SA) has emerged as a new standard for public action (Batellier, 2015; Devine-Wright, 2005; Fournis & Fortin, 2017; Gaede & Rowlands 2018; Gendron, 2014; Mayaux, 2015; Wüstenhagen et al., 2007). An increasingly necessary condition for authorizing major projects and making public policy, it lies at the heart of debates on the environment, regional and urban planning, resource extraction and energy. The institutionalization of the standard is reflected in the drafting of guidelines, the development of professional and organizational practices, and the publication of directives.
This process is often associated with the social dimension of sustainable development (SD) and the idea of a social licence to operate in the mining and resource extraction sector (Boutillier et al., 2012; Riabova & Didyk, 2014) or that of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) (Papillon & Rodon, 2017a, 2017b) in the context of issues surrounding Aboriginal peoples. SA often constitutes an imperative for coming to an agreement and going beyond strictly administrative and legal requirements—a characteristic of the post-democratic era (Dermont et al., 2017; Mayaux, 2015). Because it can be interpreted at different levels (micro, meso and macro) (Fournis & Fortin, 2017; Upham et al., 2015; Wüstenhagen et al., 2007) and studied within several disciplines (political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, geography) (Gaede & Rowlands, 2018; Shindle…


Social acceptability (SA) lies at the heart of debates and controversies about environmental public policy and major infrastructure and development projects, and it has become institutionalized in Quebec over the years, given its direct relationship to the concepts of public participation and sustainable development. As an increasingly necessary condition for public action, SA can be understood as a new normative instrument for articulating participatory democracy and representative democracy with strong implications in terms of both procedural and distributive justice. In this article, we seek to answer four questions in order to analyze and gain a better understanding of SA for public action. First, how should SA be defined and approached theoretically? We propose to conceptualize the term in line with existing research on public action instruments. Second, how has the concept evolved over time? We try to answer by analyzing a corpus of reports from the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE). Third, what do the actors involved in SA say? We report on similarities and differences in the testimony provided by public participation professionals (PPPs). Finally, what is the significance and scope of the effects of this new normative instrument, or standard, on projects and decisions? Initial findings are proposed on the basis of three recent and important case studies. By answering these four questions from different angles, we shed new light on SA based on Quebec’s experience.

  • social acceptability
  • public policy tools
  • standard
  • major projects
  • public participation
  • Quebec

L’acceptabilité sociale au Québec : nouvel instrument normatif d’action publique

Au cœur des débats et controverses concernant les politiques publiques environnementales et les grands projets d’infrastructure et d’aménagement, l’acceptabilité sociale (AS) s’est institutionnalisée au Québec au fil des ans, en lien direct avec les notions de participation publique et de développement durable. Condition de plus en plus nécessaire à l’action publique, l’AS peut être comprise comme un nouvel instrument de type normatif afin d’articuler démocratie participative et démocratie représentative et ayant de fortes implications tant en termes de justice procédurale que distributive. Dans cet article, nous souhaitons répondre à quatre questions afin de mieux comprendre et analyser l’AS pour l’action publique : 1) comment définir l’AS et l’aborder de manière théorique ? Il est proposé de conceptualiser la notion à la manière de travaux sur les instruments d’action publique ; 2) quelle trajectoire a-t-elle connu au fil du temps ? Nous y répondons à travers l’analyse du corpus des rapports du Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) ; 3) qu’en disent les acteurs ? Nous rendons compte des similitudes et des différences des témoignages des professionnels de la participation publique (PPP) et ; 4) quelle est la portée de cette nouvelle norme sur les projets et les décisions ? De premiers constats sont proposés sur la base de trois études de cas importants et récents. Ces quatre réponses permettent, sous différents angles, d’apporter un éclairage nouveau et porteur à partir de l’expérience québécoise en matière d’AS.

  • acceptabilité sociale
  • instruments d’action publique
  • norme
  • grands projets
  • participation publique
  • Québec
Louis Simard
School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa
Louis SIMARD is Associate Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He holds a PhD from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sc. PO). His research work focuses on public participation, instruments of public action, social acceptability and organizational learning in the environmental and energy sectors. His recent publications include the following: “Developing the public participation field: the role of independent bodies for public participation,” with L. Bherer and M. Gauthier, in Administration and Society (2020); “Socially not acceptable: lessons from a windfarm project in St-Valentin, Québec,” in Case Studies in the Environment, University of California Press (2018); “Engagement, information and capacity: a long-term perspective for a durable energy decision-making system in Canada,” in Energy Regulation Quarterly (2018); and The professionalization of public participation, with L. Bherer and M. Gauthier (2017), New York, Routledge.
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