Methods for exploring affective sense-making

How do social scientists draw on methodological approaches in their data analytic work? On July 3rd 2017, the FLEXIS social science team hosted a small workshop organised around the work of two postgraduate researchers (Maree Martinussen [Auckland University] and Alice Dal Gobbo [Cardiff University]) who talked through how they were approaching their own data analytical work. Although the two speakers are working on distinct topics (personal friendships and the ecological/energy/economic crisis), it was illuminating to consider their ways of working which drew on two divergent research approaches that are currently contributing to the affective turn in social research methodology – the study of affective assemblages and discursive-affective practices. Both speakers’ data analyses showed how it was possible to elucidate aspects of what usually remains hidden in plain sight. This prompted interesting questions about their own and other established methodological reference points. Both presentations clearly involved working with theory in ways that took into account well known approaches to the study of everyday life (ethnomethodology, conversation and discourse analysis, ethnography etc). But, mainly, they highlighted a relational, psychosocial understanding of affective sense making (Maree) and desire (Alice). For the audience, it was interesting to consider how such work might build on methodological insights developed by research teams that have already found ways of investigating problems of personal and wider social life in ecologically challenging and changing times.

The students’ work was discussed in the context of methodological insights from recently completed work by the Energy Biographies project. Energy Biographies developed ways of elucidating the dynamics of everyday energy use and demand reduction in ways that differ from behavioural understandings, although such behavioural understandings remain influential in policy-led analysis and efforts to promote change (e.g. currently towards a smart energy future). Energy Biographies’ published research has brought to light psychosocial aspects of investments and attachment with everyday energy using social practices, yet understanding the implications of psychosocial change dynamics remains a live challenge. More interdisciplinary and collaborative work is also needed to understand relationally embedded and entangled ways of living with resource depletion, decarbonisation, and environmentally changed futures. For the FLEXIS social science team, initiatives are underway to continue such work as part of its programme of research investigating the energy system of the future. This programme involves working alongside engineers, with the aim to decarbonise the energy system of the future in line with security and affordability as technical-economic policy concerns. As social scientists, we will be adopting, adapting and generating bespoke methodological approaches in our research, and this will be part of our ongoing research strategy – of finding ways to engage with all that matters to people in their lives and worlds.

Download a free copy of our paper in Families Relationships and Societies – Relationality, entangled practices and psychosocial exploration of intergenerational dynamics in sustainable energy studies here