This project was funded through a major call on ‘Energy and Communities’ and their role in addressing issues of energy demand that was issued through the Research Councils UK Energy Programme in 2010. Along with six other projects (see our Connections page) we were successful in gaining support for this research to contribute to the development of a robust research evidence base important for informing interventions that will reduce energy consumption.
Energy demand reduction is important for addressing multiple long-term national policy goals, including low carbon transitions, energy security and affordability, and mitigating environmental impacts. Significant reductions in energy use will be essential – in the home, transportation and across business – if these aims are to be attained (Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2009). Research from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC, 2009) indicates that lifestyle change could contribute 30% in greenhouse gas emissions cuts against baseline in the UK by 2050. However, there are well known complexities in achieving such changes including the difficulty people have in connecting their everyday activities with environmental impacts, the invisibility of energy use in everyday life, and ‘lock-in’ to unsustainable systems of energy practice, lifestyles and identities. This research will contribute to current theory, methodology and practice by building a conceptual and analytic approach that examines people’s energy consumption as embedded in dynamic biographical processes: that is, as emergent, contingent, and unfolding in and through space and time.
The theoretical background to our project is informed by three distinct theoretical and methodological traditions from across the disciplines of sociology, social psychology and human geography.
Socio-technical Systems, Practice Theory and Transitions
As a theoretical lens practice theory opens up particular ways of seeing and analysing social phenomena as socially constructed, fluid, negotiated and contextual. This conceptual approach stands in opposition to what has been described as the ‘hyperrational and intellectualised’ picture of human agency as existing outside of practice.
The implication of these theoretical ideas is to shift focus onto questions of how and why conventions, habits and routines evolve as they do, how they are maintained and crucially, for our purposes, how they are changed.
The answers from this perspective lie in examining the interconnections between our routine accomplishment of daily life and the sets of wider institutions, processes and structures with which they are intertwined.
Lifecourse Studies and the Biographical Turn
This line of thought takes up ideas posed in practice theoretical conceptions regarding the relations between the personal and the social but seeks to root these notions more firmly in the ‘bedrock reality’ of everyday life.
‘Biographies are rooted in an analysis of social history and the wellsprings of individual personality, [they] reach backward and forward in time, documenting processes and experiences of social change’ (Chamberlayne et al 2000).
This perspective draws attention to the ways that life-course arrangements are becoming more dynamic, less standardised and more self-directed, but also recognises the significance of ‘life chances’, which are viewed as linked to personal historical circumstance as well as to social institutions (family, education, economy), that play major roles in enabling or restricting life course continuity and change.
Temporality and Spatiality
Temporal theory can be usefully combined with biographical research to highlight how understandings of the present are bound up with narratives of personal and social history, and include imagined futures.
Transitional processes play out in particular places and through different forms of community – ‘community’ can encompass multiple configurations (beyond communities of place) which manifest in and through spaces.
We take up an understanding of space and place as socially constructed, involving the attachment of symbolic meanings which are (re)negotiated and open, and place emphasis on engagement with place through daily practice.
Please see our Project Protocol ( pdf file) for more detailed information on our methods, theory and research design.