The ‘new localism’ in the energy transition: methodological explorations, engagements, imaginaries
International Workshop - 15 October 2021
Cardiff University with TUDelft, Leiden & Basel Universities
Karen Henwood1, Chris Groves1,2, Nick Pidgeon2 (1School of Social Sciences and 2Understanding Risk Group, Cardiff University)
Increasingly, and by drawing on the work of energy ethicists, it is possible to speak about ethical quandaries facing social energy research. Energy ethicists are also engaging seriously with social scientific ways of working. Yet emerging challenges continue to pose scholarly questions requiring in depth empirical analysis of issues that are systemic, temporal, and methodological. While headline systemic and temporal issues can be at planetary level (climate crises, species extinction), others are only seemingly more parochial (the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday life, the intangibility of socio-technological/systems change dynamics). Responding meaningfully, analytically and imaginatively to such challenges could be a route into providing insightful ways of working professionally given how social relations are organized in workplaces and across national boundaries, and that we live in times of rapid social, ecological, political, and cultural change. A key nexus of issues arises, for example, if we seek to reflect on questions about continuities and changes in the ways in which democratic processes operate regionally and transnationally in relation to energy systems change, how they are experienced, and whether localism takes on a new significance in this context.
In the UK, energy and innovation policies have been highly influential in driving practical change from a solutions-focused perspective. The goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has been established as a means of enabling technical and social transformations at a sufficiently ambitious scale1. At the same time, the goal of net zero has been set out alongside another guiding ambition of ‘prospering from the energy revolution’ which invokes localism in the shape of visions of smart local energy systems change and has the aspiration of unlocking their techno-economic potentials (UKRI, 20212). In this context, it is important that research poses and addresses challenging questions about what is involved in transitioning to net zero in terms of its specificities and relationalities, and what is at stake with “the new localism” (Pidgeon et al, in press).
In terms of its methodological focus, this work builds on a familiarity with citizen-methods (Chilvers and Pallett, 2018), including deliberative democracy, participatory ethics, and public engagement in science (Pidgeon et al, 2014). Such approaches are attuned to diverse vulnerabilities associated with the socio-material circumstances in which energy is consumed in ways that remain cognizant of socio-technical dependencies and expert imaginaries (Shirani, 2020; Groves, 2020). But the need to consider and engage with these diverse vulnerabilities also makes the present a timely moment to i) engage with methodological debates regarding the socio-materiality and temporality of change dynamics (Henwood, 2019; Henwood and Shirani, in press a&b) ii) address the imaginative side of contemporary approaches to social scientific work and practice as developed and reflected upon within the literature on social research methodology (Flick, 2018, in press; Mason, 2018) and iii) contribute to the development of psychosocial research and energy ethics (Groves et al, 2016; Henwood and Pidgeon, 2015, 2016; Randall, 2013; Taylor and McEvoy, 2014).
A combination of methodological innovation and analytical focus achieved through careful study design (Flick, 2018, in press) offers insights into research strategy and direction at a time when so much effort is being directed towards contesting energy and opening-up alternative futures (Szolucha, 2018). Yet it is not always clear how to situate or distinguish between various, non-equivalent strands of research and practice. In terms of its relevance and standing, social scientific research continues to gain much from its investigative powers. It can also be impactful by playing a role in technical and social innovations and transforming the future. As developed within qualitative inquiry, social forms of knowledge-making can be highly generative of researcher reflexivity, for example, about its anthropological and socio-ecological assumptions, boundaries and limits (Dal Gobbo, 2020). Moreover, there is always important work to be done to connect directly with ethico-legal interventions (eg the Well Being of Future Generations Act, at the center of the Welsh Government’s climate, energy, and environmental policy). Such work need not take a simple view of what is involved in doing policy relevant research. Along with concerns about the need to produce robust data and reliable evidence, it can involve making proposals for forms of understanding and modes of problematization (Butler et al 2016) in which knowledge making features as an endeavor in practical intelligibility (Henwood, in press). It can also involve critical engagements with, for example, temporal, narrative concepts (such as diachronic integrity) drawn from social scientific and anthropological research (Roberts et al, 2020).
The one-day online workshop will involve presentations from research teams working in the fields of energy social science and ethics, commentaries and plenaries on the following topics/questions:
- “The new localism” in the energy transition : How to characterize it? Is it a means of developing understanding of changes to democracy and threats to it? How is it possible to respond meaningfully, analytically and imaginatively to the challenges it brings?
- Social scientific perspectives and methodologies: What resources do they provide for exploring and engaging with scholarly ideas, uses of data (of different types), and analysis methods? How do they involve and/or integrate imaginative ways of working? Should analysis and imagination continue to be distinguished as modes of problematisation and understanding? How and why are both important not only in empirical research design but in maintaining fruitfulness of knowledge-making as a valued form of social scientific endeavor?
- Building on citizen-methods already mapped out in social energy research and ethics. What, of practical relevance, has been established by social energy research into deliberative democracy, participatory ethics, and public engagement in science? What more can be done to engage other methodological perspectives and methodologies (e.g. for investigating the socio-materiality and temporality of change dynamics)? Can this be done in a way that promotes psychosocial understanding and psychosocial ethics?
- Using research in policy contexts: How is it possible to navigate alignments (including with key stakeholders) while at the same time enabling critical engagements?
We will approach editors of peer reviewed journals to discuss the possibility of submitting written up papers for review to be published as part of a special issue.
1 Net Zero Week 2021 | UK's National Awareness Week.
2 Smart local energy systems: unlocking net zero - KTN (ktn-uk.org)
Butler, C., Demski, C., Parkhill, K., Pidgeon, N., and Spence, A. (2015) Public Values for Energy Futures: Framing, Indeterminacy and Policy Making. Energy Policy ·87, 665-672 DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2015.01.035
Chilvers, J. and Pallett, L. (2018) Energy practices and publics in the making: A relational agenda for research and practice. Frontiers in Communication, 3(14). doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2018.00014
Dal Gobbo, A. (2020) Everyday Life Ecologies: Crisis, Transitions and the Aesth-Etics of Desire. Environmental Values 29 (4):397-416
Flick, U (ed) (2018) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection. London: Sage (see e.g. pp599-614 Henwood, K., Shirani, F. and Groves, C. Using photographs in interviews: When we lack the words to say what practice means, Chapter 38)
Flick, U (ed) (in press) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Design. London: Sage
Groves, C., Henwood, K., Shirani, F., Butler, C., Parkhill, K. and Pidgeon, N. (2016) Invested in unsustainability? On the psychosocial patterning of engagement in practices, Environmental Values, 25 (3) 309-328 DOI: 10.3197/096327116X14598445991466
GROVES, C., SHIRANI, F., PIDGEON, N., CHERRY, C., THOMAS, G., ROBERTS, E., & HENWOOD, K. (2020) ‘The bills are a brick wall’: narratives of energy vulnerability and adaptation in south Wales, UK’. ERSS, 70; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101777
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Randall, R. (2013) Great expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In S. Weintrobe (ed) Engaging with Climate Change. London: Routledge
Roberts, E., Thomas, M., Pidgeon, N., Henwood, K., 2021. Valuing nature for wellbeing: narratives of socio-ecological change in dynamic inter-tidal landscapes, Environmental Values 30(4): 501–523: https://doi.org/10.3197/096327120X15916910310635
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