1. Semiotiikan X Oscarin päivän seminaari
Electricity Supply Risks in a Socio-Semiotic
Department of Sociology, University of Helsinki
2. The structure of the presentation
About the PhD project
3. The PhD is part of the Managing Insecurity
research project (2009-2011)
The main objective of the project is to examine the role of
risk technologies in the management of insecurities, and
in the production of welfare in the Nordic context,
especially in Finland.
The empirical subprojects focus on four different fields
where risk techniques are applied: life insurance and
insurance medicine, the management of private
economies through insurance, the production of solidarity
with private and social insurance, and the management
of electricity supply.
4. Previous research: control room
Interviews and observations that are focused on control
rooms of various infrastructure companies, for example:
California’s electricity system operator CAISO (Schulman
et al 2004; Schulman & Roe 2008; de Bruijne 2006).
The Dutch landline and mobile telecommunications
company KPN Mobile (de Bruijne 2006) .
The passenger railway company Dutch Railways
The Dutch rail infrastructure manager ProRail (ibid).
5. Control room ethnographies
The studies claim that operator skills, experience and
knowledge are central for the real-time balancing between
careful anticipation of uncertainties and improvisation in
the face of “turbulent inputs” (Schulman & Roe 2008, 64).
Operators (e.g. controllers, dispatchers, technical
supervisors, department heads) as reliability professionals.
Furthermore, also particularly interest on the inter-
organizational aspects of control rooms.
Links and feedback through telephones, pagers, computers,
communication systems, real-time measurements etc.
(Schulman et al 2004, 16; de Bruijne 2006, 89.)
6. Control room ethnographies
The deregulation, oversight, liberalization and
privatization of infrastructure services -> the fragmentation
of infrastructure organizations and institutions.
Hence an increasingly central aspect of infrastructures’
reliability: the skills, experience and knowledge of the
control room operators.
7. Research design
Main question: how is reliable electricity provision
accomplished during day-to-day work in Finnish electricity
No society-wide or culture-wide theoretical/sociological
presuppositions of ”risk” or ”security”
8. Research design
For data gathering, interviewing at the control rooms.
Conduct interviews at the control rooms where work is going
Start with very general questions, then move on to detailed
questions and ’probes’ (comments, repetition of the replies,
request for clarifications, summaries) (Gobo 2008, ch. 11.)
9. Descriptions from a research site of one
The control rooms of this electricity distribution company
are responsible for:
1. Maintaining key voltages.
2. Maintaining electricity frequency.
3. Balancing energy load and generation.
4. Observing load limits (e.g. power line temperature).
5. Buying and selling both energy and fuel (e.g. gas, turf).
6. Planning energy load and generation for the subsequent
7. Answering customer phone calls (outside office hours). (cf.
Schulman & Roe 2008, 27-30.)
Also subject to regulatory oversight
10. Descriptions from a research site of one
The energy market control room
Brokering energy on the Nordic common energy markets.
Brokering fuel for power plants (e.g. gas, turf).
Balancing energy consumption with generation.
2 operators at a time, 7 operators all together. 24/7 work in
three shifts (morning, day, night)
The electricity distribution control room
Switching the electricity distribution grid
Responding to alarms
Coordinating with remote maintenance teams
Answering the customer fault phone line
1 operator at a time, 5 operators all together. 24/7 work in
three shifts (morning, day, night)
12. What happens in exceptional situations?
Operator (Mm1): There is nothing else to it. District
heating has so many additional heat plants. The only thing
is that money gets burned.
Interviewer: So it is just costs then?
Operator (Mm1): Yes, there is not, THERE IS NO
SECURITY RISK. Except if a boiler explodes, then for the
boiler men. But there is nothing else. If some plant is
dropped out of production, one scrapes together the
energy and heat from elsewhere.
13. On-the-spot improvisations
Interviewer: Is this work routine-like or does it change
Operator (Mm2): Yes, I mean it changes in principle. Or it
is kind of similar, but every moment this is such guess-
work. There is no such moment where you could throw
your feet to the table, moments when the shift would go
through without any disturbances. There is never such a
moment that is hundred percent sure, that you could say
what is the temperature for instance and it depends on
that so fully.
14. Adapting to varying circumstances
Interviewer: Earlier you mentioned that all the work is
mutually agreed and standardized, then how much is this
regulated by such standards, different standards and
Operator (Dm4): In principle electricity work is usually
highly standardized. If everyone follows the standard, then
it is highly kind of structured. There is the problem,
however, that when you go to the work destination, the
destination might be highly varying. And then comes your
own adaptation of how you want to do it.
15. The physical well-being of people
According to Operator (Bm1), the work is “about the physical
well-being of people”.
But Operator (Dm3): “The customers have become more and
Operator (Dm1): “It is this cell-phone age that has done this.”
Operator (Dm1): “Of course it is always a problem that if those
calls start to come and you are alone and you have to try to
answer all of them. And if someone wants to report that I have
trimmed the tree line here, during a twenty [kilovolts] fault. And
he does not get through necessarily because there is so much
[calls]. And for some [callers] the information about fault is also
16. Applying the actant model
A.J. Greimas (1980/1966) sought to build a general theory
According to the so-called actant model, all narratives can
be modeled as the struggles of six actants: subject,
object, helper, opponent, sender, receiver.
The actant model aims to be both as simple and as
general “structuring hypothesis” as possible
17. Applying the actant model
A motivation for the actant model comes from the various
qualities of actants: persons, computers, profit, city parts,
the weather, “the people”, etc (cf. Science and
Technology Studies) (see Silvast 2009).
With actant model (and socio-semiotics more generally),
the relationship between “ideology” and “discourse” is not
'fixed' beforehands (c.f. Critical Discourse Analysis, see
18. Actant model I: achieving reliable supply
Sender/receiver: the physical well-being of customers
Subject: control room operator
Object: reliable electricity supply
Helpers: planning, real-time adjustments, local know-how
Opponent: surprising events
19. Actant model II: the demanding customer
Sender: the turbulent technology and environment
Receiver: the customer
Subject: the customer
Object: managing events
Helpers: practical coping
Opponent: “more and more customer demands”, cell
phones, customer’s sensitive computers
20. Thank you!
For correspondence, please contact:
University of Helsinki, Department of Sociology
Vuorikatu 6 (PO BOX 4), 00014 University of Helsinki
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