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Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change

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Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change

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The problem of how to make the transition to a more environmentally and socially sustainable society poses questions about how such far - reaching social change can be brought about. In recent years, lifecourse transitions have been identified by a range of researchers as opportunities for policy and other actors to intervene to change how individuals use energy, taking advantage of such disruptive transitions to encourage individuals to be reflexive towards their lifestyles and how they use the technological infrastructures on which they rely. Such identifications, however, employ narratives of voluntary change which take an overly optimistic change of how individuals experience lifecourse transitions, and ignore effects of experiences of unresolved or unsucc essful transitions. Drawing on narrative interview data from the Energy Biographies project based at Cardiff University, we explore three case studies where effects of such unresolved transitions are significant. Using the concept of liminal transition as developed by Victor Turner, we examine instances where ‘progressive’ master narratives of energy use reduction clash with other ‘narrative genres’ which individuals use to make sense of change, based on experiences of transition. These clashes show how nar ratives which view lifecourse transitions as opportunities ignore the challenges that such transitions may pose to individual identity and thereby to interventions which position individuals as agents responsible for driving change

The problem of how to make the transition to a more environmentally and socially sustainable society poses questions about how such far - reaching social change can be brought about. In recent years, lifecourse transitions have been identified by a range of researchers as opportunities for policy and other actors to intervene to change how individuals use energy, taking advantage of such disruptive transitions to encourage individuals to be reflexive towards their lifestyles and how they use the technological infrastructures on which they rely. Such identifications, however, employ narratives of voluntary change which take an overly optimistic change of how individuals experience lifecourse transitions, and ignore effects of experiences of unresolved or unsucc essful transitions. Drawing on narrative interview data from the Energy Biographies project based at Cardiff University, we explore three case studies where effects of such unresolved transitions are significant. Using the concept of liminal transition as developed by Victor Turner, we examine instances where ‘progressive’ master narratives of energy use reduction clash with other ‘narrative genres’ which individuals use to make sense of change, based on experiences of transition. These clashes show how nar ratives which view lifecourse transitions as opportunities ignore the challenges that such transitions may pose to individual identity and thereby to interventions which position individuals as agents responsible for driving change

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Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change

  1. 1. Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change Christopher Groves (Cardiff), Karen Henwood (Cardiff), Fiona Shirani (Cardiff), Catherine Butler (Exeter), Karen Parkhill (York), Nick Pidgeon (Cardiff) www.energybiographies.org
  2. 2. Energy Biographies project (2011- present) • QLL biographical interviews ▫ Four sites: Cardiff (Ely, Peterston), Lammas, Royal Free Hospital (RFH, London) ▫ 3 longitudinal interviews (original group of 74 in first round narrowed down to 36 for rounds 2 & 3) ▫ 6 months between interviews
  3. 3. Stories of transition • Interviews elicited stories of transition ▫ E.g. house moves, going to university, job change, retirement, taking in elderly relatives… • …and the implications of such changes for how energy use changes in turn • Longitudinal approach tracks changes in practices over time • Explores role of narratives in making sense of change
  4. 4. Research Context • History of energy and behaviour change agendas • Encouraging individual reflexivity towards social practices that consume electricity & gas (heating, lighting, entertainment) ▫ Information ▫ Incentives ▫ Action • Individuals as agents of change: ‘resource men’ (Strengers, 2013) Salford Council campaign (UK, 2013) Vanderbilt University campaign (USA, 2015)
  5. 5. Behaviour change: a dominant policy and research narrative • Instance of shared narrative genre (Mulvey 1987): reflexive progress • Dominant story structure for understanding social change: control over contingency • Identifies particular subjects (consumers, technological experts) as agents of change • Lifecourse transitions as ‘decisive moments’ that offer opportunities to promote change Less ordered state Agency More ordered state Wasteful consumption Technological innovation + individual reflexivity = behaviour change Efficient consumption/lower costs
  6. 6. Transitions as imperilling identity • To what extent do lifecourse transitions present ‘opportunities’? • Narratives of transition are encountered in many forms, not just progressive • Unsuccessful transitions: examples from sociology of health and medicine ▫ Treatment narratives (Frank, 1995) ▫ Unsuccessful IVF (Throsby, 2002) ▫ Experiences of stillbirth (Layne, 2000) • Documenting experiences that fall outside dominant progress storylines that narrate expectations of control over contingency • A different genre: threats to identity
  7. 7. Transitions as liminal • Victor Turner (1974): anthropological investigation of narratives of lifecourse transition: ‘liminal’ vs ‘liminoid’ • Properly liminal transitions: ways of dealing with shared crises of meaning tied to identity-threat, e.g. child-adult, marriage, childbirth, death Preliminal •Starting identity, role Liminal •Symbolic/physical segregation from community Re-integration •Initiation into new identity, role, practices Liminality: ‘traditional’ societies • Characterise ‘traditional’ societies • Control over contingency/ taming future through shared rituals that transition individuals between categories of identity
  8. 8. Preliminal •Starting identity, role Liminal •Reflexive/individualised rituals of change Re-integration •Initiation into new established identity, role, practices Liminoid narratives of transition • ‘Post-traditional’ societies • Individual or collective reflexivity towards tradition/shared ritual ‘Liminoid’ liminality: ‘post-traditional’ societies • Initiation into newly- created identity • Re-integration may involve creating new shared or individual identities • Valorizes individualised control of contingency
  9. 9. Distinct ways of dealing with contingency • Turner’s distinction: two kinds of transition narrative 1. Identification with shared integrative rituals 2. Reflexive construction of individual/shared rituals • Contingency interpreted as: 1. Inescapable, universal yet tameable 2. Singular, masterable/controllable • Recall earlier examples of unsuccessful lifecourse transition narratives and threats to identity • Are liminoid narratives (in which progress and individual agency are valorized) subject to specific vulnerabilities?
  10. 10. Example: ‘Lucy’ (Peterston) • The ‘resource (wo)man’ • The ‘good host’ “I don’t think I really feel guilty I just think I’m aware and it does make me cross when like Sean especially just is deliberately almost you know wasting it […]” “[…] we have a log fire and they’re probably super inefficient aren’t they in heating a room? […] we’ve put massive radiators in our new house cos its really Victorian, tall ceilings, and so we just don’t need a wood burner to be on at any point but actually it’ll sort of make the room […].” “Cos we love being outside, we just love that you can you know go, we were sitting out there one evening … it was like midnight and you could have a drink outside still and it’s so lovely here cos it’s so quiet and everything so but you wouldn’t have been able to do it without that […]. So that’s our kind of, we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it.” ‘I never really wanted to waste money, energy but now I think it’s just, when I got my last energy bill, I couldn't believe it.’
  11. 11. Lucy’s story • Discrepancy between narrative and experience • Lucy’s house move: liminoid transition (better quality of life) • Re-creation of identity: host for friends in rural setting, focus on creating perfect rural home • Conflict between two liminoid narratives Preliminal •Mother •‘Resource woman’ Liminal •Reflexive/ individualised rituals of change •Friendships in question Re-integration •Rural life – welcoming host – ‘making the home’
  12. 12. Lucy’s story • Encounter with contingency in the form of identity conflict • Reflexive liminoid narrative of change (‘better quality of life’) cannot resolve clash between itself and other liminoid narratives ▫ ‘Resource woman’ (rational manager) vs ‘good host’ (caring for attachments) • New practices and ‘rituals’ embody rather than resolve conflict • Lucy manages this conflict in the course of her narrative through disavowal “I never really wanted to waste money, energy but now I think it’s just, when I got my last energy bill, I couldn't believe it” “we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it.”
  13. 13. Implications: contingency and ‘cultural fixes’ • From the data: widespread pattern ▫ framing of change as liminoid/ progressive ▫ In conflict with experiences associated with lifecourse transition that undermine this script • Qualitative longitudinal research suggests lifecourse transitions not unambiguous opportunities to promote further change • Further research agenda : are cultural resources available to enable integration of problematic experiences of contingency? • E.g. ‘Carbon Conversations’ “I argue that in each of the cases described below, a cultural fix is both possible and desirable. Such a fix would involve enriching our discursive repertoire by lifting taboos and expanding the range of acceptable story lines for individual lives. It would also entail creating supportive rituals for these unfortunate events.” Layne, L. L. (2000). "The Cultural Fix: An Anthropological Contribution to Science and Technology Studies." Science, Technology & Human Values 25(4): 492-519.
  14. 14. Energybiographies.org Other team Members: Professor Karen Henwood, Professor Nick Pidgeon & Dr Fiona Shirani (Cardiff), Dr Karen Parkhill (now York) Dr Catherine Butler (now Exeter)

Editor's Notes

  • First to introduce the project – Energy biographies is funded through the RCUK energy programme since 2011. The core of the project are three rounds of qualitative longitudinal interviews, focusing on biographical narratives, undertaken at four sites in West Wales, in Cardiff and in London over the course of 18 months.
  • The focus of these narratives was the connections between lifecourse transitions and energy use. We asked interviewees about different aspects of how significant changes in their lives had affected the ways in which they used energy. The longitudinal aspect of the research allowed comparisons of changes in practices over an extended period to be made. It also brings to the forefront the role of stories in making sense of change, and in creating or closing off opportunities for further change.
  • The wider context for this research involves the dominant policy agendas for energy demand reduction. Much of this in recent decades has been focused on individual behaviour change, trying to encourage individuals and families to use less energy by highlighting incentives. This is intended to make people reflexive towards their own practices, to rationally assess their efficiency, and to take action based on information about the costs of current energy consumption. The implicit rationality underlying this approach has been described by Yolande Strengers as the assumption that energy consumers should be resource men (or women), careful managers of their own energy consumption and critics of their own practices.
  • This policy agenda is itself a narrative, an account of how change happens. As such, it’s an instance of particular kind of narrative genres, one of progressive change. Stories of this genre, which it’s been argued are prevalent within cultural modernity, depict contingency and disorder as subjected to incrementally increasing control, taking things from a less to a more ordered state. The temporal sequence implicit in such stories moves from reflexive critique of the status quo or tradition to improvement – in the case of energy, progress to lower energy consumption, decarbonisation of energy production and so forth. All narratives identifiy particular kinds of subjects as their protagonists – in energy demand policy, these protagonists are active agents of progressive change – rational consumers, technological experts who can, with smart meters and other innovations, encourage the progressive change of behaviour. Within such narratives in the energy field, lifecourse transitions have been positioned as particularly significant, as potentially decisive moments in which the practices in which people engage can be reshaped by policy interventions.
  • Research in socilogy and anthropoogy of narrative suggests reasons to be circumspect, however, about just how far such lifecourse transitions do represent opportunities for change. Narratives of change are encountered in a multiplicity of forms,not just progressive. For example, sociology of health and illness documents how narratives used by medical professionals to structure their interactions with patients, which are progressive accounts of successful transitions (back to health, IVF, healthy birth) mean that it is hard for professionals or their patients to make sense of experiences which diverge from this dominant genre or plotline. Stillbirth, failed IVF and other examples show how experience may besubject to contingency that such narratives cannot make sense of. Through such experiences, research suggests, individuals find themselves to be not the active subjects of change progressive narratives anticipate – as a result, they may find their identities under threat and disrupted.

  • In our study, we’ve explored this theme of identity threat in relation to those dominant narratives of behaviour change I mentioned. Let’s explore this idea of identity threat a bit further. The influential anthropological treatment of lifecourse transitions provided by Victor Turner proposes that these are inherently liminal situations, situations in which individuals pass between socially-recognised identities. He distinguishes two modes of liminality, the first of which is liminality proper, the second liminoid. Particularly characteristic of so-called traditional societies, properly liminal transitions involve narratives and practices which are designed to resolve shared crises of meaning precipitated by identity transitions (likek marriage and chidlbirth, for example, which create microsocieties within a society that have to be integrated into the whole). Shared rituals here move individuals from a pre-liminal phase through a phase of separation and identity ambiguity into a phase of re-integration and initiation into a new identity,social role and the practices associated with it,
  • Liminoid narratives of transition, by contrast, emphasise not the shared nature of threats to identity, but their singular character, their position within an individual’s own unique life narrative. Turner found examples of these within post-traditional societies, where they involve reflexivity towards shared rituals and even towards shared categories of identity. New forms of identity can be created by marginalised groups, rituals of transition (such as marriages, naming ceremonies and funerals ) subjected to change and individual creativity – so either the rituals through which reintegration into an accpeted social identity are changed, or new identities and associated rituals are created. Liminoid transitions affirm the need for reintegration, but they typically involve subjecting contingency to increasingly individualised control – emphasising individual agency and progressive change.
  • So the distinction between the two kinds of transition narrative Turner analyzes can be summed up vey briefly as follows: properly liminal narratives see the individual biography as an instance of a generic narrative in which examples of shared crises of meaning, identified with lifecourse transitions, can be anticipated. Dealing with such crises involves taming uncertainty with the aid of shared rituals that form links in a story that describes the reintegration of the individual into society within a new identity. Liminoid narratives invite reflexivity towards established identities and shared rituals; they position individuals as agents of change with the power and responsibility to shape their own responses to lifecourse transitions. This allows us to think again about the extent to which lifecourse transitions are opportunities to promote change: in the earlier examples of unsuccessful transition narratives I mentioned, individuals experience threats to identity that arise from their inability to achieve a new identity that fits with the expectations created by what we can now call liminoid, progressive, individualised narratives of change. Does this mean that liminoid narratives arevulnerable to contingency in specific ways?
  • An example from our research of how Turner’s categories of narrative have informed our analysis of lifecourse transitions as opportunities for changing how energy is used. Lucy moved with her partner and two children to to Peterston near Cardiff, an affluent commuter village, from London, havingi given up her job in a financial consultancy to look after the kids. This was a liminoid, progressive transition in an important sense. She narrated the house move as an attempt to secure a better quality of life in a rural setting for her family. As part of this better quality of life, however, she and her partner saw maintaining old friendships from London as essential – hosting visiting friends occupied most weekends. To be good hosts meant keeping the house warm, cooking large meals – but also achieving a certain kind of rural homeliness – with inefficient log fires and patio heaters to create a sense of homeliness and also to enable friends to enjoy the country setting even in cold S Wales weather. This attempt to be the good host created conflicts for Lucy with her desire to be one of Strenger’s resource women: she identified strongly with the dominant narratives of energy demand policy I mentioned at the outset – wanting to find out as much info as possible to help her reduce energy costs, she nevertheless found bills in her new house creeping ever upward.
  • Here we have another example of a mismatch between progressive narratives and experience. Lucy wants to be more energy efficient as per the dominant narratives of energy demand reduction, but also strives to manage disruptive lifecourse change through the liminoid creation of a new identity – the good host to old friends in a new rural setting. The result is a clash between two liminoid narratives – the story of the resource woman and the story of achieving rural homeliness. The latter is Lucy’sown reflexive, liminoid attempt to create an identity that integrates her with her new setting by maintaining relationships with friends. But it clashes with the other liminoid narrative of reducing energy use and the identity of the resource woman.
  • The practices and rituals (like heating the patio or using log fires) that establish this new identity do not help to resolve the conflict – instead they embody it. In the course of her interviews, Lucy tries to manage this conflict in various ways – but ultimately, she can only disavow it by stating that the practices which give rise to the conflict (like using the patio heater) are ones that they will continue with no matter what. Wasteful practices thus remain impervious to change.
  • Similar instances of conflict can be found across our dataset, in which people deal with clashes between distinct liminoid narratives of identity creation in different ways. What they suggest is that people often identify as the kinds of individual agents of change we encounter within dominant, progressive narratives of behaviour change around energy. But that at the same time, they rely on other liminoid narratives to make sense of lifecourse transitions which may clash with this dominant genre of narratives. Their contingent commitment to different identities is hard to make sense of within the framework of any given liminoid narrative of transition. As a result, and as Lucy’s story underlines, lifecourse transitions cannot be treated as being straightforwrd opportunities for promoting change. The meaning of these transitions for the individuals undergoing them involves complexities which may undermine this expectation. A key question here for further reseatch has already been identified in the literature I discussed earlier – if there are such contingent clashes between identities, can they be resolved by moving the focus away from the individual’s responsibility for change? Linda Layne discusses, in the context of mothers’ experiences of stillbirth, the creation of a ‘cultural fix in the shape of new shared narratives of change (in the context of new communities like support groups) that help make sense of contingency as an inevitable part of human experience? In relation to energy use, the Carbon Conversatiosn initiative, which aims to may be a promising example of such an approach to changing practices through narrative creation.
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