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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

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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)
  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. Other team Members: Professor Karen Henwood, Professor Nick Pidgeon & Dr Fiona Shirani (Cardiff), Dr Karen Parkhill (now York) Dr Catherine Butler (now Exeter)