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Living the "Good Life"?: energy biographies, identities and competing normative frameworks

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This paper examines how the ways in which consumers use energy are shaped, not only by practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012), but by biographically attachments to ways of life which relate to place and identity. Understanding how practices which require the consumption of energy may be transformed is vital for any transition towards socio-environmental sustainability. However, theorising and explaining the role of individual agency in practice change continues to present challenges. In this paper we address this issue by employing concepts of complex subjectivity to analyse some psychosocial dimensions of energy consumption. In particular, we focus on how a narrative interview-based and multimodal approach to understanding practice can render visible conflicts between different definitions of ‘need’ or the purpose of practices, which often develop into different (and sometimes incommensurable) forms of normative justification for engaging in different practices. Drawing on interviews conducted as part of the Energy Biographies project at Cardiff University, we show that engaging in practices is bound up with particular attachments that are seen by interviewees as constitutive of identity and of visions of ‘the good life’ or particular ways of determining what is ‘right’ in a given situation. Lifecourse transitions may produce conflicts between such normative frameworks which can create obstacles to the transformation of practices that are unaccounted for by practice theory.

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Living the "Good Life"?: energy biographies, identities and competing normative frameworks

  1. 1. Christopher Groves, Karen Henwood, Catherine Butler, Karen Parkhill, Nick Pidgeon and Fiona Shirani Energy Biographies Project (http://energybiographies.org) School of Social Sciences Cardiff University http://cardiff.academia.edu/ChristopherGroves
  2. 2. • QLL biographical interviews ▫ Four sites: Ely, Peterston (Cardiff), Lammas (west Wales), Royal Free Hospital (London) ▫ 3 longitudinal interviews (original group of 74 in first round narrowed down to 36 for rounds 2 & 3) ▫ Multimedia component ▫ 6 months between interviews
  3. 3. • Emphasis on interviews on exploring how changes in practices are connected to lifecourse transitions • Analysis examines individual biographies as accounts of how and why practices matter • Exploring identity as bound up with how and why energy is used
  4. 4. • Energy demand reduction policy: focus on individual behaviour change • Treats subjects as ‘resource men’1 1. Strengers, Y. (2013). Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life: Smart Utopia? London, Palgrave Macmillan. 2. Shove, E., et al. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes. London, SAGE Publications. Practice Compe -tences MaterialsShared meanings Vanderbilt University campaign (USA, 2015) • Individuals not ‘hyper- rational’ choosers – instead, agency is multiply conditioned • Practice theory locates shared practices as conditions of agency and of beliefs/values2
  5. 5. • Intentional social change (e.g. altering how we use energy) is not ‘behaviour change’ • Instead, requires redesign of elements of interconnected practices – materials, meanings, competences • But individuals still ‘carriers’ of practices • What ‘recruits’ individuals to practices or makes them ‘defect’?
  6. 6. • Shove et al1 employ concept taken from Alasdair MacIntyre to explain defection/recruitment • Non-instrumental value of practices: exercising competence in a practice is end-in-itself (‘internal reward’) • Practices that have significant intrinsic value recruit, others don’t (explains difference between fads and stable practices) ‘In brief, the idea is that performing a practice well, that is in terms of standards that are part and parcel of the definition of a practice itself, is of immediate, internal reward’ p. 75 1. Shove, E., Pantzar, M. & Watson, M. (2012) The dynamics of social practice, London: Sage
  7. 7. • Links between practices and identity • John O’Neill:1 the constitutive value of practices • Practices as constitutive of individual identities • Play a role in narratives about how a life is going • Another internal reward of practices: ingredient of valued identity “Human beings like other entities have goods constitutive of their flourishing and correspondingly other goods instrumental to that flourishing […] Friendship in turn is constitutive of a flourishing life. Given the kind of beings we are, to lack friends is to lack part of what makes for a flourishing human existence” pp. 23-4 1. John O’Neill (1993), Ecology, policy and politics London: Routledge
  8. 8. • Beyond carriers of practice to complex, evaluative subjects • Identities as relational identities that matter1 • Shaped by attachments that matter (to people, practices, places, objects, ideals…) • What happens to my attachments affects how I take my life to be going • Attachments and commitments anchor normative perspectives on ‘how the world should be’ “Commitments come to constitute our character, identity and conception of ourselves, such that if we are prevented from pursuing them, then we suffer something akin to bereavement, for we lose not merely something external, but part of ourselves” p. 125 1. Sayer, A. (2012) Why Things Matter to People, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  9. 9. • If attachments ‘secure’ identity, they do so in, biographically- specific ways • Attachments secure identity but also make us vulnerable to new uncertainties • We therefore evolve distinct styles of being-attached1, e.g. ▫ Defensive/distancing ▫ Solidaristic ▫ Withdrawing • The specific internal rewards we get from practices are rooted in our biographies and in our style(s) of being- attached 1. Marris, P. (1996) The Politics of Uncertainty, London: Routledge
  10. 10. • 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. The ‘resource woman’ The ‘good host’ • Attachment to an ideal of efficient management of the household • Systematic, reflexive rationality towards practices (e.g. A+ appliances, lighting) • Makes clear normative distinction between wasteful and essential energy use • Understands distinctions between specific practices in these terms • Keen to maintain attachments to friends • These commitments under stress thanks to house move • Builds attachments to practices, objects (burning wood on the fire, patio heater) as connected with aesthetic/ethical ideal of homeliness
  12. 12. The ‘resource (wo)man’ The good host • Language of costs vs benefits • Measurable, quantifiable, commensurable outcomes • Trade-offs possible (e.g. short- term cost of appliance vs long- term savings) • Homeliness, hospitality, friendship: constitutive elements of a worthwhile life • Realising these ideals requires specific practices • More than a clash of values (e.g. luxury vs efficiency) • Instead, a conflict between identities, and indeed, between competing normative frameworks (‘how things should be’)
  13. 13. • Recruitment to practices (including unsustainable ones) shaped by their affective internal rewards, e.g. ▫ the individual, biographical contribution of practices to identity (e.g. Lucy’s adoption of ‘homely’ practices because of attachment to friends and rural home aesthetic) ▫ how practices help tame the uncertainty associated with some lifecourse transitions • Relationship between identity and practices therefore has affective dimension that can be obstructive or assistive to change • Affective dimension not necessarily purely individual (e.g. ‘structures of feeling’1) 1. Hoggett, P. & Thompson, S. (2012) ‘Introduction’ in Politics and the Emotions, London: Continuum
  14. 14. http://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)

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