Christopher Groves, Karen Henwood, Catherine
Butler, Karen Parkhill, Nick Pidgeon and Fiona Shirani
Energy Biographies Project
School of Social Sciences
Cardiff University, UK
• Demand reduction as key
plank of policy around
• Smartness seen as defining
central trajectory of
• Based on particular
subjectivity: social change
driven by individual
• An increase in rationality:
‘resource men’ (Strengers)
• Do imaginaries of smartness embody viable &
• Technological-behavioural solutions are
problematic – practices condition/become
entangled with subjectivity (e.g. freezers and
• Critique of imaginaries key to answering questions
of viability & desirability
• Embodies a responsible research and innovation
• RRI means reflecting, not on costs vs benefits of
transitions, but the social constitutions3 & ‘worlds’4
implied by socio-technical options
1. Shove, E. and D. Southerton (2000). "Defrosting the Freezer: From Novelty to Convenience: A Narrative of Normalization." Journal of Material Culture 5(3): 301-319.
2. Ozaki, R. and I. Shaw (2014). "Entangled Practices: Governance, Sustainable Technologies, and Energy Consumption." Sociology 48(3): 590-605.
3. Kearnes, M., et al. (2006). "From Bio to Nano: Learning Lessons from the UK Agricultural Biotechnology Controversy." Science as Culture 15(4): 291-307.
4. Macnaghten, P. and B. Szerszynski (2013). "Living the global social experiment: An analysis of public discourse on solar radiation management and its implications for
governance." Global Environmental Change 23(2): 465-474.
• RRI approaches tend to emphasise processes of discursive
deliberation – Habermasian technological democracy
• But participatory assessment of viability/desirability requires
approaches that explore lived engagements with technologies1
• Reflexivity towards phenomena not just cognitive; also rooted in
affective, embodied subjectivity2
• Ethnographic work on ‘smartness’ explores practical entanglements in
• Energy Biographies adds to this a narrative, biographical approach
which explores the role of engagement with technology in shaping
1. Mol, A. (2008). The logic of care. London. New York, Routledge.
2. Lash, S. and J. Urry (1994). Economies of Signs and Space. London, Sage.
3. Strengers, Y. (2013). Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life: Smart Utopia? London, Palgrave Macmillan.
4. Groves, C., et al. (2015). "Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change." Science, Technology & Human Values. DOI: 10.1177/0162243915609116
5. Groves, C., et al. (2015). "Invested in unsustainability? On the psychosocial patterning of engagement in practices." Environmental Values 24(6).
• QL biographical
▫ Four UK sites: Ely,
Lammas (west Wales),
Royal Free Hospital [RFH]
▫ 3 longitudinal interviews
(N=74 in first round, N=36
for rounds 2 & 3)
▫ 6 months between
• 2nd and 3rd round interviews
▫ Photographing everyday
energy use with smartphone
▫ Using two films to explore
socio-technical imaginaries of
Monsanto’s ‘House of the
UK Channel 4 ‘Home of the
• Our analysis of data shows how
energy use is bound up with
attachment, identity and agency1,2
• Practices not just instrumental,
but also constitutive of a sense of
• Biographical experiences of how
energy is used shape reflection on
future imaginaries and the socio-
technical worlds contained within
1. Groves, C., et al. (2015). "Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change."
Science, Technology & Human Values. DOI: 10.1177/0162243915609116
2. Groves, C., et al. (2015). "Invested in unsustainability? On the psychosocial patterning of engagement in
practices." Environmental Values 24(6).
“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
Interviewee ‘Lucy’ (Peterston), on her family’s
• Older interviewees: remember
liberating, life-enhancing socio-
• But convenience has also become an
• Biographical narratives of a thinned1
lifeworld in which attention is
• Films seen as representing/affirming
1. Casey, E. S. (2001). "Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does It Mean to Be in the
Place-World?" Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91(4): 683-693.
2. Stiegler, B. (2010). Taking care of youth and the generations. Stanford, CA, Stanford
It’s the best thing in the world that
happened to me, was going from coal
that we had over in Hywel Dda there.
But when I first moved from Cambria
Road to Heol Deva that was a house of,
it was unbelievable, we had central
heating and I was only 10, in all the
rooms, a steel house, wonderful,
(Jeffrey, 60s, Ely)
‘[…]yeah, everything is really easy and
convenient I mean you want the TV on
you hit a button and it’s on and you’ve got
like 500 channels at your fingertips
should you want to watch them and then
you’ve got all your music players and
you’ve got not just one but maybe one in
each room […] and then you’ve got,
you’ve got Wi-Fi and internet and stuff ‘
• Biographical narratives of embodied
engagement in embodied practices
involving ‘focal objects’1
• Associated with valued forms of relational
• ‘Friction’ as individuating3
“Yeah but I don’t like that. I look
back and I think actually I see for
me how I had no connection with it
[central heating], no connection you
know, whereas when the wood’s
there and you see the fire going you
think maybe I’ll just turn the fire
down cos the pile of wood is
“I think we were saying about the log fire,
it’s rewarding when you sit back and see
the log fire whereas if you just flick a
switch and it’s there it’s not as rewarding
so who knows you know on how it effects
our happiness in the long run things like
that, don’t know.”
“Yeah well that’s, my partner says I’m
obsessed with it because I’m always
off up the woods looking for wood
and things like that, ‘I’m going to
light it tonight’, ‘oh no you’re not are
1. Borgmann, A. (1993). Crossing the Postmodern Divide. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
2. Groenhout, R. E. (2004). Connected Lives: Human Nature and an Ethics of Care. Lanham, MD,
Rowman & Littlefield.
3. Stiegler, B. (2010). Taking care of youth and the generations. Stanford, CA, Stanford University
• Reflecting on valued forms of
agency and links to
values like comfort and
• In some cases, leads to a re-
imagining of the meaning of these
1. Vannini, P. and J. Taggart (2014). Off the Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life. London, Routledge.
• Participants reflected critically
on the films’ imaginaries of
• Key themes: imposition of
fragility and erosion of agency
“I had no connection with it
[central heating], no connection
you know, whereas when the
wood’s there and you see the fire
going you think maybe I’ll just
turn the fire down cos the pile of
wood is shrinking.”
“[talking about Ch4 film] all the gadgets I mean
that was you know similar to the bloody
[Monsanto] house you know you’re hungry and
the electricity is down and you can’t, you know
you can’t have a shower because you can’t turn on
the tap (Vanessa, Lammas)”
“I still think it sort of dumbs us down as a kind
of society and replaces our you know ingenuity
and our thinking, free thinking with controlled
you know thinking and you know
computerisation of everything”
• This reflexivity is aesthetic, embodied, relational
• Indicates value of multimodal-narrative-
biographical approach for RRI
• This elicits biographical reflections on
embodied engagements with technologies,
productive for critical examination of
• Opens paths for extending deliberative
approaches beyond ‘Habermasian technological
Other team Members:
Professor Karen Henwood, Professor Nick Pidgeon
& Dr Fiona Shirani (Cardiff),
Dr Karen Parkhill (now York)
Dr Catherine Butler (now Exeter)
Reducing energy demand or enhancing efficiency of how energy is used in homes and workplaces is generally seen as an essential part of any shift towards a more sustainable society. Ways of designing interventions typically involve mapping behaviour and the motivations which shape it. Adding smartness into the system is seen as one way of supporting behaviour change through technical innovation. Smart meters of various kinds have been seen as providing information to consumers which will help them reflexively assess and optimise how they use energy.
Assessing the viability of such technical interventions has been a central part of STS research on the ‘entanglements’ (Ozaki and Shaw 2014) of practices, technologies and values. More broadly, the questioning of how far imaginaries of smartness represent desirable futures has been part of recent STS research on energy demand (Strengers 2013). This direction of research reflects a responsible research and innovation approach to technology assessment, in which it is not the risks and benefits of a given technology in itself that are of sole interest. Instead, what is opened up for reflection are the social priorities embedded in a particular intervention or proposal, and as Macnaghten and Szerszynski (2013), the worlds of practices implicated in the constitution and reproduction of technological imaginaries. For example, the worlds of nuclear power and decentralised renewables could not be more different (Bookchin 1980).
Investigating viability and desirability of future imaginaries requires a methodology that can investigate these worlds, the lived reality of technologies: practices, social structures, modes of living, forms of subjectivity associated with technologies. Typically, RRI-style approaches focus on democracy and deliberation, seeking to create discursive technological citizens through the promotion of public dialogue (Delgado, Lein Kjølberg et al. 2011). But subjects are not just discursive subjects, but also affective, embodied ones (Gabrielson and Parady 2010). If future worlds will, just like present ones, be entanglements of practices, subjectivities and technologies, how can engagement methodologies reflect this?
There needs to be a rapprochement between lived experience and future imaginaries here, using one as the basis for introducing reflexivity about the other. Today I want to offer a reading of data from narrative, biographical interviews about changing energy use across the lifecourse taken from the Energy Biographies (EBs) project at Cardiff University as a way of thinking about how to leverage embodied, affective, lived subjectivity in the assessment of the ‘worlds’ of future imaginaries, focusing on the ‘smart’ imaginary addressed by Strengers.
Methodology: EBs used a series of three longitudinal narrative interviews with participants from four sites in the UK - one affluent rural (Peterston) and one deprived urban (Ely) in and around Cardiff in Wales, one self-build eco-village (Lammas, West Wales) and one urban workplace (Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead in London). First round interviews were done with 74 people, and subsequent interviews with a subsample of 36 people.
Participants in these latter rounds were asked to take photographs with a smartphone detailing everyday energy use, and then in the final interview, presented with two short films presenting future imaginaries of energy use (the Monsanto House of the Future from the 1950s, and the UK Ch4) before being invited to discuss energy implications of these alternative futures. This paper today focuses on these these third interviews.
Our data demonstrates how the ways in which energy is used matter to people, in the sense of being of material concern and as contributing meaning to the world (Sayer 2011). Energy use is woven with attachment and identity, in the shape of particular devices like patio heaters and wood fires which sustain particular identities (Groves, Henwood et al. 2015), and our focus on how lifecourse transitions and energy use interact reveals how attachment to practices can help people deal with difficult transitions (with significant implications for how energy is used) (Groves, Henwood et al. 2015). However, there are also connections between biographical memories of how energy is used, and the meaning and value of specific practices to which one is attached and the views taken of future imaginaries in the third interviews.
Interviewees’ reflections on memories of how energy use has changed in their lives contain narratives of transitions which link biographical experiences to wider socio-technical change. In particular, many older interviewees across the four sites remember the advent of central heating and other changes after WWII, which they view as liberating people from onerous toil (such as shovelling coal, ‘wash day’ and so on). These narratives parallel the rise of convenience narratives provided by Shove (Shove 2003) and Shove and Southerton’s (2000)analyses of the evolution of convenience. And like these academic analyses, they often move from the emergence of convenience as a means to an end (making it easier for end-users to access the service provided by a technology) to its evolution into an end in itself. Respondents echo themes in Casey’s (2001) analysis of convenience. The ‘world’ of convenience appears as a thinned lifeworld, one in which what Stiegler calls ‘attention’, and the experiences of ‘individuation’ it brings are eroded. When the ways in which we use energy are reduced to flicking switches on or off, the possibility of such experiences is undermined.
Other forms of engagement with technologies were evident from biographical narratives. In these kinds of experiences (tending a woodburner, cooking, gardening […]), a ‘thicker’ form of engagement, requiring attentive care over time for some cared-for other was in evidence. Such analyses echo established themes in feminist ethics about care as practice (Ruddick 1989) and as mode of embodied connection (Groenhout 2004), STS work on care and its characteristic temporality (Mol 2008), and Borgmann’s (Borgmann 1993) analysis of ‘focal objects’, which not only require imaginative, emotional and physical engagement, but also ‘gather’ sets of practices around them (as in the case of the hearth). Against the increasingly (designed to be) ‘frictionless’ (Ellul 1964) world of convenience, such experiences are characterised by a form of physical, imaginative and emotional friction which (in Stiegler’s terms) is productive and individuating. Respondents tended to position such ‘thickened’ forms of engagement as constitutive of valued forms of practical subjectivity.
In biographically-focused reflections more focal, engaged ways of using energy, interviewees often (and particularly in the case of interviewees from the ecovillage, Lammas) actively remodelled values like convenience, comfort and controllability – viewing woodburners as both more convenient and controllable than central heating, thanks to the localised nature of the infrastructure (woodland) needed by them. In reflections on the films, and on the imaginaries of smartness and increased convenience, interviewees from across the four sites found implied within them fragility and a lack of agency – the worlds of smartness, the lifeworld of everyday practice onto which biographical reflections shed light, are seen as unattractive, problematic.
I still think it sort of dumbs us down as a kind of society and replaces our you know ingenuity and our thinking, free thinking with controlled you know thinking and you know computerisation of everything (Dennis, RFH)