Last week we were hosting the annual British Sociological Association conference here at Leeds University. Running under the slogan “Changing Society”, the event attracted a wide range of academics presenting the latest theoretical advances and empirical research in their respective fields. A high volume of papers (together making for a 300-page conference program) on different topics was organized thematically into separate sessions and streams out of which I chose to attend the “Risk, Globalisation, Climate Change and Beyond”. It comprised of four papers addressing individuals’ engagement in and enactment of sustainability practices – all were of different degrees of relevance to my own project but shared a focus on the social practice theory the usefulness and application of which to consumer research I have recently started to explore. The session provided me with a wealth of exciting information on both theoretical and empirical levels. Next week I will engage in a discussion on theoretical developments currently informing sustainable consumption research with a specific focus on the social practice theory. Today, however, I’d like to concentrate on the empirical findings which reflect the current state of research on green behaviour. Two papers presented in the session were particularly useful for this.
The first paper, entitled “Developing a Framework for the Analysis of Energy Intensive Domestic Social Practices”, has come out of a recently set up four year long research project looking at domestic energy use practices. The primary goal of the study is to provide a better understanding of household energy consumption and develop better models of energy demand and use in order to inform relevant policies and programs. The project heavily relies on qualitative social research – interviewing people, visiting their houses, observing their daily routines is deemed to be key to revealing the nature and dynamics of energy consumption at home. By talking to people and walking around their houses, researchers unveiled five key energy demanding domestic practices – heating, food preparation, laundry, visual entertainment, and electronic communication. The application of the social practice theory, which I will discuss in details in my next post, allowed highlighting the interconnectedness and co-evolutionary character of these practices. Thus, food preparation proved to be linked with visual entertainment – one of the study’s participant mentioned having developed a habit of watching cooking programs on TV while cooking his own meals, and, indeed, having an extra TV set in the kitchen is increasingly common. Another practice to which cooking is progressively linked is electronic communication – online cooking websites are rapidly replacing more traditional sources of recipes and cooking ideas. Another avenue of co-evolution has been revealed by a research participant who described her use of heaters for laundry drying. By focusing on the dynamics of domestic practices, researchers hope to better understand the life rhythms of households which is crucial to achieving positive changes in people’s behavior. While energy use is not quite in the focus of my project, the issue of interdependence of different ethical actions and choices has been already raised by some of my participants – the more interested I am in what this project will yet come up with.
The other paper I’d like to talk about has emerged out of the ongoing Energy Biographies research project focusing on energy use as part of everyday life. By means of biographical interviews conducted with people from three different sites and settings across the UK – a hospital in London, a community in Cardiff and an eco-village in Wales – researchers seek to explore the relationships between reflexive awareness and actual practices, reveal the kinds of knowledge and competencies that are key to the enactment of sustainable lifestyles, and elicit people’s understandings of sustainability as well as different meanings they ascribe to it. The key findings that came to the fore so far reveal persistent consumer confusion over environmental implications of various domestic practices. Is dishwashing or washing up more environmentally friendly? Is keeping heating on all day at a lower temperature less energy-demanding than putting it on high for a short time? What goes into which recycling bin? Those puzzling questions were common among the study participants highlighting how lack of definite knowledge and conclusive evidence about environmental costs of various practices makes people stick to their default choices locking them in environmental inaction. Consumer uncertainty is not the only factor at play – as the study revealed, due to temporal and spatial remoteness people lack moral connection to environmental consequences of their actions which is another barrier to sustainability practices. As one of participants mentioned, the prospects of global warming are much easier to put up with than someone freezing in an unheated house in your own neighborhood.
I’ll leave it to the readers to reflect on what these findings may mean and how they connect with our own day-to-day life practices and experiences. The implications of the study’s results for the energy consumption reduction strategy are yet to be explored, but the project is an illustrative example of how qualitative social research can help inform important policy interventions in some of the most challenging spheres of life.
Butler, C., Shirani, F., Parkhill, K., Groves, C., Pidgeon, N., Henwood, K. (2014). How to be Good? Exploring Knowledge and Competences for Sustainable Living, British Sociological Association Conference 2014, University of Leeds, Leeds, 23-25 April.
Roberts, T. (2014). Developing a Framework for the Analysis of Energy Intensive Domestic Social Practices, British Sociological Association Conference 2014, University of Leeds, Leeds, 23-25 April.