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Behave: reflections

by on October 14, 2014

At the beginning of last month I presented at the Behave 2014 conference: ‘Paradigm Shift: From Energy Efficiency to Energy Reduction through Social Change’ At it, I presented our emerging results on the prosumption work. But I don’t really want to reflect on that presentation, rather on how we conceptualise energy demand, and specifically my own experiences of doing this. Such reflection has also been fueled by ongoing discussions with my PhD students and conversations with researchers in the policy and practice communities who are likewise struggling to get some grasp on the ever-changing theoretical fetishization of human action.
All of my research to date could be understood as being concerned with everyday domestic activities and the relationship between these and environmental impacts. When I started my PhD, I was seduced by what I call ‘behavioural approaches’ – those which largely belong to the psychological and economic traditions. Towards the end of this work, I became involved Elizabeth Shove’s ‘Social Change Climate Party’ a group of PhD researchers who were all working on topics of consumption, theories of practice and environmental change and often exploring innovative methodologies. (read more about our activities here: My experiences in this SCCP challenged my understanding of human action, and I have watched, over the past few years, this tension between behavioural and practice approaches unfold.

Commentaries between Elizabeth Shove (2010, 2012) and Lorraine Whitmarsh (2011) have come to symbolise these tensions and the incompatibility between behavioural and practice approaches. These commentaries, which ostensibly surrounded how different intellectual traditions are drawn upon by policy communities to frame problems such as climate change, and how these traditions are implicated in the ‘solutions’ to such problems, reflect entrenched ontological positions. The disagreement is not simply a matter of semantics, but of radically different ways of understanding the world, such that the idea that practice and behaviour could be conflated: ‘behaviours as physical manifestations of practices’ (Wilson and Chatterton 2011, p. 2781); does not do justice to the extent of ontological difference. The exchanges between Shove and Whitmarsh are therefore helpful in drawing attention to the provenance of research approaches: 1) on behaviour, premised around understandings of the atomistic individual whose cognitive processes underlie decision-making; and, 2) on practices, which consider action to be representative of the competing socially embedded rationalities of everyday life, focusing on the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘doer’. The contribution of geographers to these discussions has been notable (Barr and Gilg 2005, Gregson et al., 2007, Hobson 2006), with recent scholarship attempting to find synergies between these disparate positions and literatures (Hargreaves 2011, Hargreaves et al., 2013, Schwanen et al., 2011).

Whilst many of my SCCP colleagues have gone on to successfully publish many articles on this tension (Hargreaves 2010), and have adopted the practice approach, I have been more reluctant. Certainly the practice approach is inherently sensible and convincing. Yet I remain slightly suspicious, which I think is because of a concern about practice approaches being zeitgeist. Not least, to wholeheartedly reject behavioural approaches would be to concede that work I have undertaken adopting this approach is now of limited value. At Behave 2014, I was struck (and reassured) that I am not the only one with these thoughts, and since then I have been reflecting on this.

Allied to this was a call, by numerous presenters at Behave 2014, to relinquish terms such as efficiency and others which have been inherited from engineers to reflect the idea that householders do not really connect with such thinking. Thus, it is not the energy or technologies per se that we as social scientists should concern ourselves with, but the services, lifestyles, and practices that energy makes possible (cf Shove). Behave 2014 was therefore a helpful and timely reminder that we should pay attention to where the terms we come from, and the ontological tradition(s) they reflect. I am now wondering how/if I can do research on domestic energy efficiency without using the term efficiency.

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