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online/offline, virtual/digital, solicited/unsolicited: doing research online

This summer, things have really been heating up on the project as we get stuck into data collection. All of our data collection relies on the internet to some extent, whether extending traditional ‘offline’ social science instruments to be used in online environments (e.g. online diaries) or ‘natively digital’ (Rogers 2013) approaches (more on this later). Whilst doing research online was initially attractive because it offered some apparent novelty, what Katherine and I understand ‘the digital’ to be has evolved quite considerably.

Like many other social scientists, the ubiquity of the internet and devices which allow people to use and contribute to it, have encouraged both Katherine and myself to explore how we can harness the internet in our research. This interest was sparked after a presentation by Sarah Royston at Behave 2014, where she undertook an online ethnography to understand domestic energy practices. Like Sarah, we see this area as potentially fruitful for domestic energy research, particularly since the number of people (and therefore potential research participants) who are active online is enormous, and because of the ways in which future domestic life will be determined by and determining the internet. Yet, how we might go about undertaking such research is not quite as clear cut as we first imagined…

What we understand ‘the digital’ to be, how it relates to everyday life, our role as researchers, and how we might engage with it, are difficult questions to address. Naively, I wrote a funding bid in which I said I would undertake a ‘netnography’ without fully understanding the wider social science methods debates within which netnography exists. As I have since discovered, a wide variety of approaches exist which are quite distinctive in the way that they deal with, for example: online/offline; structure/agency; human/nonhuman; animate/inanimate (although we must desist from using binaries!). Others have provided helpful histories of how social science has researched the internet, so I won’t bore you all by repeating them here. However, it is useful to highlight the most recent debates, those which concern the distinction between virtual and digital methods, since this is relevant to our current work.

As far as we can tell, virtual methods (we use this term loosely), largely informed by sociology and anthropology, are essentially an extension of traditional social science methods (e.g. questionnaires, surveys, ethnography) used to undertake research on the internet (e.g. online questionnaires, online/virtual ethnography). The approach predates that of digital methods and, using critical thinking, has highlighted that there is no real difference between online and offline worlds. Netnography, articulated most fully for market research, may therefore be regarded as a form of virtual method since it is concerned with extending existing ‘offline’ approaches to online environments. Arguably, what makes netnography distinctive is that it is fairly prescriptive in terms of the specific steps which are undertaken, so if we understand virtual methods as an epistemology, netnography is one of its techniques.

By contrast, digital methods is a more recent development, led primarily by social scientists interested in new media and computational social science. The main difference between virtual and digital approaches as far as I can see, is that digital methods use methods and data which are ‘born’ in the internet. Digital methods use techniques such as crawling, scraping, crowd sourcing, folksonomy, and recommendation systems to gather and analyse data, using objects and content that originates online. So, one might undertake analysis of searches undertaken using search engines to explore how society responds to particular events (cf. research on flu epidemics), or might use hyperlinks to explore social networks. The idea is that this type of research would not be possible ‘offline’ because these techniques and the data they rely on are not available. Digital methods then is research with the internet, not research on/using the internet, as is the case in virtual methods (or any other predecessor).

Grappling with these different debates has been a steep learning curve for us, not least because the field is developing quickly. For now we are thinking about what these developments mean for our research and for domestic energy demand research more generally, as well as how we might add to these debates. Indeed, it seems we are straddling the virtual/digital divide in our research, which is something we will need to get to grips with. Likewise, we are interested in the distinction between solicited and unsolicited data (something not really explored in digital methods as far as I can see) since some of our data are solicited and some unsolicited. Moreover, in our solicited work, we are asking participants to use an app on their smartphones. This also means we should be mindful of the way in which different devices influence the data which are generated, and more broadly how devices are implicit in new knowledge generation across social science. So, just from this brief blog, you can see how what started as a rather naive project which sought to take advantage of the internet, has opened up (for us at least) a new set of debates we were completely ignorant of. At the very least, I have learnt much more about designing appropriate ‘queries’ (e.g. the form and format of keywords I should use when undertaking an online search), and how search engines influence the nature of research to an extent that I had not realised.

Thankfully, in our forthcoming seminar, we hope to hear from a range of other academics working with online/virtual/digital methods so that we can collectively get to grips with the complexities and messiness of research with the internet.

Who is the new Research Fellow?

Since Louise will no longer be the sole manager of this Smarter Homes? website it seemed time that I (Katherine) introduced myself properly.

I have recently submitted my PhD entitled ‘Home-ing in on domestic energy research: home comfort and energy demand’ and my viva voce will be two weeks from today! A bit about me before I go onto my research interests…

I am a bit of a dork in the sense that I really enjoy reading and talking about academic skills such as writing and teaching. For example, I can rarely resist discussing the helpful and inspiring work of Pat Thomson and UEA’s ‘comedy in the classroom’ (if you haven’t heard of either of them have a look).

I am a huge advocate for being part of community projects and I have been an active member of our local Transition Initiative since it started in 2010! More recently (2012) I co-founded a bicycle rental and maintenance scheme which I am very proud of, especially when I see our branded bikes around town!

bike pool

If you follow me on twitter, you will probably already know about my Patter obsession, Bike Pool pride, and enjoyment of using dancing gifs.

My research is motivated by providing evidence of and alternatives to techno-centric thinking that often dominates sustainability discourses. In the context of domestic energy research, I’ve written about this as the difference between researching the ‘house’ and ‘home’: suggesting that awarding the ontological priority to the ‘home’ results in scholarship which considers both social and physical aspects that shape demand. Conversely, research prioritising the ‘house’ is dominated by techno-economic thinking, and overlooks critical social considerations. This is an important distinction considering that despite several decades of a dominance of research on the house, these methods have failed to adequately explain variation across populations and reduce energy demand, making the utility of studying the interaction between social and physical elements of the home increasingly apparent.

In my reading of energy, building and sustainability scholarship I found the concept of comfort to be influential to both notions of home and the ‘practice turn’ (i.e. Shove’s (2003) Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience) and therefore to a more nuanced understanding of domestic energy demand. The aim of my thesis therefore was to develop a concept of home comfort to inform understandings, debates and policy related to domestic energy demand, and I present data from whole-household interviews, house tours, ideal drawings and home energy adviser interviews to address this aim. [For a snappier piece on why we should be talking more about comfort, see my post in the ConversationOur obsession with comfort is the carbon conundrum everyone ignores’].

The main contribution of my thesis has been to argue that, contrary to popular opinion, there is much more to occupant satisfaction and home comfort than being sufficiently warm or cool. The assumption that comfort means thermal comfort leads to a narrow set of strategies to intervene in or ‘steer’ energy-demanding practices. While a focus on thermal heating is justified in the sense that space heating is the biggest single demand for a household, roughly 2/3 in the UK, increasing demands for space heating are also the result of other expectations of home beyond shifting indoor temperatures and practices of thermal regulation.  For example, privacy and personal space are paramount to individuals having to share the home and negotiate other householder’s preferences and everyday routines. Expecting to have a bedroom or study to retreat to has implications for space heating as much as standardisation of the comfort zone or increasing reliance on mechanical heating and cooling.

Based on my development of a framework of home comfort, the assumption that comfort is thermal comfort appears to be unjustified because there is much more to home life that affects home management and home improvements. Redefining home comfort as relaxation that comes from both having companionship and sharing the home as well as having a sense of control and privacy draws attention to bigger trends in household and house sizes that significantly shape energy demand per person. Refocusing onto how to engage with and understand expectations of space per person is an important recommendation for domestic energy researchers and importantly emerges from investigation of the meaning of home comfort.


Enough on my PhD though, I am delighted at the opportunity to be able to continue working alongside Louise (who has been an incredible PhD supervisor) as well as be part of a project which in many ways compliments the theoretical and methodological ideas underpinning my PhD research. I am excited to explore domestic energy demand further: continuing to critique techno-centric thinking, focusing in on microgeneration technologies (e.g. building on our previous paper on energy prosumption), and exploring the use of innovative methods (e.g. join our seminar on online and digital methodologies!!).

Please get in touch if you have any questions about the Smarter Homes? project or anything else!



Practicing baby bedtime & the link to energy

A year ago today, I became a parent (and helps to explain my absence on here!). Becoming a parent has made me reflect on how we use our homes in different ways at different times; and the implications this may have for energy demand. In this, my first proper blog since returning to work, I hope to illustrate how, using the example of temperature, my relationship with my own home has changed as a consequence of having a baby.

To be a good parent is to keep your baby safe. To be a good parent is to keep your baby warm, not too warm, but just the right amount of warm. As newborn babies have an inability to regulate their own temperature, becoming too warm or too cold is problematic, and has been recognised as one of the key causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), commonly known as ‘Cot Death’ in the case of the former. The danger of overheating therefore ranks highly as one of the concerns of a new parent, at least in my case. But it seems I’m not alone; a quick search on Mumsnet reveals 667 unique message threads with the words ‘newborn room temperature’ in them.

When we think about this from a practice perspective, which highlights the interconnected elements of materials, competencies and meanings[1], the relationality of the many different aspects of babies’ sleeping come to the fore. Taking these elements in turn, and dealing with materiality of bedtime first, many are complicit in this practice: the cot/moses basket, the room (whether large or small, north or south-facing, carpeted or bare floors); the sheets (terry towelling, fleece, cotton); the blankets or sleeping bag (which itself can be a range of weights or togs, shapes and designs); the baby monitor (ours had an integrated thermometer meaning that the parent unit would beep if it was too warm or too cold); thermometers (which come with the sleeping bags); radiators, or in our case, an oil filled thermostat electric radiator which we plug in on cold nights. This is not an exhaustive list of materials by any means, but it begins to highlight the extent to which the many and different materials are implicated in the particular practice of bedtime.

Importantly, these materials require certain competencies in order to be used ‘properly’. For instance, how to put the baby to sleep (on their back, feet to the foot of the cot, with just the ‘right’ number of blankets for the temperature (remembering that a folded blanket counts as two blankets)) and the appropriate room temperature (about 18 degrees Celsius as recommended by the NHS) is knowledge passed on at ante natal classes, reinforced by midwives, health visitors and often in instructions that come with baby sleep products. But these skills, or competencies, develop over time too. The ability to judge the temperature of the room without the use of a thermometer, or to choose the right amount of layers to dress the baby for bed, or to anticipate how the home may cool overnight are new skills that accumulate as the practice evolves and changes in relation to the age of the child, the season, and the outside temperature, for example.

Such competencies are influenced as much by social and cultural meanings as by materials. Bedtime is an important component which both structures and is structured by the day, and a baby’s sleeping practices are imbued with meanings to do with safety and security, love and care, comfort and cosiness. Parenthood is a time when many are quick to offer advice, particularly around issues of sleep (or lack thereof). There can be a lot of pressure to instigate the ‘right’ bedtime routines, or to ensure your baby is getting the ‘right’ amount of sleep. Yet, just as these materials and competencies change over time (for instance, the advice when I was a baby was to put babies down to sleep on their front rather than their back), so too do meanings. ‘Crying-it-out’ as was encouraged when I was a baby, have been replaced with more gentle/attachment parenting styles. So, how we conceive of baby sleep, and attached meanings, have changed.

When I returned to work, it took a few weeks to adjust. It was a surreal feeling; somehow everything had changed yet nothing had. I realised that it was me that had changed, rather than where I worked or who I worked with. Such recognition caused me to reflect on the way in which parenthood had also changed the relationship I have with my home: the place that shelters my family. From the example of temperature, and by exploring the practice of bedtime, I can see how our changing family dynamics are changing how we use our home, and the practices that we enact. It has also caused me to reflect on the importance of performance, how practices are enacted (and that they vary by parent i.e. practitioner to practitioner), how they are embodied (e.g. the sensory nature of temperature and an ability to ‘feel’ when the temperature is ‘just right’), and their subjectivities (e.g. on Mumsnet there was an interesting thread started by a Russian citizen living in the UK who found the cooler temperatures encouraged by health professionals here to be at odds from their own experience). What it has also revealed is that the way in which the practice is practiced does create different implications for energy. A focus on room temperature rather than body temperature, involves different materials, competencies and meanings – and more or less energy. The way in which our home is heated has changed, a previously unused and hence cold bedroom (where the radiator was routinely off) has come into use. This ‘use’ differs too across the year in accordance with the season, and daily rhythms (our son goes to bed earlier than us so his room needs to be warmer earlier in the evening).

To conclude, it seems to me that the way in which we think academics about homes/housing needs to reflect the ever-changing ways in which we use them. Personally, embarking on parenthood has changed many ways in which we interact with our home, not least in relation to temperature. So perhaps, as academics, when we think about energy demand, we should be thinking about homes rather than houses, and not of energy per se, but the practices that create demand for energy – and intervening in those.

[1] roughly speaking and depending on which theorist one prefers

Back in the room

This blog has sadly been neglected of late, but with good reason, as I (Louise) have been off having a baby. Work has not stalled, however, and below are some updates about our activities. There will be a few (overdue) blog posts which appear in the coming days…keep your eyes peeled.

First of all, I’m pleased to say that Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, one of my (soon to be former) PhD students, who has just submitted her PhD and will be undertaking her viva in a few weeks, is being employed by CHR to help with work on the Smarter Homes agenda. Katherine is going to be a real asset to the work.

On that note, she and I had our second paper published together earlier this year, when I was off on maternity leave. Entitled “Conceptualising energy prosumption: Exploring energy production,consumption and microgeneration in Scotland, UK” and published in the journal of Environment and Planning A, it brings together our shared work in Scotland on domestic microgeneration. We think it makes an important conceptual contribution by bringing the wealth of prosumption scholarship to discussion of the concept of ‘energy prosumption’ – a term which has been increasingly used in grey and academic literature as more communities and households are producing and consuming their own electricity and heat. The paper also presents novel empirical findings about householders experience of installing and living with microgeneration technologies, an area currently being overlooked in the majority of renewable energy research. Furthermore, it reflects on the utility of the UK government’s funding for microgeneration through the Feed-In Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive and the suitability of different technologies at the household scale. As an aside, our first paper together, based on Katherine’s PhD work, called ‘Home-ing in on domestic energy research: ‘house’, ‘home’ and the importance of ontology’ is available here, and you may also be interested to read Katherine’s latest piece on The Conversation here.

Secondly, we recently found out that we were successful in applying for an ESRC Festival of Social Science Event. More info can be found on our public engagement page. This is great news and really exciting for us – hopefully this will result in some really interesting discussions and teaching materials. It is fantastic to think that pupils all across Scotland will be using data from our project.

Thirdly, and building on the energy efficiency and stigma theme, I, with Kim and Joe at CHR, had a paper published in Energy Research and Social Science entitled ‘Exploring the Stigmatizatoin of Energy Efficiency in the UK: an emerging research agenda‘. This was a theoretical piece, in response to calls for social scientists to engage with energy research. In it, we outline the nature of the relationship between energy efficiency and stigma and present our emerging research agenda, which draws theoretical influence from Sociology and Housing Studies. Watch this space for more work in this area.

Fourthly, we were successful in getting a new fully funded ESRC Collaborative PhD studentship. This prestigious award, with Dr Mags Currie and Dr Kate Irvine from the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, will start in September. One of only 8 awards across all of social science in Scotland, the project is entitled ‘SHOW – health Smart Homes for Older peoples’ Wellbeing’. This studentship will critically examine the utility of ‘health smart homes’ (HSH) to enhance the wellbeing of older people in rural Scotland. We are delighted too that Rachel Creaney, a research assistant at the James Hutton Institute, will be taking up the studentship.

Lastly, we have a number of conferences coming up over the next few months, TEDDINET and Sustainable Housing, to name but a couple. Hope to see you there.

Behave: reflections

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.

1095 days/156 weeks/36 months/3 years since I started my lectureship.

This week marks three years since I have been lecturing at St Andrews, my first lecturing position. Just this year have I settled into the ‘typical’ academic routine and spent the semesters on campus and summer out doing fieldwork. This recent space away from campus, and the approaching anniversary has given me the chance to reflect on the past three years, to consider what has worked, what has been a surprise and what I’ve learnt. So, if I were to meet my three-year-younger self, there are 5 key pieces of advice I would give her about surviving as a new lecturer:

1. Make friends. You work in a department, a team. The administrators know how to upload files to moodle. The technicians know how to work *that* projector (yes, the one that is the bain of your life). You will get out of relationships what you put in, remember this. The same goes for your students, they will teach you so much so don’t be scared of them. To progress your career, you need academic friends both within and outwith your department – find them and work with them. The benefits of collaboration are massive.

2. Be realistic. Your job description has just expanded dramatically. You have to do more stuff in the same amount of time. Your expectations about what you should be able to achieve in terms of research should decrease. You will have less time. You will have different priorities. You have a lot of new stuff to learn. Once you understand how things work, and have taught one course once, it will get easier – be patient and learn to love the juggle.

3. Have faith. You are better than you think you are. You are inexperienced but trust your instincts, if you think something/someone is dubious it probably is. You look at things differently from others – celebrate this, and your students will appreciate it. Your workload is crazy now, but it will get easier once you’ve found your feet. Persevere.

4. Remember quality is better than quantity. You have more things to juggle now so you need to concentrate your efforts. In research terms, focus on one high quality paper than two mediocre ones, and seek out the best funding sources. Don’t neglect your teaching, quality counts here too, and you will get a reputation for attention to detail and innovation if you put in the effort.

5. Be humble. You think you are the bright young spark. You have papers in top journals that your colleagues don’t have. You have exiting new ideas about how that class or programme can be improved. You have some great ideas and good abilities (3, above) but you have so much still to learn. Take advice from those with experience (1, above), normally such advice is very valuable (and you can discount it if it isn’t) – people won’t give you advice if you are a ‘know it all’.
And…don’t stop reading. It is hard to find the time sometimes, but you will only be able to stay relevant if you keep reading.

New directions

Some rather exciting things have been happening lately, one of which has been my appointment as deputy director at the Centre for Housing Research. Kim McKee, one of my close colleagues at St Andrews and who is currently the chair of the Housing Studies Association, was appointed as director, and together we are looking forward to the new challenge. For both of us these appointments (from the beginning of June) have been a big step up, and are the first big responsibilities we’ve had. Nevertheless, we are hoping to build on the success that CHR has gained over the years with large housing datasets and to diversify a little to also play to our own personal strengths in qualitative methods. You can read more about the changes at CHR, and some of the projects and activities we’ve been involved, in here.

The other ‘new’ thing I did last month was attend my first ENHR conference (photograph is of me ‘driving’ the canal boat on the field trip to Wester Hailes).WP_20140701_010 ENHR is the European Network of Housing Researchers, and it has an annual conference which I’ve never attended but heard much about. This year it seemed fitting to go as it was in Edinburgh for the first time. Organised around the topic of ‘beyond globalisation’ it was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from across the world and begin to make the international collaborations we hope to encourage within CHR. I presented two papers at ENHR, one with Kim on the relationship between Energy Efficiency and Stigma (see my earlier post on this topic) and one with my PhD student Katherine, on prosumption (see my earlier post here). Both went well, yet what I’d really like to use this post to reflect on is the nature of the conference, and what it says about housing research in the Europe.

After a terrific series of opening plenaries from housing researchers based in Scotland (I was so proud to be a Scot!), and once the main nitty gritty of the conference got underway, I picked up a few uniting issues. First of all, many speakers appeared to be dismayed about the way in which housing research is under resourced and the way in which housing is an issue often ignored in policy making. Secondly, and most interesting to me, was the emphasis many speakers put on the importance of putting people at the centre when thinking about housing research, understanding housing systems, and developing housing policies. This second point is something that is quite important to me personally, and particularly in relation to smart housing – that which is all too often centred around the building fabric, rather than inhabitants, or even the designers of such homes. Hopefully, such calls will be heeded by those developing policies.

ENHR is the first conference I’ve been to where papers are compulsory and submitted prior to the event. Unsure of the purpose of such an approach, I am now a convert since people at the sessions were much better informed of the research under discussion and in the sessions I attended, there were discussants identified prior to the conference to give feedback and lead discussions about each paper – this ensured that the often embarrassing silences were avoided and also that each presenter got some useful comments. Yet I was surprised by the nature of the research presented, and specifically the lack of critical social science. Perhaps it was just me, but I was certainly expecting much more in the way of conceptual discussions and reflections on how data that was collected might help us advance theories related to housing. I admit that my observations are only based on what I saw, and that other sessions may have been more critical (especially, I suspect, those around welfare reform), so perhaps it is unfair of me to dismiss the whole conference on this basis. Nevertheless it left me slightly disappointed about the nature of European housing research. I now look forward to the next conference I am due to attend, Behave, which I’m sure will be much more critical. Despite my concerns, ENHR was useful in helping me make some useful new contacts, as well as being an opportunity to catch up with colleagues near and far.