Energy demand and social practices

Elizabeth Shove is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, whose research has focused on consumption, material culture and everyday practice, and on the ever evolving conventions of comfort, cleanliness and convenience.

She has authored and co-authored several books on related topics, including ‘The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes’; ‘Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience’, ‘The Design of Everyday Life’ and ‘Infrastructures of Consumption.

In recent years, Professor Shove has homed in on the question of how ordinary practices impact on energy demand and climate change. The idea that seemingly unrelated social arrangements such as the timing of school holidays, the details of what people wear or the renovation of office space are important for energy demand has only recently figured in policies and initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions.  

Professor Shove’s prominence in her field, as well as the impact of her research means that she is held in high esteem as an academic, and is in demand for lectures and media appearances. Professor Shove has made numerous appearances on the radio, joining discussions including (but by no means limited to!) the social phenomena of drying clothes on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour’, the shifts in standards and understandings of domestic hygiene on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed’, climate change’s impact on suburban life on ABC RN’s ‘Life Matters’ and social habits in relation to climate change on ABC RN’s ‘By Design’.

As well this, Professor Shove’s research has been cited outside the world of academia, having garnered mainstream attention in print media, both nationally and internationally – her work has been discussed in the Daily Mail, The Guardian and The New York Times.

But what is it about her research  that has led to its mainstream exposure and its policy  influence? According to Professor Shove; “It deals  with issues people are familiar with, like showering every day. In that sense, much of what matters for energy relates to a range of recognisable habits and ordinary routines. We’re using these topics to challenge common ways of thinking and to bring new strands of social theory into policy”.

For example, her research into cleanliness (and into the hot water and energy demand that follows) unearthed the history of daily showering – now established as an entirely normal thing to do. The mass installation of electric showers in the 1970s is part of this story, but so are changing ideas about the body. Far from being an exercise in cleanliness it seems that daily showering is more related to feeling ‘fresh’ and ‘invigorated’ in the morning.

Professor Shove’s work shows that habits and practices – which are hugely important for climate change and consumption – do not depend on individual attitudes and behaviours. Efforts to limit CO2 emissions are likely to have much more impact when they focus on how practices evolve, and on the role of businesses and governments in making and shaping ‘normal’ ways of life.    

Her research on the history and future of room temperature shows that  what counts as comfortable today has not always been so. The fact that homes and offices are now often heated and cooled to around 22 degrees C is not a result of some universal need. It is a consequence of a curious combination of commercial interests, standards and cultural considerations.

It was the trajectory of her work in this field that led to Professor Shove co-founding and co-directing the Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand (DEMAND). Set up in May 2013, DEMAND is a research centre supported by five million pounds worth of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as well as EDF Energy’s Research and Development Group, Transport for London and the International Energy Agency.

Professor Shove explains; “We’re one of six energy demand research centres. In the past, and especially in engineering research, a lot of work has focused on energy supply, but much less is known about what energy is for, or how that changes”. “We argue that energy isn’t used for its own sake, but as part of accomplishing social practices of one kind or another. Really understanding what energy is for depends on us understanding infrastructures and institutions. This also raises political issues around entitlement to energy and the ability to participate in a society in which consuming energy is a necessity.”

Still in its early stages, the work produced by the DEMAND centre is set to have a huge impact on energy policymaking; “All sorts of areas of policy, which never would think of themselves as being about energy, actually are.  For example, privatisation and outsourcing requires more white vans and journeys – it’s never thought of as being transport related, but it is!”

 “We are working a fair bit with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but there are lots of different policies out there that matter in terms of energy and mobility, so we’re not restricting ourselves to that department. Our projects address questions that connect with all sorts of policy areas, and also with businesses. We know that one of the most important issues is that  of time and timing – basically, a lot of energy supply focuses on keeping power flowing, even at moments of peak demand. But what hasn’t been looked at is the time and timing of everyday life, so a lot of our work will be about when different things happen – even things like changing patterns of cooking and eating, or seasonality are relevant: they are part of how society is ordered and organised. We need to look at those patterns of demand, and at how they are embedded in daily life: these are key problems for sociology”

Professor Shove has already overseen numerous projects and produced many works which have been  influential on government climate change policy. ‘Transitions in Practice’, a three year fellowship which ran from 2009-2011, helped feed ideas and concepts from sociology and social theory into  climate change policies.

Professor Shove explained; “The project gave me the opportunity to write about why the whole behavioural approach to consumption was missing the point. There was an article I wrote called ‘Beyond the ABC’, which is incredibly widely cited, despite only coming out in 2010, and is very widely referred to in a lot of policy documents now – even the Forestry Commission refers to it.

“That was also part of developing a systematic account of why social practice is the proper target of policy, and that’s been the most important contribution, I would say. It was a very important way of provoking debate of the behavioural foundations of a lot of government policy.”

The ‘Transitions in Practice’ fellowship, and more specifically the aforementioned ‘Beyond the ABC’ piece, proved so influential that it has changed the discourse of policymaking. Researchers and policy advisors, now find themselves apologising for their emphasis on individual behaviour and are increasingly interested in how policy can bring more sustainable practices into being. The ‘Transitions in Practice’ fellowship culminated in what is referred to as the Extraordinary Lectureat the British Library, quite literally extraordinary in that it illustrated key concepts by enacting and promoting dialogue between academics, non-academics, social scientists and policy makers. The whole extraordinary lecture, which has been viewed more than 3,000 times, includes two short films, Captured by Showering: Absolutely Not Psycho(logy)” and Flipping Habits in the Kitchen.


Watch the Extraordinary Lecture