This blog article discusses how practice theory has been used in energy research, including debates over what constitutes a practice. It argues that we shouldn’t get hung up on definitions, but should focus on using the most useful analytical aspects of practice theory. This way, it can help to uncover insights into social activity that might not have been found using another conceptual framework.
My research on energy demand from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) draws heavily on practice theory. Practice theory offers a distinctive way of understanding the social world, moving away from a focus on the individual, or discourse and language, as the principal unit for research.
Practice theory has become popular in social scientific research into energy demand, most notably as a way to move beyond the idea that individual behaviour change will bring about the scale of demand reduction required to meet climate change targets. Rather than consider energy consumption to be a result of individual choice, a practice perspective highlights how energy is bound up in the ‘doings and sayings’ of everyday life: travelling to work, socialising with friends, cooking or eating. This alternative framing emphasises the limits of individual choice. For instance, if you live in the countryside but work in a city more than 20 miles away, then usually the easiest travel option for you is to drive, given the existence of a high-quality road system, cheap fuel and the social norms associated with driving. Considering ‘commuting’ through the lens of practice theory, we can see how materials, policies, technology and social meanings influence this activity, and that the element of individual choice is actually minimal. The relationships between these practice ‘elements’ are always mutating, constructing a dynamic ‘constellation’ which together make up the practice.
On the one hand these observations are hardly radical. But seen from the perspective of a social scientist investigating the use of energy in commuting, practice theory expands the possibilities for empirical study. The individual traveller (who in practice terminology is the ‘carrier’ of the practice) is no longer the sole actor of interest, opening up the potential for a variety of lines of enquiry. These include the potential to trace how materials and technologies have increased the safety and comfort of driving, leading to changing mobility patterns and even reconfiguring the broader practice of work itself.
The example given above about the relationship between commuting by car and the practice of work indicates that practices can have different scales and boundaries. Can ‘putting your foot down’, or ‘listening to the radio’ also be practices, or are they sub-categories of commuting-practice? For many adopters of practice theory, defining the types and boundaries of practices is a critical process.
One of practice theory’s most noted scholars, Theodore Schatzki argues that if we are true to the epistemological foundations of practice theory, then all social activity is made up of practices. The ‘plenum of practices’ includes not only cooking, but all the constituent parts of that activity: growing and transporting food, burning natural gas, following a recipe. In acknowledging that not all practices are ontologically equivalent, Schatzki differentiates between dispersed and integrated practices. Dispersed practices are small scale activities such as following rules, tinkering, or consuming energy through appliances’ standby mode, and can be conducted without context and incorporated into more complex social practices, taking on diﬀerent meanings. Integrative practices are broader activities including business practices, shopping or cooking. In Schatzki’s account, these practices have their own ‘teleo-aﬀective structure’, which is to say they hold meaning and signiﬁcance both for the performers of practice and in the wider social world.
For Alan Warde, this distinction is not enough. In trying to define what eating is from a practice perspective, he creates the new concept of a ‘compound’ practice to account for its scale and ubiquity. Specifically, he suggests that four integrative practices each make up the practice of eating, which affords it a different ontological status. These are (1) supplying food, (2) cooking, (3) the organisation and rules associated with meals, and (4) aesthetic judgements of taste. But why stop here? What about the integrative practice of shopping for food, or disposing of it?
A world without boundaries
In my opinion, debates over definitions, boundaries and ontological status of different practices lead us down a normative path. Striving towards a taxonomy of practices cuts against the radicalism and fluidity of analysis that the theory offers.
Having encountered practice theory at the start of my PhD, I found the radical decentring of the individual to be intellectually liberating, offering possibilities for research into social activity and energy demand which challenge the conventional methods and approaches of social science. If the entire social world is made up of practices alone, then whichever way you turn, whichever question you seek to answer, you will find practices to investigate. Concepts such as the ‘constellation of elements’ evoke an image of the chaotic social world which begins to represent the complexity and dynamism of lived-experience.
On a practical level, imposing rules and definitions on practices allows commentators to cast aspersions on others’ chosen practice for analysis. Typing, one might say, is not a practice in itself, but a constituent element of other practices such as ‘working’, ‘writing’, or ‘catching up with emails’. My contention is that the definition of practice is solely dependent on your research question.
If for example, you are attempting to trace the history of the secretarial profession, it is entirely appropriate to trace the trajectory and development of typing. Indeed, given the importance of material configurations (the adoption of the QWERTY format), the social meanings associated with the highly gendered practice, and the competences of touch-typing, practice theory may offer a valuable analytical framework for such a study. Returning to the example of eating, if your research is concerned with how family mealtimes have changed in the recent past, then it seems reasonable to define ‘eating at the table’ as a practice, in order to contrast it with ‘eating on the go’, or ‘grazing’.
This is not to say that drawing boundaries around a practice is a trivial exercise. It is a critical part of research design, as much as defining the research question and sampling for empirical data gathering. The challenge for the researcher is to identify a practice that allows them to best utilise the epistemological approach offered by practice theory, and to uncover insights into social activity that might not have been found using another conceptual framework.
For my recent paper on working from home, practice theory assisted me in developing my empirical approach, as well as analysing results. Although one could argue that working from home is simply a performance of work, but in a particular spatial setting, I chose to define home working itself as a discrete practice. This encouraged me to seek to find distinctive characteristics and themes associated with this activity. I was able to explore ideas of comfort, control and flexibility, which appeared to take on particular meanings and relevance within the practice. In decentring the individual and thinking about the dynamic constellation of elements, practice theory encouraged me to account for the material and affective dimensions of practice. This helps to bring to attention the importance of elements such as clothing and blankets, and the distinct ‘homely’ atmosphere created through tinkering and adapting aspects of our environment.
Reading sociological research and attending social science conferences, it can sometimes feel as though there is a ‘correct’ way to use practice theory. Debates and criticisms over where to draw boundaries can detract from the value of practice theory as an analytical framework. Perhaps this is related to the traditions and motivations of the researcher. For some, the theoretical integrity of practice theory as an explanatory account of the social world may be a core objective. For others, social theory is used primarily in support of their empirical work.
In my own research, I am motivated by the challenging of understanding how energy is used in the course of everyday life, and how social science can uncover patterns of consumption and opportunities which may lead to carbon emissions reduction. Rather than try to develop a taxonomy of practices and potentially be hindered by its ’proper’ use, it makes sense to be led by the research subject, and deploy its analytical strengths more fluidly.
For my DPhil, I have opted for the ‘thesis by publication’ route. This means I’m required to write four papers for academic journals, which each make up a chapter of the thesis. I will write an introduction, a brief literature review and a conclusion in addition to the papers.
My topic is relatively broad, with each paper looking at a different aspect of SME energy policy. I produced this infographic to help to demonstrate how the papers fit together to make a coherent narrative, and to answer my research question:
The 3rd paper I am writing for my PhD focuses on the role of ‘middle actors’ in energy policy. Research has shown that Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs), who represent 99% of all businesses worldwide, are responsible for 64% of all environmental impact in the EU.
However, they are often excluded from conventional policy ‘hard levers’ such as environmental regulation and taxation, on the basis that ‘red-tape’ should be minimised for smaller businesses. The preferred approach to encouraging SMEs to reduce their environmental impact are incentive-based policies including publicly funded grants and access to expert advice and support. Under this model, the role of the low carbon advisor becomes crucial.
Despite the scale of SMEs’ environmental impact and the preference for incentive-based policy, there is very little academic research which looks at the role of low carbon advisors. This paper provides an in-depth account of the practices and experiences of these critical middle actors, asking: ‘is low carbon business support for SMEs fit for purpose?’
For this paper I draw on two main sources of data. 1) I have spent 12 months as a low carbon advisor in Oxfordshire, supporting SMEs to become more resource efficient. 2) I interviewed 19 other UK based low carbon advisors. 15 were publicly funded, providing energy audits and grants for measures such as replacement lighting, insulation or renewable energy. 4 were from the private sector: a business park landlord, an energy broker, and two general sustainability advisors.
Perhaps the most important finding from this research is that the role of a low carbon advisor is far from easy!
The first problem is engaging businesses with environmental projects in the first place. 5 main reasons this is so difficult came out of interviews:
Because of these challenges, most advisors tend to promote their advice and grants using marketing and advertising which emphasises the cost-savings opportunities. One advisor said:
‘Every time I speak to businesses I tell them they can save money, that’s the main focus. I know the business is not going to be that interested in being green. Even though they should, it’s just one of those things.’
The second set of challenges for advisors come after the SME has been initially engaged:
Findings showed that the majority of projects are primarily technical. Advisors might visit an SME to conduct an energy audit and write a thorough written report with costed recommendations, but no action is then taken by the SME:
‘I’ve seen 10 billion projects start and fail because all they do is go in and do an audit, write a report, leave a report, walk away. Nothing happens and I get absolutely infuriated because it is not just information failure, it’s a wider, more complex market failure.’ (NS)
Advisors are aware that ideally they would develop a more in-depth relationship with SMEs, but as one interviewee said: ‘its the soft stuff that’s hard’. In order to have conversations which go beyond the cost and technical focus, advisors need to have range of soft skills:
‘Securing that agreement to start a journey, to go and have a look at a business and to identify things that are not going well, and things that could be improved, is a delicate process to go through. You need advisors who can influence and who can manage change.’
The third challenge comes from the context of business support policy in general. Funding for low carbon projects is awarded by Local Enterprise Partnerships, who have a primary objective of delivering economic growth and creating new jobs. In keeping with this, projects tend to be delivered by organisations such as Chambers of Commerce and County Councils which have a track record of providing general business support, but who might not have a long track record of engaging SMEs on the sustainability agenda. Finally, funding rules and targets are set and audited in central government by the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose staff are unfamiliar with low carbon accounting methodologies and the practicalities of sustainable business.
Advisors complained that this policy context presented them with a set of obstacles:
Despite being expensive, policy makers tasked with trying to support SMEs to reduce their environmental impact favour face-to-face meetings, workshops and on-site energy audits. The findings of this study showed that the majority of interactions between advisors and SMEs are technical. Visits are usually focused on buildings, calculating payback assessments, and identifying ‘quick wins’ and ‘low hanging fruit’.
However, face-to-face meetings are unique opportunities, which could be more effectively used to engage owner-managers in more meaningful and far-reaching conversations. With a shift in the culture of advice-giving, alternative conversations could cover topics such as corporate responsibility as a whole, the organisation’s founding principles and values, and its long term role in an environmentally sustainable society.
Findings from interviews and participant observation demonstrated that ‘softer’ engagements do occur in some cases, but require a range of skills on behalf of advisors, mutual trust and buy-in from SMEs. One advisor suggested that technically focused energy assessments offer an opportunity to initiate relationships with SMEs, who may then be recruited to join low-carbon networks. This could be then be the start of a journal from awareness, to action, to advocacy.
This study is the first of its kind to put the spotlight on publicly funded advisors, providing low carbon advice and expertise to SMEs. It is perhaps surprising that despite offering free advice and grant funding, their job is a difficult one.
Reaching SMEs through low carbon initiatives is difficult, when energy is relatively inexpensive for most SMEs, and owner-managers’ consider their environmental impact to be minimal. Choosing the best options for reducing carbon emissions is also far from easy, and it can be easier to focus on technical aspects of buildings and technologies than on the broader meanings of energy and corporate values.
Given the scale of SMEs’ environmental impact and the preference for incentive-based policy over regulation and taxation, low carbon advisors are shouldered with enormous responsibilities. Despite the best efforts of talented and widely-skilled individuals, the current provision of low carbon business support is not likely to deliver emissions savings in line with national decarbonisation targets.
These middle actors deserve to be supported by evidence-based, people-centred policy with a broader scope than the growth-oriented model of conventional business support. By providing an in-depth account of their practices, this study has provided the foundations for more research, debate and policy development.