Energy Stories in Geography

Post by Kate Roggeveen

The following slide popped up in my Twitter feed last week:

To take a slight spin on this quote, stories help people see the invisible.  And that’s exactly what many energy researchers are doing, especially those working in or with the social sciences. Telling stories, asking people for and about their stories, reflecting on stories and writing collective stories are some of the ways we can understand how people ‘view’ and use energy. Stories start and enrich conversations, and they are valuable in research contexts and in promoting public discussion and debate (and indeed often projects have objectives in both arenas).

Last month I attended my first Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers’ annual conference, and was inspired by the number and variety of story methods, particularly in energy work.  Working on household energy use, I attended several energy sessions, and was sorry to miss numerous others on energy and still more about storytelling on other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed the (two) sessions ‘Individual and collective imaginaries of energy: storying energy in the past, present and future’ convened by Mel Rohse, Rosie Day and Joe Smith and in which Gordon Waitt and I shared some work from the Energy+Illawarra team1.

Here are a handful of story and energy highlights and projects that I’m keen to follow:

  • Rosie Day put the benefits of using stories in research, particularly energy transition research. Not least that stories can hold ambivalence and paradox, can be useful in multidisciplinary work, and can maintain a life beyond the immediate project. Day outlined some of her and Mel Rohse’s oral history work in South Wales for Everyday Lives, part of a larger project called ‘Stories of Change: Exploring energy and community in the past, present and future’.
  • Margaret Gearty explained the ‘Learning History’ approach that combines a jointly-written history of an event with reflection to encourage change and action in organisations and people’s everyday lives.
  • Chris Groves’ examples from the Energy Biographies project illustrated that home energy practices are in part about identity, indeed at times conflicting identities.
  • Janice Astbury discussed socio-ecological resilience and the challenges of addressing energy vulnerability at the council level. One is that very few people needing help seek it by ‘com[ing] through the energy door’, and that the invisibility of energy does create challenges to engage on it with people in this setting.
  • Sam Staddon gave some early reflections on her study into energy researchers’ personal stories of energy use, including those of energy scientists and social scientists. The outcomes may well create some interesting discussions, and perhaps a few laughs, within multidisciplinary teams!
  • At the national (UK) scale, Catherine Butler presented on government’s role in shaping social practices on energy use while focussing on other areas of social policy, in this case welfare and employment policy.
  • Helen Pallett presented on energy publics in the UK, and the ‘Rethinking energy participation as relational and systemic’

The conference sessions and presentations that I caught included some similar elements and themes that we engage with on Energy+Illawarra: social practice; temporality, biographies and life course references, ideas around comfort in the home, behaviour change, energy affordability, energy and broader public policy, and multidisciplinary project work. I’ve returned to Wollongong with greater insight into the value of stories as research methods and as communication of and about results, particularly on the so-oft invisible energy in our daily lives.

  1. Gordon Waitt, Kate Roggeveen, Ross Gordon, Katherine Butler and Paul Cooper. ‘Thrifty pleasures: telling energy efficiency narratives of older, lower income households’.

Kate Roggeveen conducts ethnographic research for the multi-disciplinary Energy+Illawarra Project.

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