Epistemological and empirical challenges of investigating energy – by Felix Ringel

Anti-wind turbine stickers in Bremerhaven, March 2017

The invitation to this roundtable asked presenters to introduce their own work, show how it relates to energy, and discuss one further aspect of the anthropology of energy, in my case the specific epistemological and empirical challenges of studying energy as an anthropologist. This should raise concerns and questions around fieldwork and methods, and the kind of anthropological knowledge that can be generated when investigating energy.

In response, I here reflect on two questions that, I believe, are at stake in this debate: 1) What can anthropology contribute to interdisciplinary energy studies? 2) How, in turn, can anthropology benefit from taking energy on board? I claim that anthropology contributes not just ‘the social’ to a broader understanding of the role energy plays in the 21st century, but also offers much needed theoretical, analytical and methodological scrutiny and rigor. Similarly, anthropology does not only benefit empirically from studying energy by including an important aspect of reality into its research agenda. It also benefits conceptually by transforming topical and interdisciplinary inspirations into instruments of its analytical toolkit. However, beyond these conceptual concerns, there is undoubtedly an immediate empirical need to study energy because of the changes and challenges in the energy sector, which are having a dramatic impact on contemporary life.

Studying Energy: From Renewable Energies to Urban Sustainability

In my recent work, I have conducted 12 months of fieldwork over the course of three years in Bremerhaven, the centre of Germany’s offshore wind industry. I studied the wholesale transformation of an industrial city suffering from poverty and decline to a postindustrial city that follows the logic of sustainability for its urban regeneration. Sustainability, meanwhile, does not only refer to the locally prominent field of renewable energies, but marks the aim of the transformation: whereas growth guided the development of the industrial city, sustainability aspires to crisis-resistant and stable urban futures. Accordingly, each phase in the city’s history is based on a different energy regime, and each produces specific kinds of practices, affects, subjectivities, and futures. For instance, during fieldwork I was faced with all the hopes and fears that its residents invested in renewable energies, materialized in the many rotor blades, gondolas and tripods produced in Bremerhaven for the emerging offshore windfarms in the German Bay (see picture 1). As elsewhere, in Bremerhaven energy is in more than one way an empirical force to be reckoned with (see pictures 2 and 3). What are the benefits in doing so, and what are the challenges ahead in methodological, analytical and theoretical terms?

There are, in my view, two ways of doing energy anthropology. First, there is the anthropology of energy. As laid out above, this approach responds to the growing awareness and significance of energy concerns with in-depth empirical work, following its own ethical and political imperatives and focusing on everything directly relating to energy: power, infrastructure, consumption, technology, etc. Second, particularly Dominic Boyer and Timothy Mitchell have investigated how this engagement could influence anthropology. How would an anthropology look like that is inspired by ‘energy’ conceptually as well as methodologically? Whereas the first option is well on its way, the second has not yet shown its full impact: apart from some stimulating terms (‘undercurrents’, ‘energopolitics’, ‘carbon democracy’ etc), the potential of ‘energy’ in our professional toolkit is still somewhat lacking. What might these impacts look like?

Energy, Interdisciplinarity and Scientific Self-Scrutiny

First, energy anthropology is by empirical necessity interdisciplinary. It combines and invites a variety of theoretical (and accordingly methodological) approaches: more holistic frameworks deploying insights from posthuman / multispecies / ANT / STS / ontological turns; new vitalisms taking energy seriously on a different level, examining affects / bodies / senses; new materialism in all its disguises as well as political economy and discourse theory considering issues of power, ethics and agency. Furthermore, energy anthropology also invites more reflexivity about our own discipline’s epistemic and conceptual elective affinities with disciplines such as physics and engineering, drawing attention to common 19th and 20th century roots in the conceptualization of science, knowledge, and energy. Energy studies therefore prompt anthropologists to scrutinize their own methods and concepts as well as to experiment with new ones, and at the same time to reach out to other disciplines and intellectual traditions.

Climate City Day; energy pedagogics presentation, June 2014

Climate City Day; energy pedagogics presentation, June 2014

Second, on a more conceptual level, there is currently a more fundamental shift happening – a paradigm shift, if you wish, in the ways many human beings conduct their lives, relate to one another and understand themselves and the world they are living in. The attention paid to energy, particularly to renewable energies, is part and parcel of this shift. In my fieldsite Bremerhaven, for instance, the conceptual or cultural shift of attention away from economic logics of growth towards ecological logics of sustainability is envisioned and realized in terms of offshore wind energy and the fight against climate change. Energy anthropology might provide a privileged vantage point on these broader changes. Dominic Boyer’s hopes for the current 3rd wave of the anthropology of energy seem to point in a similar direction: combining – and bringing to full force – the theoretical strands mentioned above to a clearly defined, eminent empirical phenomenon will open up new conceptual possibilities. For instance, the model of energy (following lines of thought from energy anthropology’s 1st wave) can allow new takes on ‘culture’, ‘sociality’, and – literally – ‘power’. More ecological paradigms might allow for more complexity and other forms of holism in the current studies of human life. These are just two examples of the kinds of conceptual innovation that can stem from engagements with energy.

Conclusion: Entropy / Synergy / Scrutiny

Recent scholarship has shown that energy anthropology is necessarily ecological, global, political, ethical, material, cultural, and it allows new foci in the studies of modernity, infrastructure, agency, and power, to only name a few. What the discipline of anthropology can further contribute to the overall studies of energy will have to be seen, but it will certainly include further conceptual work given the diversity of approaches already applied in the sub-discipline. The only danger I see at this moment is that – as any other conceptual hype – ‘energy’ might become an end in and of itself, embedded in networks of funding and fashion, over which scholars might lose other things out of sight. Although external factors prompt its study, anthropology should continue to scrutinise what energy contributes to its understanding of the world. This scrutiny, I hope, will give anthropology a meaningful voice in and beyond the academy in the debates surrounding energy.

 

Felix Ringel


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