Energy Ethnographies: Foregrounding the social, cultural, and political aspects of ‘energy access’ and ‘energy transitions’ in the Global South

Session organizers: Jonathan Balls (University of Melbourne) and Deepti Chatti (Yale University)

Discussant: Gregory Simon (University of Colorado, Denver)

This session calls for papers that draw on ethnographic and other qualitative engagements with energy users in the Global South – centering their experiences, values, politics, preferences, and epistemologies. By examining the everyday entanglements of culture, politics, environment, and society in energy use, this session aims to explore how the insights from critical qualitative social sciences can enrich our current understanding of energy access and energy transitions in developing countries.

In the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Sustainable Energy For All (SE4All) initiative, scholars and practitioners alike have turned their focus to ‘energy access’ and ‘energy transitions’. The extension of energy services such as electricity and ‘clean’ cooking energy to low income households in the Global South is broadly described under the rubric of ‘expanding energy access’, while the substitution of currently used technologies in favour of ‘modern’ renewable energy services is broadly described under the umbrella of ‘energy transitions’. Both these terms have attracted theoretical attention by critical geographers and allied scholars. In recent years, researchers have focused extensively on decentralized energy infrastructures and programs – such as for off-grid solar power, or improved cookstoves – highlighting their promise for extending energy access, and their role in energy transitions (Bailis et al., 2009, Cross 2013, Simon et al., 2014). Additionally, researchers have looked at centralized infrastructure to reach energy users who were previously unserved (Dabadge et al., 2016). Much of the existing literature is concerned with the technical, financial, and economic aspects of efforts to extend energy access or to facilitate the diffusion of energy technologies. When attention is paid to energy users, it is typically through survey based empirical studies, focusing on technological or economical aspects.

In parallel, there is a growing recognition by socio-cultural anthropologists of the importance of understanding the cultures and politics of infrastructure (Larkin 2013, Kale 2014, Anand 2017). Energy infrastructures are worthy of social, cultural, and political study in addition to being objects of enquiry from a technological and economic lens. Infrastructures entail newly negotiated relationships between state actors, businesses, civil society actors, and energy users (Button, 2017; Meehan, 2014). With new energy infrastructures comes new knowledge, practices, and cultures (Strauss et al., 2016, Gupta, 2015, Kumar, 2015). New technologies can reinforce existing socio-political hierarchies, or upset them (Jacobson, 2007). Ethnographic studies that focus on users and the seemingly ordinary or mundane everyday uses of energy can bring rich empirical insights on how energy access and transitions are unfolding (Chatti et al., 2017). This scholarship can improve our understanding on how energy technologies, infrastructures, and programs are mediated, shaped, and accommodated, while simultaneously paying close attention to how lives are changed to accommodate new forms of infrastructures.

This session invites participants to present research conducted with energy users in the developing world to explore the social, cultural, and political dimensions of ‘energy access’ and ‘energy transitions’. While we hope to center ethnographic and deep qualitative research, we welcome a broad range of scholarly engagements that foreground the social, cultural, and political aspects of energy use.

Potential paper themes could include, but are not limited to:

  • How is the use of energy mediated by cultures, politics, and practices, and how does this relate with our current understanding of ‘energy access’, and ‘energy transitions’?
  • What insights are gained from ethnographic studies that center the experiences and practices of users?
  • How are accounts that detail the politics and governance of decentralised energy infrastructures, and emergent relationships between government actors, businesses, civil society, and users enriching understandings of energy transitions in the developing world?
  • How are contestations over technical and economic aspects of energy infrastructure negotiated? How does this affect the end user?

Please email paper titles and 250 word abstracts to Jonathan Balls ( and Deepti Chatti ( by October 15, 2017. Potential panelists will need to register for the AAG by October 25, 2017, and submit their abstracts directly.



Anand, Nikhil. 2017. Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Duke University Press.

Bailis, Rob, et al. 2009. “Arresting the killer in the kitchen: the promises and pitfalls of commercializing improved cookstoves.” World Development 37 10: 1694-1705.

Button, C. 2017. The co-production of a constant water supply in Mumbai’s middle-class apartments. Urban Research & Practice, 10, 102-119.

Chatti, D., Archer, M., Lennon, M. & Dove, M. R. 2017. Exploring the mundane: Towards an ethnographic approach to bioenergy. Energy Research & Social Science, 30, 28-34.

Cross, Jamie. 2013. “The 100th object: Solar lighting technology and humanitarian goods.” Journal of Material Culture 18 4: 367-387.

Dabadge, Ashwini, et al., “From LPG Connections to Use: Realising Smokeless Kitchens for All” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol L1 No. 16, April 16, 2016.

Gupta, Akhil. 2015. ‘An Anthropology of Electricity from the Global South’. Cultural Anthropology, 30, 555-568.

Kale, Sunila S. 2014. Electrifying India: regional political economies of development. Stanford University Press.

Kumar, Ankit. 2015. ‘Cultures of lights’. Geoforum, 65, 59-68.

Jacobson, A. 2007. Connective power: Solar electrification and social change in Kenya. World Development, 35, 144-162.

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The politics and poetics of infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.

Matinga, Margaret Nijrambo. 2010. “We grow up with it”: an ethnographic study of the experiences, perceptions and responses to the health impacts of energy acquisition and use in rural South Africa. University of Twente.

Meehan, K. M. 2014. ‘Tool-power: Water infrastructure as wellsprings of state power’. Geoforum, 57, 215-224.

Simon, Gregory L., et al. 2014. “Current debates and future research needs in the clean cookstove sector.” Energy for Sustainable Development 20: 49-57.

Strauss, Sarah, Stephanie Rupp, and Thomas Love, eds. 2016. Cultures of energy: power, practices, technologies. Routledge.

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