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EASA Conference panel 25: Energy in Motion

EASA 2018 conference in Stockholm was the occasion for the EAN Network’s first fully fledged energy panel. A strong line up of papers reflected the quality of current anthropological research in the field, and the growing interest in an expanding range of topics. The theme of the panel was ‘Energy in Motion’, reflecting the conference theme: ‘Staying, Moving , Settling’.


Papers touched on themes relating to the state and citizenship, superstate or transnational agendas, resource colonies and participatory planning, economic citizenship and ethics, to name but the most prominent. Importantly for the network, the first paper reported on efforts to ensure that anthropology is well represented in European energy research, through the SHAPE-ENERGY project (‘Social Sciences and Humanities for Advancing Policy in European Energy’), but the findings reported raise some concerns. The project set out without a well considered methodology, and although it tried to incorporate ‘stakeholder participation’, it committed elementary mistakes, such a demanding that minimally trained researchers try to combine running multi-stakeholder meetings while also trying to observe and report on them.  Nathalie Ortar presented a troubling case, raising concerns that even in a project that aims to include social sciences and humanities in energy research, the humanities were completely excluded, and the social science was deeply flawed. Where was the critique in the development of the project? Why did it start from the EU Comission’s premise (ie energy behaviour change) rather than  those posited the SSH disciplines? Where in the broader project are studies of energy practices, analyses of bureaucratic organisations, powers of capital, political dilemmas, oppositions and resistances, systems of exchange and distribution, or other questions that are of concern to social sciences? And how were anthropological ideas so clearly sidelined? Given the role of this project in purportedly shaping the Comission’s research agenda in energy in the coming years, it is crucial that we put forward our collective views from Anthropology about what we think should be on the agenda.

The other papers amply demonstrated what value can be gained from anthropological research. Several of them addressed questions about energy as an abstract and analytic concept that has is also a concept of state and science, and is already embedded in hierarchies of power. The term itself may be alienating in some circumstances, and rarely unites people politically in ways that can dominate the political agenda. At the same time, the ‘energy nexus’ is on the move – while concepts like ‘transition’ suggest before and after states, multiple and intersecting energy systems are constantly in motion and difficult to pin down. Where they are represented as fixed (eg as material infrastructure), then attention must be paid to the means by which stability is conjured, by whom, and to what effect. 

In one of Europe’s largest gas fields, apparently stable things are quite literally moving. Elisabeth Moolenaar showed how the early days of gas extraction in the northern Netherlands in the 1960s were associated with national solidarity, as profits from international gas exports were ploughed into a national rail system and other social programmes. The national gas company gained respect as a good employer, and gas became a ‘national treasure’. Fast forward to the 2010s and increasingly damaging earthquakes were causing significant structural damage to houses and other properties in what is one of the Netherlands’ poorer and peripheral areas. Suddenly, gas is no longer a treasure but a curse, and the state is no longer the great provider but a ‘gas mafia’ who extract resource from the region and leave it in ruins. Environmentalism and conservation bring new energy subjectivities into play, as early resistance to wind turbines takes on new shades of green. Citizens become energy experts, while craving recognition from the state that appears as a kind of renegade parent. A new formation, ‘gas opposition’ sees activists generate solidarity with First Nation Americans and Nigerians in their suffering caused by the actions of the Dutch oil multinational, Shell.

The role of such multinationals, and the differences between them, was the subject broached by Ståle Knudsen, who began by pointing out that over 70% of world oil is owned by national companies. Reporting on a project entitled ‘Energethics’, Ståle showed how Nordic energy companies prefer not to employ philanthropy in their interpretation of Corporate Social Responsibility, but prefer to talk about environmental and social management of sustainable livelihoods. But this causes difficulties when they begin to operate in countries such as Turkey, where philanthropy is the primary mode of corporate plenitude. Nordic discourses about social responsibility and competitive edge fall flat, and employees struggle to reconcile the demands from HQ for good-news stories with the local context in the countries of operation. For electricity corporations, engaging in electrical development means engaging with grids, which in turn are are kind of state-technology nexus. Agnese Cimdina elaborated on the role of Nordic corporations struggling to gain a foothold in the United Arab Emirates. Despite persistent attempts to buy into the UAE’s energy market, corporations such as Statoil have failed to make headway, despite the enormous, even hubristic ambitions of the UAE organisers of Expo2020 and the World Future Energy Summit, to transform hundreds of hectares of desert into an exhibition city. In the UAE, social relations always go before business relations, whereas the Nordic model starts from business and fails to make progress.

Where, then, are the spaces for insertion into infrastructural matrices for different actors, whether corporations, entrepreneurs, or the citizens, community groups and activists that Moolenaar and others described? And what of the many people displaced by energy developments, such as the coal-communities of North Rhein Westphalia described by Valeska Flor? Flor adopted a scheme devised by Scudder and Colson in 1982 to evaluate the role of self-determination in mitigating the effects of forced resettlement. According to her findings, where citizens participate in the resettlement planning and implementation, they find it easier to find ways to cope with the immense upheaval of moving not only house but village and community. For such citizens, becoming an ‘energy expert’ can be an  important role that allows people to be independent of the energy companies who are responsible for destroying their homes. Energy citizenship here is articulated in terms of agency and respect, as the state’s commitment to enforcing unlimited energy supply has consequences that are not born equally among citizens.

Of course, such uneven effects are not to be found only in Europe, far from it. High ambitions for rapid transitions away from fossil fuels in Nepal, for example, could have dire consequence for those Nepalis who rely on cheaper, more accessible and flexible fuels such as kerosine. According to Mikkel Vindegg, a radical crackdown on corruption in the electricity sector in Nepal in 2016 improved the situation, but did not bring an end to ‘load shedding’, the regular switching off of supply district by district that is used to deal with the lack of generating capacity. In such a context, the adoption of solar panels might be expected to be attractive, but the additional cost of equipment, including inverters or batteries mean that solar has not been adopted as a household solution to blackouts, as fossil fuels have, not least because solar power is seen to serve the grid, not the household. Once again the ambivalent role of the state as both provider and beneficiary causes unease about so-called ‘transitions’. Where people, in addition, are subject to migration and/or urbanisation, particularly in peri-urban settlements, the benefits of any kind of grid may be beyond their reach. Ben Campbell criticised a techno-agenda focused on ‘end users’ which ignores narratives of energy resilience that might be better served by categories of need. His current project,  ‘Energy on the Move’ addresses many such issues in Nigeria, Nepal, Bangladesh and South Sudan, focusing on gendered practices, informality, safety and health. He raised questions about the social and collective energy infrastructures such as the provision of diesel-generated electricity through patronage networks that do not fall within market rationalities.

Martin Fronck characterised ideas about future energies not as technical problems, but as political and ethical challenges between incommensurable forms of knowledge. In Southern Chile, a national ambition to achieve 70% renewable energy brings great pressure to develop geothermal resources found primarily in Mapuche regions of the Andes. Classic political discourses of ‘remote’ areas as locations of ‘undeveloped resources’ have brought significant scientific funding to explore geothermal possibilities. Martin showed images of a landscape littered with defunct experimental equipment in an environment experienced by Mapuche as alive with spirits whom humans should request permission from for any incursion into forests or mountains. Ruins of geological curiosity and failed future-visions risk enraging the spirits who may rend the land asunder through eruptions and earthquakes. Martin reminded us that geoscientists cn also experience an ethics of care, and the powers of embodied experience, but that the language of science promotes stabilisation and depersonalisation. Scientific methods promote distance as a resource, but require proximity for experimentation, at least temporarily. And here, again, we see science being used as a tool of statecraft, with state patronage for science that is not matched for citizens.

Together, these papers raised an array of questions for energy anthropology, about the role of  states and international bodies in energy infrastructures, the politics of energy transitions and the materiality of energetic visions, future and past. There is much work to be done, and impressive degrees of enthusiasm from anthropologists engaging in a myriad of energy questions, making it all the more urgent that European research agendas and opportunities make space for this exciting and productive research.


Simone Abram

September 2018

Inheritance tracks for Energy Anthropology – by Simone Abram

What theoretical legacies does energy anthropology inherit?

Energy Anthropology can draw on a wide range of theoretical and empirical legacies. Direct studies of energy have been part of anthropology, one way or another, from early in its histories.  Nader and Beckerman’s 1978 article on energy and quality of life was a landmark, but it is not only work on energy that offers theoretical legacies for current attention to energy anthropology. My own long-term theoretical interest in studies of science and technology and Actor Network Theory and its various incarnations, is woven through my ethnographic studies of urban professionals and future imaginaries, but it also has direct relevance for my current energy research.

Dr Haiyu Li of Manchester University explains a smart grid system

Research on the imagined medium-term future of municipal plans showed how futures are always only partially imagined, tested and materialised. Exploring the differences between professional or expert formulations of future-oriented trajectories and the responses they generate raises various relevant theoretical and empirical questions. On the one hand, Latour and Woolgar’s ‘Laboratory Life’ offers inspiration for theoretical and methodological approaches to ethnographic research on expert knowledges, showing how labs or other test sites produce what could be called ‘knowledge-texts’ that circulate beyond the lab. On the other hand, references to public knowledge prompts us to consider Gal and Woolard’s enquiry into the concept of ‘public’: if a public is constructed as the counterpart to expertise, it is important to think about who this public might be and why they are imagined in particular ways. Rather than leap to a dichotomy between ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ knowledge, we can use ethnographies such as Eeva Berglund’s now classic ‘Knowing Nature, Knowing Science’ to see how scientific and spiritual concepts and discourses may be taken up and overlaid with different moral and ethical narratives in contests and claims over energy-futures. And as we think about futures, a particularly significant node in the development of future-anthropology is Jane Guyer’s work on future horizons, offering a frame through which to think about the shaping of temporal orientations.

Making tracks for energy anthropology

Methodologically, one of the greatest challenges in energy anthropology lies in finding ways to address expert knowledge without necessarily being enrolled in that knowledge-world entirely. Ethnographic methods generally require the ethnographer to learn the language of the society of study, in order to access the concepts of thought. How, then, might an ethnographer really learn to speak the language of, say, engineering, which students take many years to learn? And how can the technicalities of energy installations be discussed without adopting the language of expertise that goes in to designing them? And how can they be analysed without that technical language? Is it the job of the ethnographer to explain engineering concepts? And if so, how does that then differentiate them from the engineer giving a public-explanation? For me, having completed a 4-year undergraduate engineering degree gives me a certain fluency in the language of engineers, and recent fieldwork has reminded me of how little of this is shared with non-engineers. But having been away from the industry for two decades also helps me to suspend my empathy with engineering approaches to both problem-definition and solutions, to challenge expert knowledges and the assumptions embedded within them. One way to approach these challenges is to pay attention to non-discursive modes of communication and materialities. For this, it is useful to think about Sarah Pink’s work on sensory methods and domestic practices, and Paul Stoller’s work on sensory ethnography. These offer ways to remain alert to how engineers structure, share and use labs, for example, how they conceptualise the relationship of the lab to the world beyond, and its material links through real-time digital simulators, emulated data-streams, real-world objects brought into the lab and so forth.

Where are energy anthropology tracks going?

All this starts to build into a research agenda with broad horizons. My own agenda is focusing around energy ethics, not only in relation to politics and policy, but among engineers. What kind of ethical world is being built among engineers and what happens to their doubts? How are these articulated between disciplines and where is the role for Anthropology? Interdisciplinary collaboration between engineers and economists is well established and raises a number of problematic questions about the kind of moralities that may be established in the interactions between disciplines. In comparison, anthropologists are rather late to carve out a space for anthropology and other social sciences in the energy field, but this does not make it  impossible. Recent collaborations between anthropologists and engineers, such as those we have achieved at Durham University and through the National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, show just how valuable they can be, and how open many engineers are to welcome anthropological insight into what are otherwise ‘wicked’ problems.


Berglund, E. K. (1998). Knowing nature, knowing science : an ethnography of environmental activism. Cambridge, White Horse Press.

Gal, S. and K. A. Woolard (2001).  Languages and Publics: The Making of Authority. Manchester and Northampton, Massachusetts, St. Jerome Publishing.

Guyer, J. (2007) Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time. American Ethnologist. 34(3): 409-421.

Latour, B. and S. Woolgar. (1979). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.

Nader, L. and S. Beckerman (1978) Energy as it Relates to the Quality and Style of Life. Ann. Rev. Energy. 3: 1-28.

Pink, S. (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE,

Stoller, P. (1989). The Taste of Ethnographic Things – The Senses in Anthropology U. Penn Press.