CFP: NAWEA/WindTech 2019 Conference (deadline extended May 1, 2019)

This is a reminder about abstracts for NAWEA/WindTech 2019 Conference, which will be held October 14-16, 2019 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Abstracts for papers and posters are due 1 May.  

This conference joins the symposium of the North American Wind Energy Academy (NAWEA) and the International Conference on Future Technologies in Wind Energy (WindTech). This combined event is inspired by and envisioned as North America’s counterpart to European Academy of Wind Energy’s exciting Science of Making Torque from the Wind and Wind Energy Sciences Conferences. The theme of NAWEA/WindTech 2019 is the Grand Vision of Wind Energy. The focus will be on research topics relevant to the next generation of wind energy technologies which will help facilitate the wind supplying a large fraction of the world’s energy supply.

This conference is being undertaken in association with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and in collaboration with the European Academy of Wind Energy

A number of side events and a field trip (on October 17) are also planned.

Details, including for the submission of abstracts, may be found at

Recently published (open access): Perceptions of Commercial and Recreational Fishers on the Potential Ecological Impacts of the Block Island Wind Farm (US)

Block Island Wind Farm (photo by A. Calianos)
Block Island Wind Farm (photo by A. Calianos)

By Talya S. ten Brink and Tracy Dalton

This is an article on impacts of the first offshore wind farm in North America on marine resource users/fishermen. These open access findings can inform offshore wind farm planning and development in the United States, especially because fishermen are a major user group impacting offshore wind development. You can find the whole text here: 

CFP: Power, Drivers, and Narratives in Sustainable Energy Transitions – 4S 2019 New Orleans (September 4-7, 2019)

To those interested in STS perspectives on energy transitions, please consider submitting your abstract to the Open Panel 106:

As energy transitions are happening everywhere, two dominant and competing narratives are shaping policies, markets, and public imaginations. On the one hand, post-Paris climate action appears to be the driving force behind energy-related efforts in the global North; while rapid access to modern energy services dominates the landscape of actions in the global South.  These visions of sociotechnical futures are significantly different from the energy systems of today, as current practices are still being shaped by principles rooted in the 20th-century idea of the electric grid. This mismatch between practices and ambitions are giving rise to unresolved tensions between policy framings and energy action.

Furthermore, these overpowering global narratives are masking sociotechnical realities of exclusion and disenfranchisement of historically marginalized actors (indigenous and rural populations, the urban poor), that undermine principles of social and environmental justice. Consequently, alternative visions of inclusive energy futures cannot find a place within the dominant narratives of sustainable energy transitions.

We seek contribution that utilizes an STS approach to study the conflicting nature of clean energy transition narratives, uneven power dynamics, and trade-offs that undermine human and environmental rights. We encourage perspectives from the Global South and post-colonial STS frameworks and methodologies that demonstrate the inherent contradiction of the political economy of the global energy systems. We also welcome critical perspectives and case studies on place-based knowledge and innovation systems that demonstrate such conflicts and provide alternative pathways and imaginations.

Deadline: February 1st, 2019

Peer review of an anonymous Energy Humanities paper – by Laura Watts

Peer review of an anonymous Energy Humanities paper

Laura Watts

IT University of Copenhagen


The following is based on my comments made at the Energy Impacts Roundtable, Bergen, 2017.


This was, as ever, a delightful paper to read; more research into social, cultural, and material relations with energy is always welcome. However, I do have some comments for the editors and authors to reflect on before publication.

First, there are moments when I feel the author is not sufficiently familiar with the language of their fieldsite and research location. There is some confusion in the difference between energy (measured in Joules), electricity (generally measured in Kilowatthours), and power (measured in Watts). These are not the same, but they are related and their relationship matters. Understanding how electricity is generated from energy (stored in ‘natural’ resources), how it is transmitted through a variety of Potential Differences (or Voltages) across different parts of the electrical network, and how it is measured and calculated (in Kilowatthours) through metering and tariffing is crucial to understanding the problems that engineers and policy must address. It generally behoves any researcher to learn something of the language of their fieldsite, and energy systems are no different.

It should also be remembered that energy is not a universal language. There are substantial differences across energy industries (photovoltaics, coal, nuclear, wind, tide etc.), across regions (compare USA with Denmark, for example), and even across local communities– remembering that electricity networks provide more capacity to some places than others. The histories and futures of both electricity grid infrastructure and tariffing are very diverse, and therefore pessimism or optimism in one region does not translate into a global trend.

Second, the author should be cautious not to repeat prior work, but instead refer to literature they might regard as outside their discipline or usual citation. Social, cultural and material studies of energy have been ongoing for many decades in other fields, particularly in Science and Technology Studies (STS), and there are long-standing overlaps between geography, anthropology and other humanities. Energy Humanities is an interdisciplinary field, in my experience, tacking back and forth over energetic seas.

Just to give a few examples of relevant literature the author might want to draw upon to strengthen their argument. Studies of infrastructure as a social, technical and environmental relation seems a core resource, with perhaps the most important work being Susan Leigh Star’s Ethnography of Infrastructures [1]. Her attention is political, on mundane and invisible work, on maintenance and the unsung labours that hold an infrastructure together so that it can endure over time.

Following on, the author might want to draw on Ashley Carse’s work on the Panama Canal, which explores the environment and local forest communities integral to the infrastructure [2]. Or Nicole Starosielski’s work to trace and problematise the practices in undersea cable networks that transmit internet data– work that resonates with electricity grid transmission [3].  The author might also explore prior research in the Public Understanding of Science around nuclear energy (e.g. work by Brian Wynne), which reflects on how publics are made and participate, or not, as experts in energy futures [4].

Third, the author should be cautious not to repeat the technological determinism that comes with the energy industry, nor the associated binary division between social/user and technical/infrastructure. Can they attend to how they ‘cut’ the problem of energy, or in classic ethnographic terms, how they make their fieldsite of energy [5].

When reading the paper, I was concerned that the author sometimes borrows, uncritically, the categories of ‘consumer’ and ‘producer’ (as well as the industry favourite, ‘prosumer’) without reflecting on the implications. To give two examples in the paper, which I feel warrant closer and more critical work:

One, in discussions with the energy operator, ‘people’ were always reduced to ‘consumers’ or ‘prosumers’, which reduces their social and cultural relationship with energy to a number e.g. to the Kilowatthours consumed or produced [6]. This tends to make invisible the richness of social and cultural relations with energy, both within the industry and in the home. Indeed, this reductionism risks losing much that anthropology and the social sciences has to say about people’s relations with energy, including new concepts and approaches they might offer to the energy industry.

Two, and this is somewhat related, in the discussion on Smart Meters (and smart energy apps) the paper could take a moment to reflect on the reduction of people to a number on the meter that must be audited and managed. This, again, risks losing sight of the diverse relations people have with energy [7]. To offer a suggestion, I would welcome a more intersectional, and multi-species, account of energy relations [8].

Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of what world the author hopes to generate through writing this paper. With so much at stake in energy futures, whether that be anthropogenic climate change or colonialism through extraction, it feels as if the author needs to take a breath and ask: what world does this paper make possible, and what world does it resist?

I particularly want to point to the problem with critique, and repeat an old argument made by Donna Haraway (and in a different vein by Bruno Latour): when we describe, unchanged, what we wish to critique we are also re-inscribing it and making it travel [9]. In short, all our descriptions of energy relations, and energy systems, are political and they tell the world one way, and not another. There is no pure description, only a political account that is located, and the author must choose its politics. Will the writing reproduce hierarchical orders, colonial stories, and give power to the already privileged? Or will the paper work to write against the grain, to resist privilege, to re-situate power, to give voice to those often silenced? (And this can be within companies and inside industrial communities, of course.)

Moreover, the resources that the author draws on also require attention because they, too, come with their own histories and politics that will cling to their argument; to quote Marilyn Strathern, “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas [with]” [10]. In short, does the author intend to support the dystopian future of the energy multinational, which they describe in detail?

My comments are not intended to be daunting or frustrating to the author, rather to recognise their power as an academic to make a difference in the world. Here are two practical methods the author might draw on as alternatives.

One, Haraway suggests recognising how knowledge-making is both an empirical and creative practice. This should be familiar to any researcher: you have fragments of evidence that you must work to weave together. Haraway gives the researcher the potential to use this inherent creativity to a greater or lesser extent. From the careful, and always critically informed, retelling of their energy fieldsite, all the way to writing energy science fictions–all are Speculative Futures [11].

An alternative method, two, is to explore and experiment with writing style and public engagement. This may be too challenging to the author, or inappropriate to their audience, so this is a reminder not a requirement. As inspiration, I offer Anna Tsing and Elizabeth Pollman’s Global Futures card game [12], Sara Wylie’s work with citizen scientists around toxins and natural gas extraction [13], and Max Liboiron’s work to enact critical feminist politics in a citizen science laboratory that monitors ocean plastic [14]. Both games and civic laboratories are making futures otherwise, through creating and participating in their fieldsites otherwise [15]. And I regard publishing papers as no less an engagement in what futures can be.

I very much look forward to reading a revised version of this paper, and to its eventual publication. To close with some final words to propel the author: “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with… It matters what stories make worlds” [16]. I have no doubt that this author’s paper, and its engagement, will be one that others will think with, and will make new energy futures with.



[1] Star, Susan Leigh (1999) The Ethnography of Infrastructures. American Behavioral Scientists 43(3): 377–91.

[2] Carse, Ashley (2012) Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed. Social Studies of Science 42(4): 539–563.

[3] Starosielski, Nicole (2015) The Undersea Network. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.

[4] Wynne, Brian (2010 [1982]) Rationality and Ritual: Participation and Exclusion in Nuclear Decision-making, 2nd edition. London : Earthscan, Routledge.

[5] When talking about ‘cutting’ out energy and the work needed to locate a fieldsite I am referring to: Gupta, A and Ferguson, J (1997) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press; Strathern, Marilyn (1996) Cutting the network. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2(3): 517–535.

[6] For the classic discussion on the production of numbers from social groups see: Porter, Theodore M. (1996) Trust in Numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[7] For a discussion of auditing in another domain see: Strathern, Marilyn (2000) Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. London: Routledge.

[8] Intersectionality is an approach developed in feminist studies to understand how identity is not singular nor a priori, but dynamically intersects between groups see: Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991) Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review 43(6): 1241–1299. For a discussion of multi-species infrastructure see: Morita, Atsuro (2016) Multispecies Infrastructure: Infrastructural Inversion and Involutionary Entanglements in the Chao Phraya Delta, Thailand. Ethnos: 1–20.

[9] Haraway, Donna J. (1994) A Game of Cat’s Cradle: Science Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies. Configurations 2(1): 59–71. Latour, Bruno (2004) Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern. Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter): 225–248.

[10] Strathern, Marilyn (1992) Reproducing the future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.10.

[11] Haraway, Donna J. (2016) Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.

[12] Tsing, Anna and Pollman, Elizabeth (2005) Global Futures: The Game, in Rosenberg, D and Harding, S (eds), Histories of the Future, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 107–122.

[13] Wylie, S., Jalbert, K., Dosemagen, S., Ratto, M. (2014) Institutions for Civic Technoscience: How Critical Making is Transforming Environmental Research. The Information Society 30(2): 116–126.

[14] Liboiron, Max (2016) Civic Technologies for Monitoring Marine Plastics. Journal of Ocean Technology 11(2).

[15] Also see both: Watts, Laura (2017) The Draukie’s Tale: Origin Myth for Wave Energy, in Szeman, I. and Boyer, D. (eds), Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Watts, Laura (2014) Liminal Futures: A Poem for Islands at the Edge. In Leach, J. and Wilson, L. (eds.) Subversion, conversion, development: Cross-Cultural Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[16] Haraway, Donna (2013) SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. Available from

Moving with Energy from Periphery to Center of Society – by Ståle Knudsen

I was asked to talk about my research agenda related to energy issues, especially “what I will or would like to study in the near future” and “what should be studied”. Well, this is easy to answer when it comes to the near future as I am currently leading the project Energethics  which explores how Norwegian energy companies handle Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) when they operate abroad. Much previous research has stressed the way in which CSR has been used as a tool, especially by extractive industries, to bypass the state. Our research asks whether CSR is done differently when the corporations are partly or fully state-owned and embedded in a ‘Nordic model’. While we focus on different kinds of energy production in seven countries, we also research management in Norwegian headquarters as well as at other important sites, such as Statoil’s London office. Ultimately the project addresses issues of globalization and neoliberalization. Our multicited approach to the ‘flow’, negotiation and localization of CSR provides a way to study larger processes comparatively.

Neoliberalization in energy policies

In the longer term I want to explore further the role of neoliberalization in energy policies. I have started to work comparatively on this with a focus on Turkey. Based on my earlier work on fishers, fishery management, introduced species, complemented with current research on energy and irrigation, I have started to sketch a discussion of neo-liberalism’s manifold impacts on the environment in Turkey. Combining ethnographic work with other methods, this study will compare the extent to which neoliberal ideas and practices have been implemented in four different sectors – energy, fisheries, agriculture, and the management of biodiversity. I explore and compare the role of the material, the state, international institutions and popular protests amongst other issues, in creating different dynamics in each field. A preliminary analysis of this material indicates that state policy and neoliberal instruments are deployed differently in the energy sector than in other sectors surveyed. Why? Well, to simplify, because the state has different interests in the different sectors. While fisheries and agriculture no longer play a central role to the Turkish political economy, energy has moved to its core. Energy is considered central to the working of society, and a major concern and focus of state policies. Thus, concurrently, moving the attention of the anthropological gaze to energy also means moving ethnography from the margins to the center of society, from periphery to energy/power. This resonates, of course, with recent work on energy (Mitchell 2011) and makes, in certain respects, anthropology more relevant.

New research agendas

Then, what should we study? I suggest that anthropology should direct more, though not exclusive, attention on:

  • Energy corporations. Little anthropological work has been done inside of energy corporations. I disagree with the claim that since ethnographers have a tendency “to emphasize and identify with their subjects” they risk cooptation when doing fieldwork in corporate offices (Benson and Kirsch 2010:464). I think our methods and critical stance is robust enough to handle that challenge, which – by the way – should not be considered unique to studies of corporations. We should be able to distinguish empathy for informants from sympathy for corporations.
  • State regulatory bodies have central roles in the way production, distribution and consumption of energy are managed in most societies. They are key arenas for implementing policy changes, making it important to explore further the interface between policy, corporations and citizens.
  • Infrastructure has recently attracted (re-)new(ed) interest among anthropologists, and studies emphasize the way in which energy, technology and politics are intertwined. I think, however, time is ripe for comparative studies that explore how different types of energy, with different materialities, engender – or interacts with – certain technologies and polities to produce a range of qualitatively different networks or systems with different potentialities.

Methodological challenges

Research of all of the abovementioned issues comes with methodological challenges. Often, the classical anthropological method of ‘hanging out’ with people over time will not work. This can be because access to corporations or regulatory bodies is difficult due to the organizations’ high degree of concern about managing public knowledge of them, and the anthropologists’ lack of bargaining power in such situations – we do not have much of interest to offer. Usually, the anthropologist will not have been able to delve deep into the life of the corporation before being kicked out: the corporation often has little interest in the anthropologist’s work, and the anthropologist little to offer in return. The ethnographer will often be considered a nuisance.[1] Additionally, the character of the relations we study impels us to work in many sites simultaneously. This involves travels, more semi-structured interviews than participation, non-continuous involvement with our interlocutors, actively create platforms for interaction, mapping infrastructures of extensive geographical extent or opaque character, and being present at or attending activities that involve alternative forms of sociality (social media, websites, documents, skype-meetings). If we bringe our critical sensibilities to these issues while developing new tools and cultivating teamwork, I believe that anthropology can handle these challenges very cautiously, wisely and creatively.


Benson, Peter and Stuart Kirsch (2010) ‘Capitalism and the Politics of resignation’, Current Anthropology 51(4): 459-476.

Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

[1] Steven Sampson, Department Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

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

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.