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

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

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