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

cfp: Nuclear Waste and its Side-Effects – Interdisciplinary Conference 2017

ENTRIA 2017 conference

Interdisciplinary Research on Radioactive Waste: Ethics – Society – Technology

Braunschweig, Germany:  26th – 28th September 2017

Submission deadline: April 15th 2017.

The planned sessions will cover:

  • Substantiating the German Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) Pathway: Time Frames, Technical and Procedural Issues
    The topic is meant to provide scientific support for further specifying details of the pathway “final disposal with reversibility” not yet defined in the recommendations by the German “Endlagerkommission”. Examples include timeframes for the several stages (e.g. “monitoring in advance to closure of the repository”), recoverability requirements, or participation issues.
  • Experiences in Interdisciplinary Cooperation: Methods, Challenges, Outcome
    Scientific cooperation in interdisciplinary research projects is challenging. There are only few books, journals and reports on the subject. The topic focusses on experiences in interdisciplinary cooperation between natural and technical scientists and researchers in social sciences and humanities.
  • Technical Barriers in Radioactive Waste Storage and Disposal
    All storage and disposal options for radioactive residues need a bundle of reliable technical barriers for all considered time steps. This session addresses scientists and engineers dealing with long term performance prediction and testing, structural analysis or generic design of these barriers.
  • Governance & Participation
    New Governance with early modes of public participation and integration of stakeholders has been a promising approach in the last decade, especially in contested policy fields. In the case of critical infrastructures like nuclear waste disposal sites the potential for human intrusion and the uncontrolled distribution of radionuclides was scandalized by NGOs, pressure groups of the anti-nukes movement and a number of political parties. Governmental organizations and international institutions were willing to integrate the interested public in decision-making, e.g. in Switzerland, Sweden and in the last years also in Germany. In this section the theoretic and conceptual aspects of governance in nuclear waste management and the embeddedness of conflicts at concretes sites are discussed. Further, experiences with participation in the context of radioactive waste management in specific countries are addressed. Results from interdisciplinary research and also empirical case studies are welcome.
  • Governance & Monitoring
    Critical infrastructures, which are built to ensure the safety and security of e.g. dangerous wastes, need to be at the center of attention of governmental regulation and authorities. If the protection of human health and the environment as much as the ethical question of a “Good Life” for current society and for future generations are considered a societal aim, the state and its agencies have to build confidence, with the often very concerned public through robust management programs and public dialogue. A screening of the state of the art for long-term monitoring and robust institutions in scientific literature on dangerous wastes showed that plans for technological monitoring, long-term governance and also for public dialogue are not well-prepared. The concepts of reversibility and retrievability render these tasks even more challenging. The aim of this session is to discuss the challenges of and approaches to technical monitoring and long-term governance in an interdisciplinary manner. Scientists from radioactive waste management, spatial planning, political sciences, STS, ethics, technology assessment and engineering with interest on in interdisciplinary research are invited to present their perspectives and results on this topic.
  • Ethical and Juridical Challenges in RWM
    Both, the political and the scientific debate on RWM are loaded with normative issues. This bisciplinary section is open to papers adressing challenges faced in ethical reflection and juridical enquiry of the legal codifications needed as guidelines storage and disposal.
  • Values and Criteria for RWM Strategy Assessment
    On which base may a strategy for RWM be called safe, secure, or just? Any feasible argument on RWM-strategies relies on both, scientific criteria and normative values that form principles for evaluation and assessment. This section will stress the theoretical foundations of RWM-research in order to scruntinise, define, and revaluate the principles of its ways and findings.
  • Addressing Technical and Societal Risks and Uncertainties
    Nearly every issue of radioactive waste management is closely linked to aspects of risk and uncertainties. This session focusses on the management of these aspects – ranging from the safety of technical systems over radiation protection to uncertainties concerning the societal evolution over the next decades.
  • Research Needs in Technical and Non-Technical Disciplines — How Good is Good Enough?
    The session will collect existing deficits for realization of a disposal strategy, both from the technical viewpoint and concerning procedural challenges. In an open discussion, we will address the question whether one should aim at the best conceivable solution or rather – by a more pragmatic approach – at a solution of “only” adequate safety.
  • Education & Training in RWM: Interdisciplinary and Disciplinary Aspects
    The session covers disciplinary and interdisciplinary education and vocational training of all topics related to nuclear waste disposal. Presentations on interdisciplinary cooperative projects and national programs from spokespersons or representatives of this topic area are highly welcome. The session shall comprise short topical presentations followed by a panel discussion.
  • Geoscientific and Geotechnical Aspects of High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal
    Most nations dealing with the disposal of high-level nuclear waste are aiming for a deep geological repository. The topic is directed at researchers in Geology, Mining and Geotechnics to provide presentations on recent research and scientific results in the field of deep geological disposal.

The sessions are comprising invited and contributed talks, discussion groups and a poster session.

The social programme will comprise a public evening event and a social dinner. There will be opportunity to visit Asse, Morsleben, Konrad, the Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (BGR) and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) on Friday, 29th. Following the international conference there will be a full day event for the public on Saturday, 30th in German language (to be announced).

The deadline for Abstract Submission has been extended until April 15th, 2017!

You may submit more than one contribution; however, the upper limit of three contributions per presenter should not be exceeded.
The book of abstracts will be published. By sending your abstract(s), all authors agree to the publication of their abstract(s) by the organizer.

For preparing your abstract, please use this abstract template. Please note: In case that your abstract contains figures, they must have printing quality i.e. 300 dpi is the minimum resolution.

During the online submission of your abstract(s), you please have to:

  • mark your contribution as poster, as oral contribution or as discussion group;
  • assign your abstract(s) to one of our conference themes/sessions;
  • fill into the forms provided by the online system the following information: name, first name & institution etc. of all authors (co-authors) of your abstract(s).

Please submit your abstract online (300 to 500 words, max. 2 pages, max. 5 MB, best as doc or docx) by following this link

Advancing Energy Policy Summer School – Lyon/France – 2017 June 19-23

This pluridisciplinary summer school for PhD students within social science and humanities (SSH) energy research will focus on how SSH research can contribute to tackle the many energy-related challenges in Europe. Key energy topics, such as energy efficiency, secure low-carbon energy supply, energy system optimization and transport decarbonisation, will be discussed with an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and on the translation of academic research into policy and practice.

Intense and interactive 5 days training on Energy!

The Summer School will be an opportunity for participants to reflect on how SSH research can be embedded into exiting energy initiatives and policy in order to maximize its impact. It will focus on exploring the value of SSH research, which is not just to support the implementation of technical solutions, but to investigate the social goals upon which technological goals are based. In this way, the Summer School will set the scene for reflection and action.

To meet and exchange in a high level!

The Summer School is an opportunity to meet and collaborate with other PhD students in Horizon 2020 energy projects. Advanced researchers and practitioners will present their expertise and facilitate the understanding of the role of SSH energy research for policy and practice. Each day, several talks, round tables and workshops will offer the opportunity to learn, discuss and apply different approaches, practices and methods to studying energy within the social sciences and humanities.

To discover a beautiful and attractive French city!

Lyon is one large World Heritage Site, with a big renaissance old town, Roman ruins, historic industrial districts and the regal 19th-century Presqu’île quarter. The city was founded 2,000 years ago at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, and built its fortune on the silk trade. This industry furnished it with beautiful renaissance architecture in Vieux Lyon, where semi-hidden passageways called Traboules connect courtyards with the Saône.

Come to share this experience!

We invite applications from Phd Students (ESRs) with a specific focus on Energy.

Applicants must be fluent in written and spoken English.

Tution is free!

Accomodation and travel are at the student’s expenses.

Inscription has to be done on the conference website: https://shapeenergy.sciencesconf.org/

 Number of places limited to 40

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 731264.