We are living in an era of rapid change in relation to energy generation, distribution and finance, yet we are also living with enduring effects of past energy activities. The earth is reeling from the effects of GHG associated with industrial energy-conversions, while the scope of energy-related infrastructure continues to grow. How can humans and non-humans live with the legacy of energy-actions? What kind of energy futures are becoming possible? Which energy-practices are settled, and which are here to stay? This first EASA panel of the Energy Anthropology Network invites contributors to address the ‘staying, moving, settling’ found in energy anthropologies, addressing legacies and futures of energy-related practices, beliefs, theories and governance.
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 wholesaletransformation 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 inspiredby ‘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.
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.
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.
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.