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.


CFP for ERSS: Problems of method in the social study of energy and climate change

CFP for Energy Research and Social Science 

Edited by James Goodman and Jonathan Paul Marshall, University of Technology Sydney

Energy and climate change are intimately related, as the main causes of climate change have to do with the production, politics, organisation and technology of energy. Social processes, rooted in prevailing models of capitalism and development, and the associated patterns of energyproduction and use, are altering world ecology and society. Researching questions of energy transition and climate change, poses profound questions for the methods of both social science and energy research.

This Special Issue aims to explore insights arising from how we go about researching energy and climate change from a social perspective. The questions and dilemmas that arise during research are both significant in themselves, and highly revealing of wider issues. Consequently we ask contributors to begin with their direct experience of undertaking research into the social aspects of energy and climate, and to use that experience, and the problems of method evoked, to explore the conundrums we face as part of a wider society being transformed by climate change and related forms of social action.

There are several matters which immediately call for attention:

  1. There are questions about the role of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary or multi-methods research in grappling with interwoven socio-ecological contexts and their different knowledges;
  2. The extent to which climate and energy research necessarily engages with normative priorities and agendas for political agency, such as the politicization of knowledge;
  3. The degree to which the abstracted and distanced character of climate change creates conflicts between levels and aspects of social action.

There are also more practical issues such as:

  1. How to combine ecological processes with social processes;
  2. How to relate the qualitative experience of climate change with the quantitative ‘big data’ of climate science; and
  3. Problems of how to build methods of data collection and analysis in complex, multileveled situations.

This list of possible concerns is not meant to be exhaustive, but all these concerns engage, in one way or another, with the wider methodological and epistemological questions of how social scientists can bring the socio-ecological imagination to bear, to address the political relations between energy and climate change, and be sensitive to the consequences of the tools they employ. We are interested in papers from all kinds of social and cross-disciplinary research, including anthropology, economics, social psychology, political economy, statistical sociology, political science, cultural studies, social ecology, human geography, social studies of science and their various combinations.

Ideally papers would show how issues of method or methodology transformed a particular empirical study and opened insights into the nature of the social, and other, dynamics involved.

Time Table

Abstracts to be in by August 1st, 2017. Notification of acceptance by August 15th, 2017.

Papers due by November 1st, 2017, or earlier.

Final decision: June 1st, 2018.

Publication around July, 2018.


Please send abstracts to: &

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search