Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

The social practices perspective (Shove et al., 2012) offers a potentially useful approach to the needed “integrated models” discussed in Section 6.2. As noted, the focus of U.S. demand-side energy policy has been on improving the efficiencies of devices, with limited attention to energy users, their energy uses, or the social shaping of energy consumption (Lutzenhiser 2014). Similarly, Mexico’s Energy Reform program has targeted the technical aspects of equipment, appliances, and energy consumption in public buildings, rather than a more systematic view that starts with a framing of meeting people’s needs for energy in low-carbon ways (Valdez 2015).

The social practices perspective takes a more explicit social sciences–based approach to understanding energy use and carbon emissions, offering new ways of seeing complexity and understanding the possibilities for change in social patterns of consumption. Rather than focusing on technologies, behaviors, and desires, for example, as relatively independent, this perspective takes “practices” as the object of inquiry, highlighting how daily living rests on dependencies among people, activities, technologies, and supply systems, as well as how the various practices relate to each other. It thus involves appreciating the social origins of taken-for-granted “needs” for particular goods and services, which, in reality, vary considerably across time, space, and populations. By not assuming that patterns of activity—human interactions with technologies or current levels of energy use—are fixed or unquestionable, the practices perspective can lead to rethinking housing, transportation, home-workplace relationships, lifestyles, technology designs, and policy approaches.

Social practice theory applied to energy use and carbon emissions draws on several overlapping strands of contemporary research. One strand is sociological theory concerned with how social structures come into being and are reproduced at multiple scales—from the individual to the group, social institutions, and macro-organization within and between societies in the global system (e.g., Giddens 1984). A second is an appreciation that social actors’ household habits and routines involve ongoing skilled cultural interactions with technological artifacts and sociotechnical systems (Lutzenhiser 1992). The third recognizes that actors’ and households’ understandings of their own energy-using activities are important to grasp as they are expressions of larger institutional beliefs and knowledge systems (Shove et al., 1998). Together, the strands focus attention on the systematic interactions among human actors, devices, meanings, skills, infrastructures, and social systems—compared to the more traditional focus on elements in relative isolation (e.g., behaviors, needs, and appliances) that was common in earlier research on energy use and energy efficiency.

Examples of social practices include cooking and eating, driving, walking, riding, using personal and family electronic devices, heating and cooling, washing, entertaining and visiting, and home buying and renovating. While their expression can vary considerably within societies, by definition social practices are not idiosyncratic; they are shared and maintained by social groups. Practices are patterned and clustered with other practices. They often are taken for granted but can become problematic and subject to criticism (e.g., use of water on lawns in drought areas, driving cars short distances for errands, and wearing business suits in the summer in Japan). Practices have histories; they change over time, and they are bundled with physical materials and technologies in mutually supportive relationships. They are sometimes discarded but also can persist long after the conditions that gave rise to them have changed; discarded practices also can be subsequently revived and adapted. In this view, all carbon emissions are produced as a by-product of social practices—and social practices are produced within a complex of social circumstances, rather than by isolated free will.

The importance of beginning research by analyzing these practices to assess the “social potential” (Shove et al., 2012) of interventions in the carbon cycle follows from the fact that, while most energy use and carbon emissions themselves are invisible to the people and groups responsible for them, they are embedded in immediately meaningful social patterns and norms. Therefore, practices often are locked in by shared habits and expectations that require the use of particular devices (e.g., appliances, automobiles, and office buildings) that, in turn, depend on the energy flows and emissions of the larger sociotechnical systems to which they are connected. And these larger systems prove to be incredibly complex, made up of linked technologies and infrastructures, codes and regulations, organizational structures and networks, geographies, and shared scientific and technical knowledge frameworks (Bijker et al., 1987).

Thus, the social practice theory view appreciates this complexity and concludes that what people do with their lives—how they live and relate to others—has considerable salience and importance for carbon emissions reduction, and largely abstract calls for change should be met with skepticism. As a general rule, changes in practices should be expected to be hard to achieve as a policy or market goal, and the hoped-for “levers” of change in practices may well demand coordinated action on interconnected elements of social, technical, political, cultural, environmental, and economic systems. Nonetheless, changes in practices are continually occurring, sometimes in directions that seem “desired” from the perspective of climate change goals and policies. Funding from European scientific and energy agencies is being directed toward understanding the evolving carbon-emitting practices of households and organizations, with attention to origins, dynamics, interdependencies, and trends—including the effects of innovations in technology and policy on changes in social practice (DEMAND 2016; RCUK 2016).

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