As a successful applicant of the H2020 SHAPE ENERGY Research Design Challenge, I have begun a collaboration with Dr. Anne Schiffer (Leeds Beckett University). Exploring the lived experience of energy systems change as it plays out in diverse temporal and spatial landscapes, we are combining and expanding our respective doctoral research projects to conduct comparative contemporary and historical ethnographic energy research in (post)industrial and developing world contexts.
I met Anne at the RGS-IBG 2017 annual conference where I saw her present on her doctoral research on energy transitions in The Gambia. Despite our research being conducted in different temporal and developmental contexts (Ireland and The Gambia), there is a large overlap in terms of our respective findings on the intersection of social processes in energy systems change. Specifically, key themes emerging from my retrospective historical exploration of the lived experience of past energy transitions in Ireland strongly resonated with insights emerging from her ethnographic research of the ongoing energy transition in The Gambia. We expressed excitement about this and discussed our desire to potentially collaborate together in the future. So when I saw the SHAPE ENERGY call suited for researchers seeking to collaborate on social science energy research, Anne was the first potential collaborator that sprung to mind. To my delight, upon approaching her, she was as equally excited about the possibility of collaborating together. With only a few days to the Research Design Challenge deadline, we quickly began to work together on developing a research proposal.
In considering the mainstream approaches to development, policies around sustainable energy and development in both (post-)industrialised and developing countries focus predominantly on technological fixes and solutions. A key consequence of this is that the social contexts and implications of resource use are often overlooked in current policy discussions. However, among social scientists, such as myself, it is increasingly recognised that energy is not just a technical but also a deeply social issue, reflecting and shaping the social, cultural and political-economic structures of societies. Within this context, our work seeks to highlight the importance of understanding and analysing the lived experience and practice of daily life in the context of energy systems change.
Following this, Anne and I are working together to demonstrate the potential of ethnographic energy research for revealing insights into complex contextual processes shaping lives and practices. In doing so we are conducting a comparative analysis of the intersections of lives, practices and contexts in energy systems change in Ireland and The Gambia. While Anne’s doctoral research had explored energy systems change in a contemporary context, we felt that it would greatly enhance our analysis to explore how change has played out over a longer historical timescale. To this end, we proposed to travel to Africa over the Christmas break to replicate my doctoral methodology and conduct novel biographic research on past energy transitions in The Gambia. With our application receiving positive reviews and acceptance, we began preparations for travel to conduct fieldwork in The Gambia over the New Year and early January period.
Map of The Gambia
During the duration of our field research stay, we immersed ourselves in the local culture and life of the community of Kartong to investigate the intersections of energy systems and social change as it plays out at the scale of situated everyday practices. Kartong is a village located in the South coastal region of The Gambia that recently underwent electrification in 2013. However, some sections of the community continue to remain unconnected to the fossil fuel powered grid system.
Transforming energy landscapes in the community of Kartong, The Gambia
Employing an immersive ethnographic methodology that combined elements of our respective PhD methodologies, we lived with a local family, participated in local daily practices and conducted a series of biographic interviews with elderly local residents of Kartong to explore how life has changed over time. The pictures embedded below depict me participating in daily food preparation and myself and Anne with one of the elderly women that we interviewed. We supplemented this data with visual photographic and audio-visual ethnographic accounts of local ways of performing energy practices as well as the changing material landscapes and infrastructures which frame these performances.
Participating in cooking practice
Anne (left) and I (right) with one of our interviewees (centre)
During our stay, we also traveled to Serekunda to meet with governmental officials at the Ministry for Petroleum and Energy and participated in a meeting focused on curriculum design for sustainable energy practices. This meeting was also attended by UNESCO and staff from The University of The Gambia.
The fascinating narratives, images and accounts of change emerging from this research are revealing crucial insights into the intersections of lives, practices and contexts in energy systems change. To this end, we are specifically interested in exploring a number of key questions, such as: How are social relations and forms of interaction shaped by dynamics in energy systems? How are already existing patterns of social inequality and difference (e.g. gender, race and social class) reproduced or transformed in the context of broader socio-technical and political-economic transitions? How might ethnographic, situated energy transition research that considers diverse lived experiences inform sustainability policy at local, national and international scales? What can be learned by analysing the lived experience of technological change as it plays out in diverse contemporary and historical landscapes?
In terms of next steps, Anne and I will continue to work closely over the next few months in our analysis of the data. This research will be disseminated through a number of means, including a co-authored paper that will be published with high visibility and sent to the EU’s strategy for research and innovation in March 2018 as part of the H2020 SHAPE ENERGY Research Design Challenge.