Chapter 5: ENERGY AND SOCIAL SYSTEMS

This chapter reviews conventional and alternative approaches to the study of energy use and society and calls for a substantial rethinking of the dominant conventional policy paradigms on human dimensions of energy research. Conventional analyses commonly reflect a distinct bifurcation of energy and social science disciplines, in which one domain tends to be subsumed by the other. A review of alternative approaches to energy consumption policy operates under the basic premise that energy use is inherently embedded within cultural and sociotechnical frameworks of analysis that must explicitly be taken into account. The authors point out the lacunae in conventional approaches, which have neglected any theoretical elaboration of energy use as mediated by sociocultural and institutional practice. Thus, ‘conventional policy analysis tends to adopt a somewhat restrictive view of the human dimension and with it a correspondingly limited view of what social science might have to offer’ (p. 293). The chapter concludes with a call for an increasing role of energy policy intervention informed by social theory, and that is grounded in empirical, situationally specific, local level analyses. A brief, critical examination of the social construction of policy analysis is also undertaken.

Summary

The first half of this chapter is devoted to a critical analysis of what are termed ‘conventional perspectives’ on energy policy research. Standard paradigms are characterized by three key features: a clear conceptual division of society and technology; econocentric assumptions about human behavior that shape energy use; and human agency as an individualized process, unobstructed by larger collective social entities (eg, institutions). Much of this section is an epistomological exploration of rigid disciplinary and institutional boundaries that compartmentalize and isolate energy research from the social and political context in which energy consumption patterns are formed. Cross-disciplinary analyses linking economic theory on energy use with sociological, psychological, and environmental parameters are glaringly absent from this field. Energy research is only now beginning to escape from it’s highly technocentric disciplinary boundaries, and to be conceptualized in broader holistic terms as defined by human behavior, society, and environment interactions.

The distinct conceptualization of society and technology as mutually exclusive domains of inquiry may be, in part, a reflection of low societal concern about linking energy consumption and consumer lifestyles to environmental decline. The notable absence of critical sociological reflection on energy analysis has enabled energy policy specialists to define the conceptual landscape of energy research, largely void of well informed social analysis. As a result, economic models have become ascendant, guiding energy policy practice and analysis in the absence of sound social theoretical modeling.

Most notably absent in conventional models of energy consumption is the capacity to adequately capture human behavior, particularly social strata based on class, age, household structure, etc. Aggregate levels of analysis of human behavior are universalized and applied broadly across national or global scales, based upon a generalized model of the rational economic actor, allowing for nominal human variation in behavior: ‘there is no place for an understanding of how consumers themselves view and make sense of their own actions’ (p. 303). People are modeled within ‘lifestyle clusters’ or discreet bounded social categories, thus dismissing them as ‘active, knowledgeable social agents.’

Disillusioned with conventional understandings of societal-energy interactions, the authors turn to what they believe are more promising, innovative, and critical reflections on the future of energy use and society. Alternative approaches feature an amalgam of social science-based interpretations that attach social meaning to energy consumption and associated technologies. The locus of analysis is the individual actor as the key agent of social change and consumer choice, and who is informed and influenced by shared social meanings. Sociocultural variation and the representation of institutional context assume particular saliency in alternative analyses.

The authors argue for a reconceptualization of the individual as consumers who are shaped by a complex array of non-technical, situational factors that are well embedded in social life. Lay folk knowledge and collective conventions such as government’s role in energy efficiency labeling, and shared social and moral norms are examples of determinant variables shaping energy resource opinion and decision-making. The embedded nature of energy use and consumer tastes and preferences within given social contexts is demonstrated through a crosscultural examination of variation and social differentiation in energy consumer practice. Comparative energy use research in Norway and Japan illustrates how divergent consumption patterns are explained by shared norms of social meaning of light and heat. Intrasocietal comparisons as well, demonstrate that energy consumption is deeply rooted in cultural practice and symbolic meaning. Social conformity, in particular, is a critical behavioral determinant in the maintenance of distinct identities and differences among groups according to ethnicity, class, religion, etc

Human agency within alternative models is not viewed as autonomous or immune to external influences operating at larger scales. The role of institutions is acknowledged as formative in shaping individual choice. The authors trace three examples of institutional context in molding consumer behavior: the role of market fluctuations in energy efficiency in commercial office development; the embodiment of social and material practice in shaping consumer demand; and the increasing globalization of energy supply and demand. This chapter concludes with a revisionist agenda for human dimensions research based upon a critique of dominant conventional frameworks of energy policy analysis that are ‘currently embedded in a particular policy paradigm that contains within it a singularly limited theory of social change.’

Strengths

The strength of this chapter lies in its dissection of predominant models and approaches to energy sector analysis that apply a standardized template of individual consumer choice writ large across all social, cultural, and geographical boundaries. The primacy of the rational economic actor as the key social dimensions component undergirding the model is stripped bare, shown to be void of human variation and situational context. The authors succeed in unearthing the parochial disciplinary divide between society and technology that impedes creative thinking about more holistic, inclusive models that bridge society-energy use interactions.

Weaknesses

Alternative modes of framing the society-technology dichotomy that acknowledge the idiosyncracies of human agency and social context are given conceptual weight in this chapter. However, translating theory into empirical, practical models that can be tested and replicated is not adequately achieved. This may be due, in part, to the nascent nature of interpretive research investigation that is only now beginning to take root within various social science disciplines and science and technology studies programs. Recent anthropological and sociological literature linking the globalization of consumer culture to environmental concerns such as anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is not exhaustively treated in this section. Finally, wording of critical issues at times lacks transparency or cogent presentation, slowing the concentration and comprehension of the reader.


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