Interview by Ilana Gershon
I was sitting in a coffee shop reading your book, and it sounds like I live in a town that allows for as many unplanned social encounters as Middleborough. A law professor I hadn’t seen all summer came over to chat, looked at what I was reading, and raised his eyebrow in response to your title, An Ethnography of Household Energy Demand in the UK. “Oh, this is so much more interesting than the title,” I hastened to reassure him. “It is truly astonishing what you can learn by asking intelligent and imaginative questions about what seems to be banal.” Could you talk a little bit about how wide a net you were able to cast in your ethnography by beginning with British households’ uses of electronic devices?
Thank you very much for such a kind defense! Studies of consumption in the Global North might often elicit reluctance at first. One might feel they already know about this – from the media, or their peers. However, when there’s an anthropologist conducting the study, the outcome will rarely address consumption alone. In this case, energy demand was a very useful entry point indeed, especially methodologically. It is such a taken for granted aspect of everyday life that in order to reach it you have to inquire about the organizing principles of everydayness. And once you are there, every detail that your interlocutors share about their routines becomes relevant, whether the first thing they do when they get home is to put the kettle on, or the fact that they wait for a specific TV program to have desert. Energy is implied in all these unobserved moments, but it’s more often a facilitator than an agent. So I widened my net to look at some other roles of energy-consuming devices, for example in supporting forms of domestic sociality, and in enacting values of togetherness and independence. It was exciting to work with families because they brought multiple perspectives on their shared domesticities, and the extra challenge for me to account for all of them in my analysis. In the end, the story that the book is telling is about human action and time, which are quite a long way away from consumption, conceptually. With regards to energy demand, I am really glad to have produced a set of suggestions for interventions that account for current configurations of values in the home, and which might be of use to policy-makers and other practitioners.
I was surprised to find myself regularly reading about Morris dancing in an ethnography about English domestic use of technology. Could you discuss the role Morris dancing played for you in your fieldwork?
Morris dancing was one of those serendipitous encounters that can happen while on fieldwork. I was recruited into this practice at the beginning of my stay in England, when everything was new and had potential for investigation. By the end of my PhD I had been part of a Border Morris group for about four years, performing with them regularly. It started as an activity that was parallel to my research, and as a form of release. But with time it became a field where I tested ideas. For example, I was able to relate to literature on tacit knowledge through my experience of becoming a skillful practitioner in Morris dancing. When you dance with people this is a special form of getting to know them. You see one’s movements and the way they inhabit their body, and this tells you about who they are in a different way than a verbal conversation does. So, starting from dance, I became interested in creating the conditions for such spontaneous intersubjectivity in my fieldwork with families. I wondered if I could propose some other forms of research activities that could broaden the types of interactions we had.
What is striking in reading your ethnography is just how imaginative your methodological exercises are as a way to learn about how people act in their domestic space (and behind doors normally closed to outsiders), from handing people a video camera to film family activities, the Five Cups of Tea activity in which people record what they did just before and after a cup of tea, to your Tactile Time collage method (asking people to use textiles to reflect on their practices). Could you discuss a bit what different insights these varied methods provided?
Yes, these other research exercises started as a way of addressing domestic moments that, as an outsider, I could rarely be part of myself. The video diary looked at evening times and activities of winding down after dinner. I asked all family members to pass on the camera so that each would be in charge of reporting on at least one evening. This brought some useful entry points into the topic of family time. I also learned about some ways in which electronic devices were employed to facilitate domestic sociality or to playfully enhance family interactions somehow, in the sense that they can convey a familiar message in an unconventional way – such as when making a video call to ask the children to come downstairs. The collage was then a way of inviting the families to reflect on the routines illustrated in the video snippets. We all sat down around their living room table and I asked them to represent the situations when their main TV, for example, would be on. They used textiles to express the qualities of time and their own individual or intersubjective experiences of those moments. This method was very good for eliciting conversation about experiences of time, as well as about togetherness and independence in the home. It was also very interesting to notice similarities between families. For example, out of nine choices of fabrics, felt proved to be the most popular, especially when representing evening time. Later, when analyzing these materials, I became interested in some forms of time that were mentioned but remained underexplored, because my questions until that point had been rather family-central, in the sense that they focused on shared domesticity. So, I crafted the Five Cups of Tea method to find out more about my interlocutors as individuals, and to look at instances when domesticity is experienced in solitude. In the UK some of these situations are often accompanied by a cup of tea. So the method took an existing practice – that sometimes marks a break in the flux of activity and might make room for reflection – and expanded it into an explicit exercise of self-reflection. As well as asking people to record where that moment was situated in their day, each cup proposed a specific topic for consideration, from childhood memories to how they would like to change the world.
What kinds of domestic sociality does the current British middle-class range of communicative technologies encourage?
Some forms of sociality that can be regarded to benefit from a technological input are well-delimited situations, such as friendly arguments, or broader routines, such as family time. People sometimes employ digital devices to make room for independence within times of togetherness – for example they can follow their individual interests or chat with school friends while sharing the physical space of the living room with the other family members. Some work emails or even homework are dealt with in that way, and people chat about their tasks as they perform them, making the others part of these activities.
Could you talk about how you learned about instant gifting or happy actions and what insights this practices gives you into people’s experiences of time?
I first learned about instant gifting from a child participant in one of my visits during the summer holiday. It was rather an impromptu visit as I called in to bring them a souvenir from a trip abroad. We had a cup of tea and they remembered that they had taken some photos of me Morris dancing a while ago. So we connected our phones and Erin’s mum transferred me the photos. As Erin had her own smartphone she wanted to try to connect to my phone as well (I should note I am using the same pseudonym as I did in the book). Then she asked me what my favorite animal was, and when I said I liked dogs she sent me an image of a dog; and we continued this exchange for the rest of my visit. Later, I found myself repeating this instant gifting with a couch surfer who was staying at my place. It is a fun and gentle ‘ice breaker’ that Erin crafted through a mix of digital and non-technological actions. It feels as nice to give an instant gift as to receive one, and in domestic settings it’s a good way of jazzing up an uneventful day. Time is a key feature of instant gifting. You’re acting upon the present, interrupting a continuous linearity with a joyful occurrence. So one of the chapters in the book is dedicated to spontaneity, discussing the forms of human agency that are brought about in spontaneous actions, as well as some other ways of creating immediacy with digital media.
You talk about how being an English mother means more than being entangled with others so deeply that one will never again be able to be disentangled, that it means knowing and anticipating another’s needs and tastes and possessions. How do people’s uses of digital media reveal this form of entanglement?
Anticipation in practices of kinship-situated caring was most apparent in the use of text messages and in keeping calendars. People often knew the daily schedule of their domestic others so well, that at any point in the day they could imagine what their partner or children were doing, whether finishing work, or moving from school to an after-school club. So if there was something they wanted to tell them, they chose to text them at the times that were most convenient for the recipients, such as in their lunch break. This form of reasoning that places the recipient at the center shows this entanglement very nicely. Parents also conversed through text messages with their teenage children who were out, trying to read if they were well and having a nice time from the frequency of their responses and the details that were shared. The exchange of texts was here a way of establishing a ‘live’ connection where the two parties thought of each other at the same time. More than the content of the messages, it was this connection that put the parents at ease.
How has your fieldwork affected your own uses of digital media?
When I started my fieldwork, in 2011, I wasn’t a smartphone user. Soon I realized that I had to try this device in order to test for myself how it feels to be able to find the answers to a range of queries almost instantaneously, from food recipes to whether it’s going to rain. This was something that my research participants talked about a lot. Initially it was from them that I learned how to use the device, and I asked them for apps suggestions. This also brought about some interesting ways of keeping in touch – for example with one family we kept a drawing competition on for a while, through a smartphone app. I think that generally I became more mindful about my own uses of digital media and I stared to track how various digital actions made me feel.