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.