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Energy & the active consumer - a social sciences and humanities cross-cutting theme report

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posted on 2023-07-26, 16:55 authored by Emmet Fox, Chris Foulds, Rosalyn A. V. Robison
The active participation of energy consumers is regarded as essential for the effective roll-out and development of a wide range of smart energy technologies, micro-generation and energy demand policies. As such, the ‘active consumer’ has become a focus of European Union energy policy in recent years. Accordingly, and as an output of the SHAPE ENERGY project, this report has two aims: • to present and offer guidance for interested parties on different Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) options for examining active consumers, including suggesting how particular SSH approaches might shape the direction of energy research and findings; and • to examine options for the integration of different SSH disciplinary approaches to the active consumer, as well as considering the implications of such integrations for future energy research. While recognising multiple understandings of active consumers and their energy consumption, we adopt a broad definition. Specifically, active (energy) consumption encompasses a level of participation by consumers in the purchase or use of products and services, which thereby reflects some agency on the consumers’ part and/or is itself influential in how products and services are used and designed. This can include consumer feedback, and the use and appropriation of goods and services which go beyond that intended by providers/manufactures and can affect future design considerations. Drawing on an extensive review of the literature, we establish some of the key characteristics of how active consumers and their energy demand are conceptualised in SSH, both implicitly and explicitly. Specifically, we divide SSH approaches by their most common features into: • Individualised approaches, which focus on answering what shapes individual decisions/actions towards energy consumption; and • Relational Societal approaches, which focus on energy consumption as part of an evolving and interdependent relationship with society. The application of either approach will carry different implications for research on the active consumer in relation to potential energy research problems (such as smart technology participation). In particular, there are questions over whether research can be restricted or improved by either greater interdependency and inclusion of societal elements, as per the Relational Societal approaches; or by direct (often linear) modelling of active consumers, as per the Individualised approaches. We argue that Relational Societal, while more complex, offer a deeper understanding of dynamic and widespread change. In contrast, Individualised offer greater conceptual simplicity, but appear vulnerable on explanations of how consumption is shaped and changed. Recognising these fundamental differences is essential for researchers and project funders when considering which SSH approaches might best serve the development of energy interventions - this is especially important as the dominant STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) agenda would typically favour Individualised approaches. With interdisciplinarity being a key aspiration of SHAPE ENERGY and indeed of Horizon 2020 energy work programmes, we also consider options for integrating the two approaches. We recognise that integration attempts need to be cautious of paradigmatic differences that can make certain forms of integration unworkable. On the basis of all this, we present recommendations, including to the Commission concerning future EU research funding, to those interested in or working on interdisciplinary energy research projects and platforms, and to fellow SHAPE ENERGY partners on the organisation of our Platform’s activities. Across all of these recommendations, we have prioritised: the importance of including SSH approaches in research on energy consumption; the need to acknowledge the relevance to energy consumption research of previously neglected Relational Societal approaches; and the need to be critical when considering interdisciplinary approaches to studying the active consumer.


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Cambridge, UK

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  • Published version


  • eng

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  • Other

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ARCHIVED Faculty of Science & Technology (until September 2018)

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