Energy biographies, psychosocial research and sustainable living

Karen Henwood
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
2:00 p.m.
SMSS 2134
Karen Henwood

Karen Henwood is a social psychologist by training and a Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. She uses established and develops bespoke social science methodologies to investigate issues of real world importance and to understand how and why questions of risk (both environmental and social) matter to people in their everyday lives. Journal publications span across social science disciplines (especially sociology and psychology) and appear in specialist methods texts and contexts. Currently she is co-editor of the Sage methodology journal Qualitative Research. As well as her specialist knowledge of social science research methodologies, she has participated in several major UK Research Council (ESRC)  research networks. The Timescapes network showcased longitudinal qualitative/temporal methods in lifecourse, family and community research, and explored theoretical and applied questions concerning identity transitions and transformations in times of socio-cultural and environmental change. As part of the SCARR network, her work involved conducting a multi-site, empirical study of how local communities live with risks from major socio-technical hazards in their immediate locality, and investigated the relevance of risk to people in their everyday lives. With Professor Nick Pidgeon, and fairly recently (2012), she co-authored a UK Government Foresight Report on Risk and Identity Futures, She has also worked collaboratively with networked members of the arts, sustainability and low carbon energy communities on engaging the public in reflecting on major risk issues (such as climate change) and psychosocial aspects of risk. Currently, she is finalising a major ESRC/EPSRC study investigating everyday energy practices and low carbon transition. The outputs from this project will the topic of her talk.

Arguments about how to bring about change in contemporary ways of living and to address intractable climate and related risk issues are not uncontroversial: it is not so obvious how to take forward our individual and collective efforts to live more sustainably. The position we have adopted on the energy biographies research project ( is that any such change needs to be liveable change for the humans currently alive on this planet. Our ways of working towards this, therefore, have involved seeking to understand the often highly embedded nature of routine, everyday energy practices which frequently underpin difficulties in changing them, as well as opening up reflective spaces for thinking about possibilities for change. The presentation will focus on efforts by the energy biographies research team to conduct methodologically innovative research involving a combination of narrative, multi-modal, and qualitative longitudinal data collection and analysis methods that are suited to investigating patterns of everyday energy usage and which offer rich research resources for the interpretation and analysis of empirical data. Drawing directly on some of our published papers (“Invested in unsustainability?: On The Psychosocial Patterning of Engagement in Practices” (Environmental Values, 2015) and “Energy biographies: narrative genres, lifecourse transitions and practice change” (Science, Technology and Human Values, 2015), the presentation of research will suggest that patterns of practices in and of themselves cannot be viewed as responsible for the continuance of unsustainability, and that there is also a need to go deeper and broader in thinking about how people become participants in such practices. For social practice theorists, attention needs to be paid to internal rewards – such as feelings of competence afforded by doing something well, as well as the (better known) social rewards that come from performing a practice in ways that can bestow social distinction. A psychosocial perspective can offer more complex views of the various other elements that lock in, or fail to lock in, subjects as carriers of particular practices and opens up possibilities of change in environmental subjectivities in and through time.

Co-Sponsors: Bren School for Environmental Science & Management, Environmental Humanities Initiative