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Conceptualising Demand: A distinctive approach to consumption and practice

10 August, 2020

Elizabeth Shove

Reading time: 3 minutes

This new book addresses fundamental questions about the very idea of energy demand: how is it constituted, how does it change and how might it be steered?

Judgements about how much energy society needs are woven into forms of policy analysis, future investment, energy modelling and more. A new book from Jenny Rinkinen and CREDS researchers Elizabeth Shove and Greg Marsden articulates and challenges the tacit theories and understandings on which these assumptions depend.

In the opening chapters we claim that the tendency to conceptualise demand as an expression and outcome of consumer choice or as a consequence of technological efficiency is a significantly limiting feature. It is so in that such approaches suppose that demand is defined by and also confined to topics and issues that are, on the face of it, governed by individual behaviour and by peoples’ values, preferences and abilities to pay. This is such a familiar approach that commentators rarely give the underlying logic a second though but as long as policy makers, researchers and practitioners think of demand in these terms they are unlikely to do more than scratch the surface.

The book works through the practical and theoretical implications of the view that resources such as energy are consumed and transformed in accomplishing a huge range of social practices (e.g. heating, commuting, laundering, cooling etc.) and that demand is an outcome of these social, institutional and material arrangements. In all of these examples and more, the details are not pre-given: what practices ‘require’ changes over time, at different rates and in different ways. The extent and timing of energy demands is a consequence of these processes.

In building on these ideas, and in weaving them together, the book is organized around five propositions: That demand is derived from practices; that it is made and not simply met; that it is materially imbedded; that it is temporally unfolding and that it is modified and modulated, deliberately or not, via many forms of policy and governance.

These propositions apply as well to discussions about the demand for water, or for education, policing or health care. At the same time, there are revealing and instructive differences in how demand is conceptualized in different fields. For example, in the transport sector, demand is often said to be ‘derived’ from what people do – an interpretation that fits well with the approach we take, but that hardly ever figures in discussions of energy use in buildings. Similarly, although there is no obvious equivalent in the energy world, in public health, the concept of an obesogenic environment (an environment that favours practices that contribute to obesity) has informed interventions designed to modify practices of eating and exercise, and to do so in ways that promote well-being and reduce the demand for health care. As these unusually adventurous responses remind us, social practices and related patterns of demand are not fixed for all time. Nor are they immune from policy influence. In fact policy makers are constantly intervening (and not intervening) in ways that shape the very foundations of demand. What is missing, and what we hope to provide, is an account of the processes involved. It is for this reason that we write about how demand is constituted, how it changes and how it might be shaped and steered.

A 26 second film of the book launch is available here.

Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove and Greg Marsden.  Published by Routledge, July 2020: https://www.routledge.com/Conceptualising-Demand-A-Distinctive-Approach-to-Consumption-and-Practice/Rinkinen-Shove-Marsden/p/book/9780367465025

Banner photo credit: peshkov on Adobe Stock

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