Guide to racially just energy research

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12 July, 2023

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Uttara Narayan developed a guide to assist in being more thoughtful and deliberate about energy research.

In responding to Black Lives Matter, CREDS recognised a research gap in understanding the relationship between racial justice and energy demand and developed a scoping project to derive a research agenda. This guide arises from that research and aims to assist us in being more thoughtful and deliberate about our research.

What is racially just energy research and why is it important?

Energy demand involves understanding how we use energy, how much we use, when we use it and what types of energy we use. To know if energy demand is racialised, we need to understand how it can be racialised. By racialisation, we mean predominantly structural mechanisms that assign a hierarchy of meanings to peoples’ identities, thereby leading to unequal access to opportunities and services that disadvantages their well-being.

It is ever-changing, and different people experience racialisation in different ways, as individuals as well as in terms of collective group identities. Therefore, it cannot be simplistically reduced to unidimensional, reductive characteristics such as ‘British-born ethnic minorities’.

At the societal level, certain aspects of society are racialised, from access to healthcare and housing to the criminal justice system. There is data that can demonstrate unequal access or disadvantages for those whose identities are racialised as compared to their non-racialised counterparts.

The objective of the scoping project is to explore if the energy system demonstrates similar patterns. Since there is insufficient data to explore that comprehensively, the scoping research asks the following questions:

  • Who is assumed to be a typical energy user or willing adopter of low-carbon technologies? What does that mean for those who might not fit such an assumption, in terms of accessing the services and technologies to assist low-carbon practices?
  • Do we understand the diverse and complex energy needs and practices of people who are racialised? How responsive or inelastic could those practices be in the context of the dominant framing of what constitutes low-carbon lifestyles?
  • Are there sufficient opportunities for people who experience racialisation to contribute to decisions in the energy system? Could that affect the way we define problems and design solutions?

At present, we do not have sufficient data to answer these questions comprehensively.

How do you ensure racially just energy research?

Figure 1: Levels to help consider racial justice – 0 Racist, 1 Racially neutral, 2 Racially sensitive, 3 Racially responsive and 4 Racially just.

Figure 1 summarises the racial justice continuum, which categorises research on a spectrum according to how it engages with the racialisation agenda. The racist category identifies forms of research that perpetuate racist assumptions. For example, an assumption that the Traveller community deserve to be on prepayment meters because they tend to default on their electricity payments (pdf)Opens in a new tab is racist, and further criminalisesOpens in a new tab an already marginalised community. The objective of any research should be to ensure that it does not run the risk of being intentionally or unintentionally racist.

The racially neutral level arguably also conducts insufficient anti-racist research but it is more deceptive, as researchers might try to justify that race is not relevant to the research question at hand. Such research not only risks making racialised experiences invisible, but might also perpetuate the assumption that racialised experiences are an exception to the norm. The emerging recognition that energy is a socio-technical system makes it increasingly difficult to justify overlooking dimensions of racialised disadvantage and oppression. An example may help to illustrate this point. It could be argued that the rate at which different types of buildings lose heat does not have an explicitly racial dimension. However, even in such research, understanding who lives in the kinds of buildings most vulnerable to heat loss is a responsible consideration.

Racially sensitive research considers the racialised nature of the energy system, but in a limited capacity, such as an additive characteristic among other variables to investigate. An example would be adding an indicator on ethnicity or beginning to collect disaggregated energy-use data across different ethnic minorities to add another layer of analysis on energy use patterns across different demographic characteristics. While racially sensitive research might be insufficient to achieve racially just research, it is an important step towards understanding racialisation while working within the constraints of existing data infrastructure and methods.

Racially responsive research aims to nuance this understanding of social divisions by exploring the dynamics between the various characteristics that influence energy use, and how that impacts wellbeing. Racially responsive research explores racialisation beyond static categories of race and ethnicityOpens in a new tab and investigates the varied and dynamic processes of racialisation that perpetuate material discrimination and deprivation. Such research requires methodological and analytical creativity to understand different forms of racialisation, their relation to energy demand, and how they can be articulated across scales and contexts.

The final category, racially just research, recognises the systemic nature of this problem and wishes to eradicate racial injustice in all its forms and tackle its root causes systemically. This requires movement building across different types of actors and scales.

As researchers, being able to design and deliver racially responsive research might be something that is within our reasonable sphere of control. Achieving racial justice, as mentioned above, requires challenging oppressive systems at their roots across scales, building solidarity across various types of actors to do so. Therefore, our commitment to anti-racism can begin with a commitment to ensuring that our research is responsive.

Some things to keep in mind

While this template provides a useful starting point, it is important to highlight that these components of the framework need not be linear or sequential. Furthermore, this is a heuristic framework to further thinking in a relatively understudied area, and must allow space for revisions and plurality.

Some sociologists argue that the fight of racial justice shall remainOpens in a new tab as racial injustice is intrinsic to societies that are built on colonialism, and racial hierarchies are routinely redefined, remade and redirected towards contemporary minorities. Furthermore, there are different scales of justiceOpens in a new tab and their pluralism must be recognised, rather than striving for a singular definition.

When evaluating research against this framework, it is important to not be tempted by the language of progress that narratives of justice are prone to, and to apply this responsibly to avoid epistemic exploitationOpens in a new tab We hope that this framework motivates energy researchers to engage in inclusive and racially responsive energy demand research, giving space to a diverse representation of intersecting energy identities, in a non-intrusive and non-extractive manner.

Banner photo credit: Andrew Ridley on Unsplash