Setting the ambition for anti-racist energy demand research

03 January, 2023

Uttara Narayan

Reading time: 4 minutes

How can we apply anti-racist principles to our 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 blog arises from that work but serves a practical and didactic purpose: to present a tool that helps us think about how we might apply anti-racist principles to our research.

Drawing significant inspiration from the gender and development tradition, pdf, we present a continuum that can assist us to explicitly consider racial justice in energy research, ranging from 0 (racist) to 4 (racially just):

Figure 1: Levels to help consider racial justice – 0 Racist, 1 Racially neutral, 2 Racially sensitive,and 4 Racially responsive.
  1. Racist: Such research either creates or perpetuates assumptions that discriminate, exclude or stereotype racialised peoples. Obviously, such research would be unacceptable under any circumstances.
  2. Racially neutral: In other words, race is not the problem/ considered a relevant dimension to what is being considered. This may be the case, prima facie. Some research questions might appear genuinely racially neutral, such as—how fast does a building of a given well-defined type lose heat? However, before reaching such a conclusion, we would urge researchers to consider the socio-technical dimensions of their research problem. In this case, for example, who lives in the kinds of buildings most vulnerable to rapid heat loss is a relevant question, as is how their needs might be different to our assumed ‘norms’. These sorts of questions might require an investigation that is not racially neutral. The risk of racially neutral research is that it can miss some fundamental disparity in needs and power dynamics between groups and institutions thereby leading to unjust outcomes.
  3. Racially sensitive: Such research considers race, but in a limited capacity. It is usually as an additional parameter among many other important characteristics but does not necessarily go deeper into understanding its relationship with those characteristics. For example, adding an indicator on ethnicity in a survey questionnaire, collecting disaggregated data on ethnicity or intentionally considering ethnicity characteristics in research design and analysis. This kind of research is necessary but insufficient, a good starting point to build the evidence base that is required for more ambitious efforts.
  4. Racially responsive: This type of research brings more nuance to understanding social groups, the relationship between different group characteristics and how that might impact well-being. It also has explanatory capabilities. Such research will articulate specific action to tackle challenges pertaining to racialisation in a given context. CSE’s Staying Warm Together is one such project that investigated why South Asians were least represented among referrals to their energy advice services, resulting in their research to understand the barriers experienced by multigenerational South Asian households in a Bristol neighbourhood, pdf. Racially responsive research will have conceptual capacity and will use creative methodologies to develop, understand and articulate these concepts. It will include healthy representation of racialised peoples in a non-extractive and non-intrusive manner in research exercises, that recognises their needs, and ensures project outcomes are explicitly anti-racist. As researchers, our ambition should be to ensure that our research is racially responsive.
  5. Racially just: Such action builds upon racially responsive research by attempting to eradicate racial injustice and its root causes at a systemic level, across all scales of society, organisations and governance. This is generally beyond the sphere of direct influence of a research centre or specific projects or programmes, as it requires commitment, collaboration and engagement with diverse energy stakeholders informed by racially responsive research. This would mean delivering net-zero in an equitable manner that ensures no one is unable to access energy to satisfy their needs, clear sector-wide commitment to equal opportunities, and eliminating racialised inequalities in plans and policies, for example.

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 exploitation, pdf. We hope that this framework motivates energy researchers to engage in racially responsive energy demand research with diverse representation of intersecting energy identities in a thoughtful and non-intrusive manner.

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