Shoppers at Christmas

The gaping hole in energy policy

25 January, 2021

Rihab Khalid

University of Cambridge

Reading time: 5 minutes

Rihab Khalid reviews Sarah Royston’s webinar: Inadmissible evidence? The role of Social Sciences and Humanities in EU energy policy

Dr Sarah Royston’s webinar presented insight on a pressing question for researchers everywhere, particularly those working on energy in the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH): Does our research make any difference? More specifically, what role does SSH play in energy research and what impact does it generate in terms of policy? Guest editor Rihab Khalid expores the issue.

Sarah has been researching the roles, capacities and expectations of SSH in EU energy policy as part of the H2020 Energy-SHIFTSOpens in a new tab project and her talk was primarily based on her scoping workshop report, pdfOpens in a new tab (36 pages, 1.6 MB) on how evidence is typically used in energy policy.

The place and value of SSH research in energy policy

Sarah and her team’s analysis of key documents, such as EC funding calls and project abstracts, shows that energy policy has been, and is still, fixated with technological efficiency. There is minimal funding for SSH-related research, with minimal input from SSH communities (particularly Arts and Humanities). When included, SSH-related energy research acts as an add-on: tokenistic and unclear as to its role in interdisciplinary research, often limited to delivering ‘acceptance’ and ‘citizen engagement’.

Why is this a problem? Sarah explained how certain epistemic authoritative claims are made to energy and its research, leading to certain ways of framing (e.g. a focus on ‘practical solutions’ rather than ‘insights’), certain use of terminologies (e.g. ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’) and certain assumptions about robustness and validity (e.g. giving priority to quantitative (data) versus qualitative (case-studies) methods). This leads to certain normative expectations around the purposes and aims of research and the goals of evidence. It also sets the bounds for including/excluding certain actors, experts, methods, questions, forms of knowledge and publications in/from energy research and policy. This, in turn, results in certain path dependencies, or ‘locks in’ particular future possibilities and transitions. In energy research, the focus on techno-economic models has resulted in relegating SSH to a narrow, instrumental role whereby it plays no part in framing the problem, perhaps the area in which it has most to contribute.

This speaks to my own experience of working on the Energy-PIECES project, investigating the social dimensions of moving away from gas cookers and hobs [1]. As an SSH-energy researcher, my first instinct was to change the title from focusing on ‘cooking technologies’ to ‘cooking practices’. This allowed me to review cooking heat decarbonisation transitions from a much wider perspective, using Southerton et al.’s [2] ISM framework, which conceptualises factors influencing human actions and behaviour in the Individual, Social and Material (ISM) context. Through this approach, the study revealed that cooking technologies and related food habits are not just dependent on technological innovation, individual preferences, and rational choices, rather they are highly integrated and interconnected parts of larger work-home routines, social relations, health and dietary considerations, cultural understandings, and food chain networks. The emissions from cooking are thus integrated in these larger networks, institutions and infrastructural systems that can be better understood and targeted through SSH research.

Validating SSH research concepts and methods

A particularly striking outcome of the research was the complete absence of reference to any qualitative research/methods in bids for funding calls and project abstracts, as seen in the graphic below. Sarah talked about the explicit debates and implicit biases that still exist and challenge the robustness and validity of qualitative research.

Quantified versus qualitative abstracts in SSH
Figure: The absence of reference to any qualitative research or methods in SSH bids for funding calls and project abstracts

Again, these challenges hold particular relevance for me, as my own research on housing and energy demand policies in Pakistan highlights the necessity to integrate wider SSH-research in energy policy. Using qualitative methods and analyses, I show that contrary to mainstream, techno-economic housing and energy policies, which highlight technical energy efficiency, economic incentives or policy frameworks as key to determining energy demand, it is actually the specific socio-material and cultural context that mediates patterns of demand. It is these patterns and ways of living that underpin how the need for energy arises and evolves [3]. I demonstrate how the “normalisation” of unsustainable standards and configurations of energy demand under current policies has given rise to unprecedented levels of domestic electricity consumption [4].Sarah concluded on a strong note by suggesting a way forward for more meaningful integration of SSH into energy research. She identified key areas for intervention, such as better identification and engagement with policy actors, more inclusive documentation, and improved assessment of review and monitoring processes. My main takeaway from the webinar was that research and policymaking are not distinct stages in a linear process but, rather, parts of a co-productive process of knowledge-making. When a whole array of SSH disciplines is ignored in energy policy, not only does the understanding of energy remain limited, possibilities for deeper transformations and large-scale transitions also remain underexplored. It is high time we fill this gaping hole in energy policy.


[1] Khalid, R. and Foulds, C., 2020. The social dimensions of moving away from gas cookers and hobs: Challenges and opportunities in transition to low-carbon cookingOpens in a new tab. London: UK Energy Research Centre.

[2] Southerton, D., McMeekin, A., Evans, D., 2011. International Review of Behaviour Change InitiativesOpens in a new tab. Report for the Scottish Government. ISBN: 9780755999675

[3] Khalid, R., Sunikka-Blank, M., 2018. Evolving houses, demanding practices: A case of rising electricity consumption of the middle class in Pakistan. Building and Environment, 143, 293–305. doi: 10.1016/j.buildenv.2018.07.010Opens in a new tab

[4] Khalid, R., Sunikka-Blank, M., 2020. Housing and household practices: Practice-based sustainability interventions for low-energy houses in Lahore, Pakistan. Energy Sustain Dev. 54, 148–163. doi: 10.1016/j.esd.2019.11.005Opens in a new tab

For all research calls and abstracts, a large proportion refer to quantitive research methods, while none refer to qualitative methods. In Social Sciences and Humanities calls, a far smaller number refer to quantitive research, and none to qualitative methods. For Social Sciences and Humanities funded abstracts, however, neither quantitive nor qualitative methods are referred to…

Banner photo credit: FotoKachna on Adobe Stock