Conceptualising Demand
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Conceptualising Demand

A Distinctive Approach to Consumption and Practice

Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove, Greg Marsden

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eBook - ePub

Conceptualising Demand

A Distinctive Approach to Consumption and Practice

Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove, Greg Marsden

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About This Book

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

Conceptualising Demand focuses on five core propositions: that demand is derived from social practices; that it is made and not simply met; that it is materially embedded and temporally unfolding; and that it is modulated through many forms of policy and governance. In working through these claims, the book weaves concepts from the sociology of consumption, science and technology studies, policy analyses and social theories of practice together with empirical cases and new research into such topics as the rise of refrigerated foods, the emergence of online shopping and the transformation of energy demanding services.

This innovative book takes a fresh look at the very idea of demand, a concept that is often taken for granted, but that is vital for scholars and students ofenergy, mobility, climate change and consumption, and anyone interested in the subject.

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1 Introduction

Most dictionaries define demand as an insistent and peremptory request, made as of right. In economics and in policy, demand refers to the need for goods or services often provided by the market. Generally, this is as far as it goes. In academic debates and in everyday life, demand is simply treated as something that exists, and as something that explains and also underpins trends in what people buy. Despite repeated reference to this term not only in economics, but also in studies of consumption, policy, innovation and technology, the concept of demand has escaped detailed and explicit critical attention.
Many discussions come close. For example, claims about the qualities and characteristics of consumer society make much of the significance and meaning of goods and services in modern social life (Baudrillard, 2016) but leave questions about what consumption is for largely untouched. In economics, demand usually figures as an abstract concept, thought of as the logical partner to supply but rarely considered beyond that. In innovation studies, interest focuses on demand as a stimulus for novelty but again careful analysis of the concept is usually missing (Godin and Lane, 2013). In different areas of policy, rising demand for energy, for health services, for transport or for resources like water (Vörösmarty et al., 2000) is interpreted as an expression of consumers’ needs and desires and their willingness to pay for goods and services. Similar understandings inform and underpin welfare economics and the huge machinery of government decision-making. Together, these traditions and conventions combine to form a dominant discourse, built into economic theories, capitalist world views and contemporary accounts of how society works. Across the board, demand seems so obvious, so ubiquitous and so deeply embedded in current thinking that the idea of asking how it is constituted, how it changes and how it might be steered will strike many as being, at best, odd. Some might conclude, right away, that this is a fool’s errand. We think otherwise.
Paying attention to the foundations of demand means paying attention to issues that are sidestepped in mainstream debates, but that are also fundamental to them. For example, many economic theories suppose that demand reflects prices and individual preferences. Such approaches capture just a small part of why demand changes and are largely blind to longer-term historical trajectories, or to social institutions, infrastructures and practices. As Shove and Walker (2014) argue, and as indicated within energy and transport related research and policy (Marsden et al., 2018), there is a parallel tendency to focus on matters of efficiency or security of supply rather than on basic questions about what energy and mobility are for. This results in partial but hugely influential representations of demand that inform what are often short-term, and very limited ideas about what policy makers can do to tackle challenges like those of radically reducing carbon emissions. In taking the foundations of demand for granted, and in taking them out of the equation, debates about what can be done revolve around a handful of alternative responses. In the context of consumption, carbon emissions and climate change this results in a lopsided discussion about whether technological solutions can fix the problem or whether individuals also have to cut back or deny themselves goods and services that have become synonymous with normal ways of life. Framing the problem in these terms bypasses primary questions about how expectations of normality form and change. This neglect has important consequences for policy agendas. One is that in the energy and mobility sectors, policy ambitions shrink to fit what are taken to be non-negotiable interpretations of normality. Proposed solutions consequently focus on opportunities for efficiency or ‘behaviour change’ within a narrow frame, leaving big questions about how present and future demands evolve out of view. This is not just an unfortunate omission. In routinely taking current ways of living as their point of reference, energy and environmental policies inadvertently reproduce patterns of consumption that are themselves part of the problem.
One reason for writing this book, and one reason for focusing on energy and transport is that climate change represents what is probably the most pressing social and political challenge of the day. If fossil fuel consumption is to fall at the rate and on the scale required, questions about the foundations and the future of demand will have to take centre stage. Amongst much else, this requires better understanding of the qualities, origins and histories of demand, and of how these emerge and change over time.
In pursuing this agenda, we challenge what have become familiar responses in climate change research and policy. To be more specific, we take issue with the ways in which strategies of efficiency and decarbonisation have been divorced from issues of demand. In many countries, including the UK, efforts to reduce energy consumption and promote the transition to a lower carbon economy depend on decarbonising energy supply by making more and better use of renewable energy, or on delivering the same or more service but for less energy, for instance through the development of more efficient cars, heating and cooling systems and appliances.
It is widely recognised that the introduction of lower carbon technologies will have implications for ‘markets, infrastructures, institutions, social practices and cultural norms’ (Jenkins and Hobson, 2018: 2). Linked to this, there is an extensive literature that emphasises the ‘sociotechnical’ character of sustainable transitions and that considers the various roles that users play in these processes (Schot et al., 2016). Despite interest in the practicalities of adoption and uptake those who write about energy transitions rarely consider how infrastructures and technologies (including efficient ones) configure and transform social practices and the forms of energy demand that these engender and sustain. Again the basic dynamics of demand are largely taken for granted.
Instead, and as evident in recent ‘clean growth’ strategies, demand – here meaning the amount of energy that society needs – is treated as given. Estimates and models of future demand work in fairly predictable ways: expected changes in population, estimates of GDP and anticipated technological trajectories such as the uptake of electric vehicles are factored into equations that assume that current standards of living and present energy-demanding practices will persist unchanged (DfT, 2018b; National Grid, 2017). With these understandings in place, the question is how to meet these present and future needs whilst achieving targets for carbon reduction (Defra, 2017; UK Government, 2017b).
This is not to suggest that policy makers and researchers disregard or take no account of demand. Far from it. As indicated above, judgements about how much energy society needs are woven into forms of policy analysis, future investment, energy modelling and more. Rather, the point and also the purpose of this book is to articulate and challenge the tacit theories and understandings on which these assumptions depend.
From this perspective, 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 discussions of demand then revolve around matters of individual behaviour or focus on peoples’ values, preference and abilities to pay. This is such a familiar approach that commentators rarely give the underlying logic a second thought. For example, it is at first difficult to disagree with those who point to the many benefits of a circular economy, involving forms of sharing, recycling and reuse. Following this line of reasoning it makes sense to focus on persuading people to play their part, for instance, by recycling clothing. The drawback of such an approach is that it locates both the problem and the solution in the hands of the consumer. Very different responses would be required if trends in resource use were attributed to the massive increase in the global production and distribution of clothing in the first place (Trentmann, 2016). This is not the path that is usually taken. Instead, dominant interpretations of demand generate two also dominant types of intervention, namely raising consumer awareness, and increasing efficiency.
Thinking of demand as a consequence of the sum total of individual choices implies that it can be reduced through changes in market conditions (e.g. price), by raising awareness of the consequences or by providing information that enables people to make ‘better’ choices for themselves. Amongst much else, arguments like these justify efforts to engage consumers in so-called ‘smart behaviour’, exemplified in the energy sector by the rolling out of ‘smart meters’ that allow people to see their gas and electricity consumption in real time (Strengers and Hazas, 2019).
Alongside these initiatives, demand reduction policies also focus on developing and promoting more efficient cars, fridges, tumble dryers and so forth. In some respects this strategy makes sense: there are energy savings to be made. However, there are also unintended consequences, some of which are positively counter-productive. Discussions of the downsides of efficiency tend to focus on the problem of rebound. In brief the concept of rebound refers to the possibility that the money saved through buying and using a more efficient appliance might be spent in ways that increase energy consumption in another area of daily life: for instance enabling more travel, or flights abroad (Sorrell, 2007; Marsden, 2019). However, a much more basic problem is that efficiency programmes legitimise and even promote the use of resource intensive appliances. It is all very well to develop a tumble dryer that uses less energy than another existing model, but why is it that tumble dryers are, in any case in use? Discourses of efficiency compare like with like meaning that there is never any discussion of how efficient a washing line might be, compared with a mechanical dryer. Similarly, the need for a fridge or fridge freezer (or two) is simply not part of the efficiency discussion. Nor is an understanding how global food systems have come to depend on unbroken chains of refrigeration.
In this book we argue that as long as policy makers, researchers and practitioners think of demand as an expression of individual consumer choice, as an outcome of the self-evident need for specific goods and services, or a consequence of their design they are unlikely to do more than scratch the surface. In essence, our argument is that demand depends on the range of practices enacted in society, and on the technologies, infrastructures and institutions on which these depend. All practices generate and are linked to some kind of demand whether that be for a vehicle and road infrastructure to get to work or for electricity and a kettle for making tea. From this point of view, the extent, and also the timing of energy consumption is a result of how demands for different forms of service (thermal comfort, convenience, hygiene) are built, and how these change.
In developing an account of the social basis of demand we have two ambitions. One is to bring what are usually sunken questions of history and change out into the open. The second is to demonstrate the policy relevance of engaging with the constitution of demand in this more fundamental sense.

Demand – extending the agenda

In the rest of this book we work through the theoretical and practical implications of conceptualising demand not as an expression of individual choice, but as an outcome of shifting, historically situated complexes of social practice (Shove et al., 2012).
Such a focus on the very foundations of demand is, we argue, urgently required given claims about the limits to growth (Meadows et al., 1972) in terms of population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, pollution and carbon emissions. Rather than expecting that these problems can be fixed by means of efficiency improvements and other large-scale engineering, such as GMO agriculture, geoengineering or artificial intelligence, our aim is to explore opportunities for reducing the scale of these challenges not through new forms of supply, but by actively reconfiguring demand.
This is an unusual and also challenging approach. There are many good reasons why demand is so often taken for granted, and why it is so often excluded from serious debate. As we have already mentioned, dominant ideologies of neoliberal consumer society, of the state and of capitalism itself deny that demand is any other than an expression of consumer choice. In addition and from the Brundtland report onwards, there has been a consistent emphasis on wealth, growth and prosperity:
Many essential human needs can be met only through goods and services provided by industry, and the shift to sustainable development must be powered by continuing flow of wealth from industry.
(Brundtland et al., 1987: 16)
We are consequently writing in a context in which the focus on choice and growth is such that the only viable courses of action appear to be those that fit within this frame. This is consistent with ideas about the scope of legitimate government intervention, and with the ambition of ‘helping people make better choices for themselves’ (Shove, 2010). From this point of view, it is quite appropriate for climate change policy makers to encourage and promote efficiency, but quite out of order to advocate laundering less, using a clothes line or doing without a fridge. Put differently, the focus is on methods of meeting demand as it is currently constituted.
However, if we take even a short-term historical view, it is obvious that policy makers also have a hand in making demand. For example, many areas of daily life and many of the forms of demand that follow are directly and indirectly affected by guidelines and regulations including those relating to health and safety, efficiency standards, land and resource use, and so forth. Similarly, large-scale infrastructures and systems of provision, from electricity and gas grids through to road and rail networks, are designed and sized to enable certain ways of life. In other words, issues of demand are, implicitly at least, at the heart of many critical public policy dilemmas, such as determining appropriate levels of spending on health care, on public health provision, policing or education. In all these contexts and more, the challenges of managing demand are not fixed or stable.
Developments in some areas of everyday life generate forms of scarcity (as when more land is needed for housing) and conflict, as when air pollution increases with urban density and traffic. The practicalities and politics of response are correspondingly complicated and in both the public and the private sector there are repeated failures to grasp changes in demand. This takes many different forms. Often there are mismatches between provision and practice, as when rail franchises are tied to infrastructures that cannot keep pace with changing patterns of commuting and travel, or when hospital buildings are designed to accommodate forms of treatment that are swiftly outdated. As the ensuing struggles indicate, the response is almost always one of adapting and modifying provision in order to meet demand, whenever it occurs and however extreme it might be. At the same time, it is obvious that definitions and meanings of appropriate service, and related systems of provision are themselves in flux. For example, some electricity utilities now sell services and not just power. Similarly, some manufacturers are deliberately seeking to extend the life cycle of their products, making use of recycled materials, ‘upscaling’ and aiming for sustained rather than increased production. In both these cases, providers are involved in making new and different forms of demand.
Despite the rhetoric, and whatever the goals that producers and policy makers might have, it is increasingly obvious that demand does not simply exist, ready-made. As indicated above, it is actively constituted within and outside markets, and in settings that are multiple and varied. This is an important insight but it is also just the start. In the chapters that follow we see demand as an outcome of social practices. Because of this, we take a broader-than-usual view of what is at stake. This enables us to develop an also broader-than-usual account of how demand might be steered and shaped, and of how significant challenges like those of radical carbon reduction might be approached.
We have already referred to social practices, as distinct from consumer choice and behaviour, but what do we mean when we say that demand is an outcome of practice? When we refer to social practices, we mean more than what people do at home, at work or in moving around. As outlined below, when we talk of practice, we do so in a way that is informed by, and that carries with it, a distinctive set of theoretical commitments.
In social theory, practices, as defined by Giddens (1984), exist across space and time and have lives that extend beyond any one person and beyond any one moment of enactment. As Reckwitz puts it, ‘The single individual – as a bodily and mental agent – then acts as the “carrier” (Träger) of a practice’ (Reckwitz, 2002: 250). This is an important theoretical distinction in that it locates practices, and not individuals, as the central topics of conceptualisation and analysis.
For Giddens, and for us, studies of practice overcome classic distinctions between agency and structure, emphasising ‘the essential recursiveness of social life, as constituted in social practices’ (Giddens, 1979: 5). To put it more concretely, social practices are formed and reformed through historical developments and interconnections, they are shaped by and shaping of societies, and they are entwined with configurations of space and time, as well as with infrastructures, materials and institutions (Shove, 2003; Shove et al., 2012). Equally, it is only because they are more or less persistently, and more or less consistently enacted that they endure and change. These ideas, along with the related contention that practices are the ‘site’ of the social (Schatzki, 2002), and that societies are none other than an immensely complex ‘plenum’ of practices have inspired a range of social theoretical debates about the constitution and the transformation of this nexus (Hui et al., 2017). These discussions underlie and inform key features of our approach to demand in quite specific ways.
Building on the core tenets of practice theory, we claim that demand is an outcome of the social, infrastructural and institutional constitution of society and that resources such as energy are consumed and transformed in accomplishing a huge range of social practices including those involved in heating, commuting, laundering, cooling and so forth. In each case, the details are not...

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