In the fourth of a series of interviews with contributors to the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (27.2/3, March-May 2010), Simon Dawes interviews Elizabeth Shove on the relationship between social theory (and economics) and climate policy
Simon Dawes: Your article deals with how climate change integrates with social theory and existing disciplinary frameworks. You argue that much of the social theory that deals with climate change is too inward looking or social theory-heavy, or, at least, that it is mostly pre-occupied with traditional or pre-existing social theory concerns. How do you think social theorists could and should transcend this?
Elizabeth Shove: I think there is a danger of separating ‘social theory’ out for special treatment and separating it from the social theoretical contributions that social science can make to live and contentious policy and practical problems of climate change. Self-styled social theorists tend to have their own preoccupations and agendas and these channel and narrow the nature of their engagement. This is not in itself a problem – I’m not against these self-propelling debates some of which are interesting – but it becomes a problem when these concerns dominate and when interpretations of what social theory has to offer are defined in terms of what people who call themselves social theorists do.
SD: Can the same be said for the ways in which economics has approached climate change? Have economists been equally inward looking, or have they been more successful at seeing climate change for what it is (or, dare I say, more objectively)?
ES: That is an interesting question. I think economics has been influential in that it has managed to shape the ways in which problems of climate change are themselves defined and framed. In that sense the pattern is similar in that existing intellectual concerns are reproduced, but different in that these interpretations and problem definitions have been widely accepted by others – particularly in policy. Again there is a risk of over generalising, sociology and economics are not unified fields. This makes the question of which interpretations and agendas survive and which fall by the wayside all the more intriguing.
SD: What contribution do you think social theory has and can make to environmental policy and to understanding climate change?
ES: I’d say a key contribution has to do with underlining the social – the shared, normative, institutionalised, materialised – ordering of everyday life. In theory, understanding how social practices are configured and how they change (and with what environmental cost) is vital for environmental policy and core business for the social sciences – but somehow disciplines that deal in such processes like sociology, history and anthropology rarely figure on the policy radar.
SD: Finally, you’ve recently been setting up a BSA (British Sociological Association) study group on climate change. Could you tell us about its aims and the people involved, and give us the details of the launch event, scheduled for the beginning of next year?
ES: Sure. The BSA Climate Change Study Group is organised by myself along with a team including Javier Garcera Caletrio, Maya Gislason, Tom Hargreaves, Leon Sealey Huggins, Jess Paddock and Chris Shaw. The BSA Climate Change Study Group aims to promote sociological lines of enquiry and modes of thought with respect to a range of topics relating to the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change. These include themes of energy, mobility, water and waste and related issues of equity, justice, infrastructural change and governance.
The group is planning a launch event to be held at the British Library on 17th January 2011 – please get in touch with [email protected] if you want to be put on the mailing list for further details.
The launch will be followed by an extraordinary lecture, produced by the “Social change-Climate change” working party (funded as part of Elizabeth Shove’s ESRC climate change leadership fellowship). For further details of the working party, see http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/shove/transitionsinpractice/partymain.htm
Elizabeth Shove is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University. She currently holds an ESRC climate change leadership fellowship entitled ‘Transitions in Practice: Climate Change and Everyday Life’. Recent books include Time, Consumption and Everyday Life (Berg, 2009), edited with Frank Trentmann and Rick Wilk, and The Design of Everyday Life (Berg, 2007), with Matt Watson and Jack Ingram. [email: [email protected]]
Simon Dawes is Editor of the TCS Website, and Editorial Assistant to Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
The TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates, edited by Bronislaw Szerszynski and John Urry, was published in March 2010
To read Elizabeth’s article, ‘Social Theory and Climate Change: Questions Often, Sometimes and Not Yet Asked’, and the rest of the articles in the issue, go here