This blog reports on a workshop in St Andrews this October and the development of a network of researchers interested in using digital/virtual/online methods to study domestic energy practices. Our contribution is different from other posts on this site contributing to proposition 4 (i.e. inventive and multiple methods, units, samples, etc. are particularly useful for exploring practices at different scales, in relation to changing social patterns and variably interconnected actors). Others on this website have previously commented on the effectiveness of multiple and mixed methods (Browne, 2016), which may be dependent on shifting focus between local, contemporary performances and historical trends and wider populations (Morley, 2016), but we are pinning ourselves to articulating the utility (and challenges) of online methods for exploring practices.

Of course we recognise the choice of methods depends on the kinds of questions being asked, thus using social practice theory is not directly tied to certain methods (DEMAND Conference Panel Discussion, 2016). Choosing methods is dependent upon the specific research question; nonetheless we hope to start a conversation amongst the practice community considering that going ‘online’ provides access to an immense archive of discussion and reflection on social life. Certainly, Maller and Strengers‘ (2016) recent post on this website about using a ‘scrapbook‘ of images from the Internet to study global practice change over time aptly highlights this potential.

We view online discussions as an extension of casual conversations revealing householder’s own areas of interest and concern (Veen et al., 2011). This seems especially relevant to practice researchers because the Internet allows individuals to communicate with text, imagery, audio, video, and hyperlinks, which offers a novel view into the materials, meanings and competencies of practices (e.g. online photos and videos could allow a researcher to observe performances of cooking in various contexts geographically and historically). Further, considering the ubiquity of the Internet, with around 40 percent of the world population having access (ILS, 2016), it is important to consider the ways in which future domestic life will be/are co-constructed. In spite of online and virtual methods (Hine, 2013; Pink, 2016), digital methods (Rogers, 2015) and netnography (Kozinets, 2010, 2015) being popular neologisms, they are seldom used (or are the subject of much methodological reflection) in social practice and domestic energy research. Royston’s (2014) ‘dragon-breadth and snow-melt’ paper and her more recent working paper on know-how and heat flow in the home are the most notable exceptions. Although others (Greene and Westerhoff, 2015; Gram-Hanssen, 2015; Ho, 2015) have also proposed that phenomenological and innovative qualitative methods (e.g. sensory ethnography and videos) should have more of a place within social practice theory.

The aim of the workshop was to bring together a group also interested in investigating practices using virtual techniques (observation of chat rooms or gaming) and/or focused on the study of new forms of digital living (e.g. ‘smart’ home technologies), broadly conceived. What we understand ‘the digital’ to be, how it relates to everyday life, our role as researchers, and how we might engage with it, are difficult questions and ones we began to explore collectively. The workshop brought together academics with backgrounds in anthropology, computer science, geography, international relations, science and technology studies, sociology, and sustainable development from across the UK, Netherlands, and Sweden. With this interdisciplinary bunch in the same place, debates on the ethics of using unsolicited online content were quickly raised. Facebook’s testing of a theory of ‘emotional contagion’ on 689,003 users in 2014 was particularly illustrative of the challenges of consent that come from ‘lurking’, ‘scraping’, and ‘big data’. Setting aside the added ethical considerations in engaging with digital/virtual/online methods, there was an exchange and demonstration of various online/digital tools. From Ngram™ and Calais™ (to analyse keywords in books and academic articles respectively), Device Analyzer (a freely available Android tool to log activity on smartphones), using Hootesuite™ (for twitter, although we debated the ethics of this approach) and WordClouds™ to visualise and draw out meanings and topics of interest, to Gapminder and Tableau for revealing the ‘beauty of statistics’ (good visuals appear to be crucial for using digital tools). The Digital Methods Initiative was identified as a key go-to place when it comes to tools (with clear instructions/examples of how to use them!).Throughout the two-day workshop we kept coming back to a belief that digital/virtual/online methods, though incredibly useful given how ubiquitous the Internet is, are best used as an addition to ‘conventional’ qualitative methods rather than instead of, and that they require careful consideration to maintain the quality of approach we would expect of traditional social science methods. However, we also had discussions about digital/virtual/online methods being useful as a way to disseminate research findings and/or ‘empower’ participants (i.e. digital storytelling allows individuals or groups to take more of an active role in constructing narratives, rather than relying on a researcher to ‘tell’ their story). Members of National Energy Action, a charity working to end fuel poverty in the UK, also attended and this was an area they were particularly interested in exploring further.

We’ve all committed to co-writing short blogs, which will come out this year, that emerged from our discussions. We aim to establish a common lexicon, hence the reason for not committing to a particular ‘method’ and instead referring to ‘digital/virtual/online methods’ broadly in this blog – although we have distinguished between these terms to an extent in other writing. Some of these forthcoming writings will identify the boundaries between these concepts and review the use of digital/virtual/online methods within the fields of digital sociology, digital humanities, and human-computer interaction (limiting the search to papers that involve the home and sustainability) in order to highlight where online methods may be going and how they might better contribute to studies of sustainable practices. If you have any interest in advancing this agenda or joining our network please get in touch!

For more information about the workshop, including a recommended reading list, or our ongoing research please visit our website: https://smarterhomes.wordpress.com/

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