sarah-royston-picAlthough my past work has focused on everyday performances of domestic practices, I’m currently part of a project that is rather more ambitious and unusual.  It aims to understand how policies and policy-making practices steer energy demand, often in unintended or unrecognised ways (see Royston, 2016, for details).  Tracking down these “invisible” effects has demanded a diverse and evolving set of methods.

Practices are steered in many ways, including through the policies of state and public sector actors.  If we want to understand changing practices, we need to consider (among other things) how these policies affect them, both intentionally and unintentionally, and how these effects might change in future.  These questions reflect the call made by other contributors (e.g. Browne, Schatzki, Trentmann) for practice theory to go beyond domestic daily life and consider larger issues (as expressed in Proposition 5).

Practice theory suggests particular ways of approaching questions about policy steering.  I’ll outline two of these, which have been especially relevant in my work, and then consider what they might mean for methods. (There are a lot of other issues around policies’ effects on practices, including causality, complexity and uncertainty, but I won’t go into these here).

First, if we start from the practices (rather than, say, from policies, agendas or institutions) it becomes clear that many different policies and policy domains are relevant.  For example, home-heating may be steered by energy policy, but also by policies on housing, health, welfare, the economy and so on.  Frank Trentmann points out that the only government department that focuses on a single practice is the Ministry of Silly Walks – but even silly walking practices might also be affected by policies on transport and town planning!  What’s more, the relevant policies may be made and enacted by various different actors (such as regulators, funders and service-providers) across these domains.  Therefore (and in accordance with Proposition 2), a practice theoretical approach implies a research design that encompasses many kinds of policy and many sites of policy-making.  This brings methodological challenges, especially because many of these policies’ effects on practice may be relatively unknown.

Secondly, practice theory offers distinctive approaches to policy itself.  We can look at laws and standards as elements of practice – forms of institutionalised knowledge (Gram-Hanssen, 2010) or rules (Schatzki, 1996) – or as means by which elements circulate and travel (Shove, Walker, & Brown, 2014).  But in addition, practice theory suggests that we can look beyond these explicit codifications and scrutinise the practices of policy-making that produce them.  While there is plenty of research on the “policy process” within the policy studies literature (e.g. Kingdon, 1995), practice theory invites us to look at the different practices involved in policy-making, such as negotiating agendas, defining metrics, and evaluating data, and think about how these practices create, maintain or challenge boundaries and relationships.  We can examine how performances of these practices vary between policy-makers at different sites, and with different scopes.  These approaches help illuminate why policies are having the observed effects on practice – especially where these effects are unintentional.

Methodologically, these positions present us with two related challenges: How do we trace the (often-invisible) effects of diverse policies on practices?  And how do we analyse the practices of policy-making and their implications for the practices they govern?  I won’t try to resolve these big questions here, but rather draw on my recent experiences to illustrate the issues and (in relation to Proposition 2) some ways that we can respond to them in accordance with a practice-inspired approach.

Over the last year, I’ve been working as part of a team within the DEMAND centre to explore changing energy demand in the UK Higher Education sector.  Recognising that the relevant practices are governed by a wide range of policies, across multiple sites and domains, our methodology combines in-depth case studies of particular institutions with nationwide, sector-level analysis.  At both levels we use qualitative, quantitative and documentary analysis, to provide different perspectives on the same core questions.  This has similarities with the transitive approach proposed by Hilmar Schäfer.  We began with an initial documentary review at the sector-level, looking at trends in energy demand, the existing energy policy framework and its history, in order to understand the context.  However, for the empirical work we took an approach similar to Janine Morley, beginning with a specific, localised view before panning out to a wider picture.  We first focused on two case-study universities to investigate how shifts in institutional policy and practice are changing their energy demand.  We then turned to the sector regulator, nationwide umbrella organisations, professional networks and so on, to explore the policies steering this change.

To analyse the effects both of policies and of policy-making practices, in-depth interviews were central. We recruited a selection of participants in each case-study institution who had some role in governing practices that contribute to energy demand; for example, the librarian, IT director and transport manager.  This diversity was important, especially given that, to begin with, we had little idea what policy-practice connections would emerge. However, a practical challenge in recruiting these staff was persuading them to be interviewed about something that is not their main job, and then designing meaningful questions.  We therefore did a lot of background research on each interviewee, and produced tailored topic guides.

During the interviews we were especially attentive to any boundaries they mentioned (e.g. issues outside their scope, grey areas or non-negotiable needs) because boundary-making is an important aspect of policy practice, and is often implicated in the production of unintended and unrecognised effects.  We included wide-ranging, open and speculative questions to allow them to raise issues we hadn’t thought of.  The case study approach has been ideal here: we have to piece all these different stories together, so it helps if they are set in a single, coherent institutional context.  However, we are also using interviewees from other institutions as a way to test and refine the case study findings, alongside the national-level policy-maker interviews.

Finally, we are also using quantitative analysis at both the institutional and sectoral levels; in this we are asking slightly unusual questions of existing data on energy and estate management, and using trial and experimentation.  We are testing for associations between variables linked with energy demand, and variables representing other domains that might plausibly affect this (for example, student numbers, floor area, student satisfaction and research quality).  This cannot itself show the effect of policies, but revealing these relationships and trends may give clues as to where we should look for the underlying policies.  Overall, my experience of this project lends strong support to Proposition 4 – tracing policies’ “invisible” effects on practices is a slippery task that spans sites and sectors; in attempting it we should make use of all kinds of tools from the practice methodologies toolbox.

Sarah Royston

Research Fellow, DEMAND Centre, University of Sussex



Gram-Hanssen, K. (2010). Standby Consumption in Households Analyzed With a Practice Theory Approach. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 14(1), 150–165.

Kingdon, J. W. (1995). Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (2nd edition). New York: Longman.

Royston, S., 2016. Invisible energy policy in Higher Education. Presented at the DEMAND Centre Conference, April 2016, Lancaster.

Schatzki, T. R. (1996). Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge University Press.

Shove, E., Walker, G., & Brown, S. (2014). Transnational Transitions: The Diffusion and Integration of Mechanical Cooling. Urban Studies, 51(7), 1506–1519.