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Lessons from Ireland and The Gambia

4. Concluding discussion

As this paper has demonstrated, comparative, ethnographic research uncovers valuable insights into the complex dynamics of energy transitions at households and community level over time. This includes the socially differentiated ways in which change plays out over time. Cross-cultural historical and contemporary analyses of the Irish and Gambian cases reveal how dynamics in energy practices and cultures over time are deeply connected to broader intersecting institutional and political-economic changes. Despite two countries with distinct trajectories and levels of development, Ireland and The Gambia have represented useful contexts on which to base a comparative analysis. Their accounts indicate that the infrastructural interventions and policies of government, planning and societal institutions have played a key role in shaping and foreclosing opportunities for ways of conducting everyday practices, with major implications for energy systems. While a range of contextual forces emerged as significant in shaping the evolution of daily life, this short paper has focused only on several key dimensions, namely political-economic contexts, infrastructural change, social relations and networks and the social differentiation in the lived experience of change. In doing so it has sought to highlight the potential of a human-centred approach to energy research. However, a range of other insights and themes emerged that have not been discussed here in great depth, including a broader discussion of the ways in which developments have been shaped by wider trends and ideological influences of neoliberalism as well as transformations in normative life course pathways and patterns of biographic and spatial mobility. The findings of this investigation indicate that understanding dynamics of stability and change at a local scale is crucial for informing decision making and development interventions.

To date most research on energy transitions conducted from a longitudinal perspective focuses on technical or macro-level scales of analysis (cf. Grin et al., 2010). Comparatively less work considers the lived experience of change as it plays out over longer timescales. As the brief snapshot of findings presented in this paper suggests, an ethnographic perspective holds much potential for shedding light on ways in which lives, practices and contexts intersect in energy systems change (Walker, 2014; Greene, 2018). The authors argue that a human-centred approach to energy transitions which considers social differentiation in complex lived experiences is necessary to design more integrated, resilient and just energy futures. For example, the centrality of women in domestic practice provides important opportunities for interventions for sustainability including capacity building. It is suggested that decision makers should engage with ‘ordinary’ citizens to take their lived experience seriously in the design of interventions and policies and respond to the type of nuanced and experiential evidence generated through human-centred approaches to energy transitions.

Pan-European projects and research programmes tend to focus on developing world contexts. The authors argue that expanding the geographical remit further provides an important means of discerning processes of energy systems change as it intersects with social life from a more globalized perspective. Whilst acknowledging the particularities of distinct periods and places, this is important for uncovering universal logics and processes and trends of energy transitions in the context of climate justice and global resource ‘hinterlands’ (European Environment Agency, 2015, pp. 25-26; Catree, 2007). A particular challenge of this type of contextualized, comparative research is to secure smaller but regular amounts of funding. This is needed to build the relationships that enable ethnographic including immersive research of this kind by providing the opportunity for repeated international field work over longer periods of time and supporting cross-disciplinary collaboration. Such work would advance understanding of situated social processes implicated in energy systems change as they play out in diverse contexts and inform future policies and interventions. Another key challenge relates to the dissemination of findings from ethnographic, human- centred research to policy and decision makers that operate in a predominantly techno-centric and neoliberal context of development (Rau et al., 2017). Future research is needed to advance work to generate new empirical findings and understandings of complex social processes shaping energy transitions as well as address existing gaps in the dissemination of social science- and humanities-based energy transitions research more broadly.

5. Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank SHAPE ENERGY, which funded our collaboration in The Gambia in January 2018. We thank the Sambou family who hosted us during our stay and facilitated interviews and engagement with members of the Kartong community. We are grateful for the interview participants who patiently answered our questions. Finally, we also thank Lamin Jarjou for facilitating a meeting with high level stakeholders.

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