electrricity social

Electricity as a social phenomenon

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What can an anthropologist do in the energy field? We continue to advance some of the interesting keys that will be discusted in the next Why the World needs anthropologists that will be held in Durham the days 28th and 29th of October 2017. If last week we introduced you the work of an anthropologist who works in hidraulic projects, today we are pleased to talk to you about an amazing anthropologist working on different electricity projects.

anthropology electricityTanja Winther is an anthropologist and engineer focused on the interrelationship between technologies and their social surroundings and the socio-economic impacts of the improved energy supply. Her doctoral study focused on the social impact of the arrival of electricity to a Zanzibari village in Tanzania. The overall objective of the project was to analyse what kinds of social changes electricity has caused since its introduction in rural areas in 1990. Since then, she has worked as a consultant in that same area and other places like Kenia, India and Norwey. She is also professor in MA programmes in anthropology, Energy and Society at the University of Oslo.

We’ve talked to her so she could tell us more about her work and current projects. Here is what she said!


You are a social anthropologist and a power engineer. How do these two disciplines and ways of looking at the world overlap?

Yes, people sometimes ask me how I deal with the combination of engineering and anthropology, which may seem as two radically different disciplines. But I find them easy to combine. To me, social anthropology is a methodically non-normative science centred on understanding the world from people’s own perspective. Engineering concerns technologies from their innovation and development to their functioning, use and maintenance. The beauty with anthropology is that «the world» consists of human and non-human beings as well as objects such as technological artefacts. Hence, as long as people are implicated in some way, for example in developing or using technology, anthropology can be applied to any subject of study. Anthropologists and engineers ‘overlap’ in that they share a concern for observing and understanding the real (empirical) world, rather than answering hypothetical questions or making predictions about the future, as an economist would do. We study concrete phenomena, but where anthropology is always focused on contextualisation in time and space, engineers in the laboratory tend to think that technologies work in similar ways wherever they are located. In the field, however, they also come to realise “realities”. In concrete projects, I find it easy to work with engineers precisely because we are aware that we have complementary knowledge. An Indian engineer denoted his work ‘social engineering’, and when we engage in applied research, for example on how to enhance electricity access to poor people, I feel we are engaging in something similar. But from our perspective, we do not push particular technologies, but rather want to learn about realities before implementation when people get more technology choices.

In comparison, with economists we have had serious discussions. For example, we once established an energy centre in a poverty-ridden context in Kenya. Here, the engineer wanted higher tariffs for the services to enhance the system’s financial viability, while we as social scientists were concerned to keep prices low so that the poorest groups could make use of the services. These intra-disciplinary negotiations were demanding but probably good for long-term sustainability in that it visualised how various aspects must be balanced. After five years in operation, the centre is still running. In another project, working with economists more theoretically, I discovered an important divide between the individually oriented economy models and the relational perspectives central in anthropology. We spent the first year of a project agreeing on key concepts such as ‘behaviour’, ‘norms’, ‘practice’ before arriving at a framework that encapsulated key concepts from anthropology/sociology, economy and psychology. With engineers we do not ‘compete’ in world views in a similar way.

You have stated that electricity as a social phenomenon needs anthropology. Could you explain us why?

From production, distribution to consumption, energy concerns political and social questions such as equity, distribution of power and benefits and various forms of knowledge. Energy forms an integrated part of the daily life of any household, business or office and is closely linked with notions of comfort, convenience and communication, hence social inclusion. Access to various types of energy can determine whether you are living a good life or suffering from hardship. So both the political and social nature of energy – and the way energy is profoundly embedded in social life – makes this realm ripe for anthropological analysis.

What projects are you currently working at?

Photo: EFEWEE gallery

Currently I lead EFEWEE, an international project on electricity access and women’s empowerment (understood as a process towards gender quality) where we compare various types of supply in three countries (Kenya, India, Nepal) and examine the impact on women’s empowerment. We spent the first year developing a framework for analysing empowerment in the realm of electricity and are currently analysing the results from our qualitative research. We have also looked at the electricity policies in the three countries, which are relatively gender blind. Our final step will be to run a cross-country survey.

An important part of this work is not only to document the degree of empowerment resulting from electrification but also to account for how and why empowerment occurs including factors that restrain such potential impact. We make the case for more qualitative research and mixed methods in this area, which has been dominated by statistical studies.

I am also involved in two other projects: one on opportunities and barriers for using solar PV in Norwegian homes (Power from the people? led by CICERO) and the other called ‘AidEffect’, which seeks to account for the impact of Chinese and Norwegian development interventions in Malawi. In several studies on energy in Norway (in-home displays) we have collaborated with Durham University, where I was visiting researcher two years ago and where I am external examiner in one of their MA programmes in anthropology, Energy and Society.

You have done fieldwork in places like Kenia or Tanzania, but also in modernized countries such as Norway. What are some differences and some similarities of both experiences?

Interesting question! Doing fieldwork in Tanzania and Kenya is certainly easier than in Norway, primarily because people in these Southern communities tended to be more interested and more prepared to spend time talking to me. I once tried to recruit participants living in the very north of Norway (Kirkenes) to a study by phoning them in advance. As soon as I had presented my purpose, people would say they were not interested and hang up the receiver. I was disappointed but got the tip from a student who had been living in the area to ask for an interview at the local radio station. I did, and when I later called people and could refer to the broadcasted interview, they turned out to be interested!

Another difference is that in Norway, people take electricity access and reliable supply for granted. They consider electricity as a renewable source (98% hydropower) which every Norwegian has a right to use. In Zanzibar (Tanzania) and Kenya, this is very different, and having witnessed what the change from kerosene light to electricity means to people (and what power interruptions means to the working conditions of a colleague researcher in Malawi) makes me realise that such access matters. The lack of affluence also makes people more concerned to save energy, hence in Zanzibar I learned to dimension the amount of water for the water kettle: First you measure how much water goes into the final thermos, then you poor that amount into the kettle for heating, and then you fill the thermos with tea leaves, sugar and water.

We are looking forward to listening to your lecture “Delaying or Enhancing solutions to the energy dilemma?” in the 5th edition of Why the world needs anthropologists.  Can you give us a brief preview on what will you be talking about?

I will provide a personal story of how I became a power anthropologist, reflect a bit on the merits and challenges of interdisciplinary work and suggest what anthropology can bring to the study of energy. It strikes me that engineers would never think of organising an annual conference “Why the world needs engineers”. Perhaps their ‘obvious’ purpose and lack of reflexivity is why we in the past have seen several failed technology projects in development?

What advice do you have for current anthropology students regarding their skills to undertake future challenges?

Because anthropology is suited for analysing any thematic field, I would advise students to pursue a topic they feel passionate or concerned about. Compared to many other disciplines, we are trained to ask questions involving HOW? WHO? WHY? And because future challenges are necessarily political (from micro to macro level), I think the anthropological approach is suited for studying relations of power. A more pragmatic approach could be to combine anthropology with one’s previous skills and experiences, obtaining a unique competence. In academia/research, I think the process towards finding solutions to future challenges would be enhanced if anthropologists took a stronger lead in inter- and multi-disciplinary research, including defining the problem. The world needs anthropologists!

Definitely! Thanks so much for sharing this insights with us, tanja.

See you in Durham!


If you liked this, check out some of these links:

EFEWEE Exploring Factors that Enhance and restrict Women´s Empowerment through Electrification link

AidEffect link 

The Sustainable Energy for All initiative link  

Oslo Centre for Research on Enviromentally friendly Energy link 


Graduated in Social and Cultural Anthropology by the University of Granada and Master in Research and Rational Use of Medicines by the University of Valencia. This young researcher has worked in the public and private sector - both nationally and internationally - on consumer issues.

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