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25 Jun 2019

New paper on Energy Poverty and Social Relations

New paper on Energy Poverty and Social Relations

By Dr Lucie Middlemiss

Today we have published a new academic paper on the topic of social relations and energy poverty. We used qualitative data about people's lived experience of energy poverty in the UK, to explore how people's relationships with each other impact on their ability to cope with energy poverty. We think this is an important and understudied question in energy poverty research, policy and practice. In effect, people are made more vulnerable if they do not have a strong social network to call on.

In this paper we draw on secondary qualitative data on energy poverty from the UK, as well as conceptual thinking informed by the capabilities approach, to explore the relevance of social relations in people's experience of energy poverty. We focus particularly on how relationships with family, friends, agencies and distant others impact on people’s ability to cope. We find that the connection between social relations and energy poverty works in two directions: good social relations can both enable access to energy services, and be a product of such access. This connection is also shaped by structural factors, such as people's access to a range of resources, membership of particular social groups, their need to perform social roles (such as parenting), and the common reasons used to explain poverty and energy use. Our work suggests that attempts to address energy poverty need to take into account the quality of people’s social relations, as well as the potential impact of policy and practice on social relations, given that people rely on their friends and families for information support and advice, on key agency workers for access to resources, and are also constrained by discourses of poverty.

    Take one of our case studies Marie (interviewed in 2013). Marie is an older person, with health problems, and living alone in her detached bungalow. She has a daughter locally. She spends most of her time at home and her social life has been reduced to visits from family members. Marie’s daughter is a big support: Marie’s ability to access to energy services depends heavily on her daughter acting as an intermediary, whether to organise renovations or to communicate with the energy supplier. Marie uses her relationship with her daughter as a resource, enabling her to access to energy services. The fact that Marie lives alone, is in ill-health, is an older person, and relatively recently bereaved in this case make it challenging for her to access new support, and having only one avenue for support (through her daughter) makes her more vulnerable.

    You can access the whole paper here, and I am happy to talk further about this topic if you are interested.