Rhythms and patterns of daily life from 1950–2000: the changing qualities of energy demand

Panel: 9. Dynamics of consumption

This is a peer-reviewed paper.

Nicola Spurling, The DEMAND Centre, Lancaster University, United Kingdom


Walker (2014) argues for the relevance of conceptual tools from the sociology of time for understanding the dynamics of energy consumption. This paper takes up this idea to analyse empirical data on Stevenage new town, focussing on how rhythms and patterns of daily life have changed since the 1950s (when the town was built), the role of institutions and infrastructures in shaping these rhythms, and their relationship to infrastructure-in-use. The starting point is the idea that energy services (such as heating, lighting and moving around) are consumed to accomplish social practices (Shove and Walker, in press) and that the temporal patterning of these practices - their rhythm, synchronicity, periodicity and duration - is generative of patterns of demand. To provide an example, in his book ‘The Seven Day Circle’ Zerubavel (1985) shows how the week imposes a rhythmic beat at a societal scale on the ordering of work and leisure activities. Such orderings have inevitable effects on what energy is used for across the day and week, and related peaks and troughs in demand. At a broad level this is understood by energy companies who have knowledge about the desynchronised demands of their large industrial customers. Much less is known about the changing detail of daily life which constitutes rhythms and patterns of demand, the role of institutions and infrastructures in shaping when people do what they do, how such temporal arrangements are reproduced and transformed, and the implications of such rhythms for patterns of infrastructure-in-use. These are the concerns of this paper. Stevenage was the first new town to be built in England in the post war period. Originally a village of 6000, the town was totally planned in the mid-late 1940s to accommodate a new population of 60,000. Drawing on archival research and oral history interviews with Stevenage residents, the paper provides a detailed account of the changing rhythms and patterns of everyday activity, and how institutions and infrastructures co-constitute these temporal arrangements. The paper concludes with initial reflections on the implications of this research for understanding how patterns of demand are constituted.


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