This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Lutzenhiser Reviewed work(s): Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 449-470 Published by: Springer Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/684514 . Accessed: 21/06/2012 05:09
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Springer is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Sociological Forum.
Sociological Forum, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1991
Social Structures and Economic Conduct: Interpreting Variations in Household Energy Consumption
Bruce Hackett' and Loren Lutzenhiser2
The consumption of natural resources is rapidly emerging as a major social problem, and social efforts to control this consumption are guided in part by to research that trties specify the meaning of resources to consumers. Thispaper compares a sociological perspective with the more widespreadeconomic model of consumption, using data from study of billing systems, sociocultural status, and household energy use in a California apartment complex. The research suggests that the role of marginal price in ordering consumption can be interpreted as a contingent feature of the socially structured relationship between consumption and social status. It also suggests that the utility of a technology is a secondary and emergentproduct of its use, a fact obscured by the conventional analytic separation of supply and demand or means and ends.
KEY WORDS: energy consumption; economics; social status; technology.
INTRODUCTION Programmatic or applied social research often leads its practitioners into involvement with the theoretical orientations or assumptions of those in neighboring disciplines who are attending to the same set of issues. In this paper we report one such experience: an effort to show how a sociological approach relates to and offers specific advantages over economic modeling of household energy consumption and, by extension, to argue that social models of conduct are intrinsically critical of the separation of
'Department of Sociology, University of California, Davis, California 95616. 2Departments of Sociology and Rural Sociology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington 99164-4020. 449
0884-8971/91/0900-0449$06.50/0 X 1991 Plenum Publishing Corporation
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
"means" and "ends" that characterizes rational models. In this we try to extend and refine a central tenet of economic sociology: that economic activities are embedded in social structures (see especially Granovetter, 1985). The study began as an effort to monitor and report the consequences of change in the way households are billed for their energy in a California apartment complex - a change from "master" metering (each apartment pays a set fraction of the total cost to the complex) to "unit" metering (each apartment pays for its own energy). The results of this change seemed initially consistent with those predicted by a microeconomic model; we argue, however, that the salience of the model is itself a product of the change, that some of the data are inconsistent with it, and that much of our information - regarding responses to the change but also the social correlates of energy use in this setting - suggests a more inclusive social model: that consumption is tied to social statuses and governed by considerations of social appropriateness. The paper proceeds by first reviewing recent energy consumption research, noting recent critiques of the dominant engineering and economic approaches that point to the value of a more social perspective. We then describe our research design and data collection: the bulk of the data were obtained from meter readings over a two-year period and from a two-wave survey, supplemented by a limited amount of participant observation that fell far short of a full-blown ethnography but did aid our interpretive work. After presenting data showing a substantial drop in consumption after the billing change, we describe the way in which the drop was achieved and the residents' evaluation of the change. We suggest that a simple economic interpretation of the response obscures its particular characteristics, and that the economic account is subsumed by an alternative interpretation that features the importance of status change: the emergence of the consumer as "customer." We then present evidence from the survey to suggest that households also adapt their consumption patterns over time to what is considered normal or appropriate in the community, so that consumption has an "obligatory" quality and also plainly features the adaptation of demand to supply (or of ends to means) rather than the reverse. The article concludes with a discussion of implications of this work, both for general social theory and the sociology of environment and technology.
RESEARCH IN DOMESTIC ENERGY CONSUMPTION Energy consumption research grew rapidly in the period following the 1973 oil embargo but was itself "oil-price elastic," declining when the
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
embargo collapsed but leaving a significant residue of knowledge (often knowledge whose utilization is legally mandated) regarding energy-efficient design (e.g., of automobile engines and dwellings). In the case of the construction industry, much of this work developed or modified building codes specifying insulation levels and a variety of other construction details relevant to the energy "performance" of buildings. Although the Reagan era was not a warm one for energy conservation, a portion of the relevant conservation research is now an established governmental function. Moreover, energy demand prediction or forecasting is also now an established research process, undertaken both by energy suppliers and by the public agencies that regulate them. For the most part this research has been dominated by an engineering approach, where the notion that a building performs at a certain level of efficiency is a central idea, as are related beliefs that research can specify the real-world performance consequences of, for example, insulation levels, the square footage, thickness and location of glass, variations in climate (and microclimate), the siting of the building, and furnace types it can specify the interactions between these variables in mathe-and matical models of home energy consumption. This research tradition has favored the use of unoccupied "test" houses as a source of data for its models. When such data are used to predict the amounts of energy consumed by occupied structures, however, the differences observed between actual consumption and predicted levels are typically large, sometimes by a factor of two or three (Socolow, 1978). The response to this poor fit to real consumption data has been to augment the engineering model with economic submodels, which add information on incomes and energy prices, in attempts to specify the elasticity of demand for various forms of energy in response to price and income variations. Even within the same neighborhoods, however, where structural and economic circumstances tend to be relatively invariant, a very substantial amount of variation from house to house typically remains. And this fact, in turn, has provided the theoretical and practical license for the noneconomic behavioral sciences psychology especially, and to a lesser extent sociology and anthropology to attempt to account for the residual variation (almost always referred to - erroneously, we will show - as variations in individual behavior) in energy-consumption models. The engineering approach is "rational" in the sense that it conceives a house, for example, as a simple instrument, primarily a shelter, capable of housing a potentially wide variety of social structures (especially families) in a more-or-less efficient fashion - efficiency in this case referring primarily to the operation of the heating plant, since this device typically accounts for the largest portion of the total energy bill. Human intervention
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
in the workings of this instrument, moreover, is original and minimal: essentially a matter, in recent history, of setting the thermostat. The economic model is similarly rational but allows for variations in consumption based on affordability, or variations in price and income, and it allows for variations in the relative utility (usefulness or desirability) of energy compared to other items of consumption. Energy companies and state regulatory agencies are beginning to conduct research to calculate "disaggregated" income elasticities of demand for residential energy in order to identify subpopulation variations in demand when making aggregate demand forecasts. In the research reported here we attend only briefly to the engineering model, in part because there are few structural differences between the apartments studied, but primarily because our central aim is to clarify differences in meaning and implication between economic and sociological interpretations of energy use. At the heart of the economic paradigm lies the individual economic actor, pursuing self-interested utility maximization through processes of rational calculation, but whose preferences are treated as exogenous to the economic model. This conceptualization has been extensively treated and criticized in classic social theory (Veblen, 1899; Parsons and Smelser, 1956), and it has also been subject to some criticism from a psychological perspective (Stern and Aronson, 1984). Paul Stern (1986) nicely assembles and summarizes this critique by emphasizing the difference between the microeconomic emphasis on the importance of "marginal price" -the price of additional units of energy - in shaping demand, on the one side, and the results of behavioral research on consumption on the other: in general, economic models "usually make strong assumptions about price responses that probably distort the cognitive processes that mediate those responses" (Stern, 1986:203). In other words, the models assume that people are paying attention to price signals. Relying on anthropologist Willett Kempton's imaginative research on "folk quantification" (Kempton and Montgomery, 1982), Stern also argues that "although people are typically assumed to respond to marginal prices, they are more likely to notice average prices, and the limited evidence suggests that what people perceive most clearly is neither of these, but rather the total cost (for example, the monthly electric bill, rather than the price per kilowatt hour)" (Stern, 1986:203). Neoclassical economics has itself produced several at least modest revisions of the model (e.g., Simon, 1982; Arrow, 1987; McCloskey, 1985; Cross, 1983). Some have emphasized the concessions that economic models will have to make as a paradoxical function of the increasing use of economic models and concepts in cognate disciplines (Herschleifer, 1985); from this perspective, the efforts now underway to more fully incorporate "rational
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
choice" models into sociological theory (e.g., Friedman and Hechter, 1988) may be an ironic consequence of revisionism in economics. From a sociological perspective both the microeconomic approach and the psychological critique of it are limited by the absence in both of a truly social actor. Social processes and structures play a part in these approaches, but a very indirect part, operating only to marginally influence the decisions of otherwise more-or-less rational actors. The modified formulations acknowledge the social origins of the preferences or tastes that form the bedrock of utility, but insist that the determination of these preferences is independent of the utility/price/income system. Inquiry mounted on these foundations finds it very difficult to admit the possibility that activities such as the consumption of energy are social processes, or thatas a thoroughgoing "social realist" might insist - they are undertaken by social structures. But sociology itself can have difficulties taking even the modified "realist" position that would see energy consumption as "situational," or as "appropriate" to particular settings, a fact that our own recent work can illustrate. Having joined an interdisciplinary research group concerned with the problem of understanding substantial variation in energy consumption within seemingly homogeneous neighborhoods, we undertook a social survey of household demographics and energy-use technologies and practices (e.g., thermostat settings, occupancy patterns, laundering routines) in a California community (Vine et al., 1982). The data from the survey improved upon the more restrictive engineering model's ability to predict metered energy consumption, but it was clear that a great deal of the variation still remained unexplained. As a result, we reinterviewed a number of persons in our sample, and began to appreciate the sometimes vast difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do (Deutscher, 1973). For example, the number of times per week that a family says that it "normally" does laundry is likely to bear little resemblance to the number of times laundry work was done "this week" or "last week." Interview respondents share conceptions of normal or appropriate energyuse conduct, conceptions that serve to guide the production of interview responses even though they may be poor accounts of actual practice. This points in turn to considerations of normality and deviation, and not simply calculations of personal utility, as sources of variations in energy consumption itself. Even sociological research, when undertaken in this mode, tends to analyze consumption patterns as if these were produced by essentially individual calculations of need and want, and to see needs and wants and their satisfaction as perhaps influenced by but not characteristic or constitutive of social statuses and structures. In the final section of this paper we will explore some of the sources of "deviation" in consumption;
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
here we note only that deviation is the kind of concept that is important to this kind of research, and that its use involves a plainly social model of conduct. We can illustrate these issues with a more recent study of the household energy-use consequences of variations in the way in which people are billed and pay for the energy they are said somewhat ambiguously to "consume."3
THE RESEARCH In the summer of 1985 the management of the University of California, Davis, campus Family Housing Office dropped its long-standing practice of including the cost of utilities in rent charged for apartments located in its two complexes, and the local public utility - the Pacific Gas and Electric Company - began billing the residents individually for the gas and electricity that they consume. As sociologists interested in energy conservation and in the social dimensions and meanings of resource consumption in general, we predicted - on the basis of research in other settings that a substantial reduction in energy consumption would be produced by this change. The research reported here began as an effort to monitor the change and its consequences. We undertook yet another "metering study" because of one of the peculiar characteristics of this setting: apartments that are not individually billed for utilities are rarely individually metered, but these apartments had been individually metered for many years (although the meter readings had not been recorded). By reading the meters ourselves in the prechange period we were able to go beyond aggregate measures of changes in consumption due to the new billing procedure, instead obtaining data on variations in consumption in a prechange period in which energy consumption was governed primarily by normative considerations that were likely to be relatively unaffected by unit-price concerns. This variety of consumption patterns might be linked, in turn, to the varying socioeconomic characteristics of the families resident in the complex, supporting the view that an adequate understanding of energy consumption requires a sociological perspective. Studies of payment structures pursue the consequences of changes in the economic rules that apply to particular behaviors, and for the most part have their origins in practical concerns. Several studies have shown, for example, that household energy consumption is higher - and usually quite a bit higher (30% is modal, although the range is great, from 5% to 70%) - in master-metered apartment complexes than in those in which tenants pay for their own energy (Nelson, 1981; Hackett, 1987). Of course
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
tenants pay for their energy in either case, but in the former they pay a set fraction of a single common bill, and in the latter case they pay what their own unit's meter dictates. As we shall see, the drop in consumption attendant upon a change to unit metering in the present case confirms the earlier research, and there is a straightforward economic interpretation of this drop: under master metering, the marginal cost of energy is essentially zero; the cost of every new unit of energy consumed by a particular apartment will be spread over all of the apartments and therefore not experienced directly by the consumer - an invitation, it might be concluded, to high and perhaps wasteful consumption, and a suitable illustration of the "commons dilemma" (Hardin, 1968). But another feature of this research setting made it possible to look at sources of variation in consumption that might not be price related: the population to be studied included mostly graduate/professional student families, and hence was relatively homogeneous in respect to age, education, and incipient social standing, but was very heterogeneous with respect to nationality, the families coming from over 40 countries. The entire population is also separated into two geographically distinct complexes, one of which (Orchard Park) has furnished apartments and a population twothirds of which comes from countries other than the United States; the other complex, Solano Park, has unfurnished apartments and just one-third of this population are from outside the United States. Thus with data from the prechange period we could examine variations in consumption associated with variations in culture of origin and with the particular mix of cultures in the different complexes, and do so under circumstances where the major traditional explanatory variables are controlled: the apartments are all virtually identical, and under master metering the economic circumstances of families presumably have no bearing on variations in consumption since these variations have no price. Our data included (1) apartment-level meter readings (n = 476 units) for a one-year period prior to, and one year following, the conversion; (2) campus records used to obtain anonymous demographic information on current as well as prior tenant families (n = 1043) for whom we had consumption information; and (3) a two-wave survey of all apartments in the two complexes. The first survey took place shortly after the billing change and had an 84% participation rate (n = 402). The second survey focused on summer electricity use in the postchange period, and was limited to those who had participated in the first survey and were still resident in the complexes (n = 279 or 69% of the sample households). During the period of the research, one of us lived in Orchard Park as a participant observer, enabling us to document, in a limited but more qualitative way, the range of meanings that the billing change held for
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
residents. From this perspective it became plain, for example, that the Parks' management was apprehensive about the change before it took place, being concerned with the specter of angry tenants facing high elecbills for air conditioning in a region noted for its tricity bills -especially might blame the institution for the apparently poor hot summers -who "thermal performance" of their apartments. On the tenant side the mood seemed to be, indeed, negative, although it also included resignation, including a grudging recognition that "free energy" might not be a wise policy. Master-metering was variously interpreted as a perk, "one of the only treats we have," and as evidence that "Americans are stupid about this kind of thing." There was also some considerable resentment that the change required an involuntary adaptation and carried with it the implicit suggestion that heretofore the tenants had been collectively "misbehaving." One useful result of our presence on-site was a realization that the meaning of the billing change was an object of discussion in the complexes. But this limited participant observation also helped to reveal the situational and social character of the actual response to the change. The actual response to the change in billing procedures, in terms of electricity delivered to these apartments, is presented in Fig. 1. Because the summers in central California are the period of primary electricity consumption, we show the trajectory of electricity use for (1) the preceding summer, (2) the summer of the conversion, and (3) the summer following the change. To examine the relationship between prior consumption levels and family incomes, and their influence upon persons' responses to the billing change, we dichotomized these two variables (using June 1984 consumption data) and, in Fig. 2, show the pattern of consumption for each of these four groups through August 1986. The bold line in Fig. 2 is the mean consumption figure predicted for 1985 and 1986 on the basis of the (regression-estimated) relationship between consumption and temperature observed in 1983 and 1984. The July and August 1985 consumption (the billing change took place on August 1) was substantially below the levels that would have been predicted on the basis of weather alone, and the reason was clear to any casual (or literally "outside") observer: whereas the hum of air conditioners was a virtually constant daytime feature of life in the Parks before the change, after August 1 the Parks were silent save for the sounds of playing children. The drop in consumption at the time of the change had at least five apparent characteristics: (1) it was immediate - in fact, the July 1985 figures show a probably anticipatory reduction, indicating that residents did not engage in last-minute benefit taking (as "rational hedonists" might), nor did the drop follow the availability of "price signals"; (2) it was substantial, as a proportion of previous consumption, there apparently being
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
Aggregate mWh (million Watthours)
EstimatedSavings Measured Consumption
Fig. 1. Predicted and observed summer electricity consumption: 1984-1986 (n = 476).
enough elasticity of demand for at least this electricity to challenge its status as a utility if by the latter we mean something "basic"; (3) it was virtually universal; (4) it was persistent - in that the drop remained in force at least through the summer of 1986; and as noted above (5) it was highly specific - people simply turned off their air conditioners. This latter fact means that apparent variations in consumption reduction (variations that might be expected to be correlated with variations in incomes) were, in a sense, illusory: because there was preconversion variation in consumption, the same act produced substantial variations in consumption reduction and, in this case, brought almost everyone to the same consumption level.
INTERPRETING THE CONSUMPTION CHANGE In our survey research we solicited evaluations of the change, and some aspects of the response we obtained are shown in Table I, again for our income/consumption groupings. When we asked residents whether they favored the change it became plain that most did not, but it is probably a testimony either to the double-edged character of energy conservation in one's own dwelling (at least in this population) or to
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
//^\\ / /
\\ \ \
Low Inooma/High *~~~~~~~~ Use Use O~~~~~~ HighIncoma/Low
Use Income/High 3o High Use LowInooma/Low *~~~~~4
\\ z /
Consumption ~~~~~Expected (tem~~~~perature-based)
------l --- - - - - ---------
Billing to Conversion Individual Fig. 2. Income, previous consumption, and post conversion summer electricity use (n = 243).
the effects of the survey itself that a majority said the change was nonetheless a "good idea." An overall majority predicted negative consequences for "comfort," but by the time of the second survey nearly two-thirds said that their comfort had actually not been reduced. Here and elsewhere the pattern of responses seems influenced to some degree, and not altogether consistently, by incomes, although the influence on consumption in this setting is slight. Table I shows that the low-income/high-use category is, as predicted, less likely to acknowledge that the change is a "good idea" and is the most likely to predict negative comfort consequences, but the differences here are very slight (and none are statistically significant). Moreover, the low-income/low-use group is, if anything, least likely to favor the change; this is contrary to a strictly income-related prediction, since under master metering low-use consumers are actually subsidizing their high-use neighbors. In general, we found little evidence - formal or informal - of the calculation of energy costs and benefits that one might predict from a strictly economic model of consumption. Of course price signals were not available to tenants until after the billing conversion, but even then we rarely encountered a calculative posture unless we asked our informants to assume one. It might be argued that the actual amount of money
Social Structures and Economic Conduct Table I. Consumption/Income Groups' Views of the Billing Conversion (n = 243) Favored the billing conversion (%t0) Yes High use/ high income High use/ low income Low use/ high income Low use/ low income 23 19 34 18 No 61 65 55 64 No opinion 17 16 11 18 Thought that the conversion was a good idea (%) Yes 59 48 59 55 No 37 45 36 43 No opinion 4 7 5 2
Believed the conversion would reduce comfort (%) Yes 53 66 50 50 No 47 34 50 50
involved was perhaps too small to reach the threshold of real economic concern, but if that were true the substantial proportionate consumption drop would also make little sense. Many tenants were very concerned about their new "situation," and a cautious approach to consumption undoubtedly followed. But one thing that impressed us during the period of transition was the absence of any common lore about the cost of utilities or any apparent tradition of concern about inequities in the meeting of those costs. The response seemed to be discrete and uniform: people did not reduce their use of the air conditioner or respond as though they possessed individual elasticities; with a few exceptions they stopped using air conditioners altogether, responding in a more "qualitative" fashion. There is a sense, however, in which this response could nonetheless be interpreted in terms of price theory. In the preconversion period there was considerable variation in the use of air conditioning, and thus the near elimination of air conditioning meant that some tenants certainly reduced their consumption of electricity more than others. Moreover, in the postconversion period the tenants faced an "inclining block rate" tier structure of electricity prices such that the price of electricity - and not simply its cost increases as one's use of it rises. Thus the largest reductions in electricity use - and since air conditioning seems to have been the main "variable" in electricity use, some tenants reduced their consumption by as much as 80% - tended to be made by the residents who would have been paying the highest price for it. However, this apparent correlation between consumption reduction and price is spurious - a product of the fact that the
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
same act (e.g., turning off the air conditioner) can yield highly variable (and price-correlated) reductions in consumption. When nearly all of the Parks' residents turned off their air conditioners - collectively discovering in the new energy environment that air conditioning was neither a necessity nor a convenience at any price - they were not responding to escalating energy prices by proportional reductions in consumption. In fact, they had no knowledge of their previous consumption levels, the likely cost of their present consumption, or even what sort of pricing scheme was attached to its use.3 Our argument does not attempt to void the possible influence of marginal price on consumption, nor, in fact, the possible long-term influence of marginal pricing on particular forms of energy dependence (or, for that matter, independence - the recent adoption of inclining block rates in California and elsewhere being designed in good part to discourage the "substitution" of electricity for natural gas in heating). It does suggest, however, that the role of price in this setting is not clearly established, that price may be a product of the conduct it is designed to predict or that its correlation with consumption may well be spurious. Even where price works as a predictor of consumption, a sociological approach would see it as a socially instituted "allocation rule." Our primary concern here, however, is that the correlation of price with consumption may decoy inquiry away from
Economic analyses relying upon this sort of price-consumption correlation have been conducted and, in fact, were used as evidence in support of this particular metering conversion. In a review of several metering studies, Nelson found a substantial correlation between marginal price and aggregate (apartment complex-wide) proportion of energy consumption "saved" by conversions to individual apartment metering (Nelson, 1981). The conversions studied by Nelson took place, however, during a period (primarily the early 1970s) when declining block rate pricing-the price of electricity decreases as one's use of it rises - was common, meaning that apartment complexes with lower aggregate consumption tended to reduce their consumption the most. But the fact that these are aggregate figures is important, and means that within these complexes conversion-related savings may very well have been proportionate to the amount of energy previously consumed, as they were in the Solano and Orchard Park settings. If this were not so, the determination of consumption by marginal price would mean (under declining block rates) that those who consumed the most under master metering would reduce their consumption the least under individual metering because their unit costs for electricity were lower at higher levels of consumption. Nelson also acknowledges that type of consumption may dominate the price-consumption relationship: higher tier (and hence cheaper per unit) consumption may be least elastic because it reflects the use of electricity for heating, a "high-dependency" use. It might also be usefully added, on behalf of a realistic assessment of the price-consumption relation, that these are of course mutually constituted, lower prices being the product as well as the precursor of higher levels of consumption and hence lower unit costs; highly electrified households located in areas with historically low electric rates are artifacts of the "load-building" periods of electric utility development. This is no doubt especially true where legally constituted bodies (e.g., public utilities commissions) control the "rate of return" to investor-owned utilities - a widely established circumstance today.
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
the consideration of alternative (and more social) sources of variation in energy demand.
CONSUMPTION AS SOCIAL STATUS-RELATED AND SOCIALLY APPROPRIATE One alternative to pricing as a source of variation in energy demand involves a reframing of the economic interpretation of the response to the billing change to emphasize not the amount of the bill but rather the fact of the bill itself. After the change, tenants had a new bill to pay, and it was a "personal" bill; there were new "costs" even though one's total payment might be no different - and would in some cases be less, since the portion of the rent payment formerly used for utilities is rebated. The argument here is that aggregated (and perhaps preset or "fixed") costs are intrinsically less painful than disaggregated or variable costs, even where the totals involved are the same. A more social version of this argument would hold that a shared cost is easier to assume than a personal or private cost of the same amount. This kind of consideration places consumption in a social context and implies a link between a change in a consumer's economic experience to a change in social status. By status we do not point to considerations of prestige but to legal or quasilegal social categories, identities, or forms of membership in a culture (Marshall, 1964), for example, the distinctions between wards, tenants, clients, customers, and members - each of these statuses having distinctive implications for "economic" conduct. Thus within a university community, master metering is in fact an intrinsic feature of a particular set of status relationships, specifically a rapidly fading tradition of in loco parentis in which resident students are wards of the institution. The rental agreement is diffuse, and there is a sense in which services are provided in unrestricted portions in exchange for a kind of rule-making easement granted the housing authorities, but a companionate feature of this arrangement is a sharp limit placed on the access to tenants enjoyed by vendors or "third parties," including utility companies. A clear trend in recent years is to make the housing agreements between students and educational institutions more contractual, to legalize and specify their provisions; master metering exists, then, as a kind of halfway house between parental provision and payment for services, on the one side, and a private unmediated contract between consumer (here, a "customer") and vendor on the other. The consumer pays for the services, and indeed may pay more than would be the case under a private contract, but does so in such a way that the service seems to have no cost. This "treat" may be
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
experienced as one of the small "privileges of membership" that define a distinctive community or status.4 With the switch to individual metering and billing, households become energy "customers" for the first time. And what might be termed "economizing" behavior ensues as a defining feature of that social standing. Our survey also produced information supporting our earlier argument that energy use should properly be seen as governed by considerations of appropriateness or "normality" in given social settings or situations. Following this line of reasoning, we examined our data for evidence that the residents of the two complexes displayed consumption patterns that could be linked either to their backgrounds (their culture of origin) or to their foreground setting (their culture of orientation) when both structural and economic variations were controlled. Regarding the first, we found at least some residues of membership in other communities that may represent sources of variation in conduct in the setting at hand. Figure 3, for example, displays another set of consumption profiles, this time dividing residents into "home continent" groups - a rough measure of nationality, or culture of origin. Within the Parks there seems to exist a common understanding that nationalities will be allocated opportunities for recognition and expression, albeit in modest degree and with the implication that religious observances are the most tasteful form of this; and there are many "adaptation" stories that link social backgrounds and original cultures to variations - often unauthorized - in the use of energy-consuming technologies. Stove-top burners, for example, can be employed in the grilling of skewered meats, and ovens used for space heating but not for cooking. A single apartment sometimes serves as the de facto kitchen for several families who eat in a near communal fashion. Refrigerators in the apartments of persons coming from cultures where the "leftover" is not yet an institution may stand empty or virtually so, or the freezer section of several refrigerators are used to store the various parts of a single butchered animal. Several Mediterranean and South Asian residents dramatically lowered their hot-water temperatures (the apartments have individual water heaters), arguing that water should emerge at a "useful" temperature and not require mixing with cold water. North Asian and European families were likely to make only limited use of their heaters (and frequently no
4Considerations of lower building costs as well as incentives made available by utility companies interested in "load building" have undoubtedly spurred the building of reinforced its related status orders. Along with university master-metered housing-and housing, master metering is a common feature of public housing, on-base military housing, and elderly apartment complexes. In a larger sense, however, any number of commonplace individually consumed resources and services (e.g., garbage disposal, water, public services, sewage treatment, and even health insurance benefits) are routinely allocated through collective or "master-metered" payment structures.
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
35 o SouthAsia America Latin MiddleEastAfrica * Europe O North America Asia * North
32 48 38 20 192 63
ExpectedConsumption (temperature-based) -
June84 July84 Aug84 June85 July85 Aug85a Aug85b June86 July86
Conversion to Individual Billing
Fig. 3. Billing conversion and cultural variations in summer electricity consumption (n = 243).
use of air conditioners), and to control both of these "manually"- turning them on and off when the users felt warm or cold; U.S. citizens kept their apartments comparatively hot in the winter and cold in the summer, and were more likely to rely on thermostats to regulate temperatures. Heaters were used for clothes drying, and air conditioners to supply "white noise" that masks out the noises that might shorten a baby's nap. The television set can be left on as an audiovisual aid to language acquisition. Having a washing machine in the apartment allowed some women to avoid going into a public place without their husbands, while avoiding that acquisition made it possible for others to join the sometimes robust morning social life in the complex laundry rooms. Whether it be background experience and habit or foreground adaptation that accounts for the different consumption profiles, Fig. 3 suggests that consumption can indeed be linked to cultures when economic, climate, and housing structure variations are controlled - as in the preconversion period. It might be imagined that these cultural variations mask variations in consumption habits that reflect incomes, but nationality and income, while not independent, in this sample at least, are not related to energy consumption in a straightforward way. For example, the sample includes a number of high-income Third World and European households
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
(many of these students are from elite families). Members of the former groups often fell in the high-income/high-use category (Fig. 2), while nearly half of the latter fell in the high-income/low-use category. Over 75% of all South Americans were "high" users, while about 65% of the North Asian households were "low" users, regardless of income. These findings underline the value of a comparative or cross-cultural perspective in research on resource consumption, a perspective that with few notable exceptions (e.g., Mazur and Rosa, 1974; Rosa et al., 1981; Schipper et al., 1985) is little developed, presumably because of the assumption that energy is a simple "utility," a technical means to satisfy invariant human needs that are, or perhaps ought rightly to be, socially "neutral." Figure 3 also shows, however, that such "neutralization" is in part precisely what the billing conversion accomplished, since the consumption variations between groups from different regions of the world virtually collapse in the postconversion period. It might again be argued, considering this transition, that such economizing conduct is lodged in specific economic structures - in this case, billing procedures - that are not only both cause and effect of changes in social statuses, but also implicitly confer and suppress social identities, and not necessarily in considerations of what a family can "afford." The introduction of other controls clarifies and confirms these relations, and also shows the foreground situational features of energy consumption. Table II presents two regression equations estimating summer kilowatt hour consumption, before and after the billing conversion. All variables, except for length of residence (months) and temperature (days above 90?F), are dummy coded. The reference group in both equations is the North American, downstairs, no air conditioner, middle-income ($10,00020,000 per year), small family (two parents and one child). It is plain that this group had the least elastic energy-use profile: almost everyone else consumed more electricity in the preconversion period (the Europeans are lower, but there are only 12 apartments in this category) and less in the postconversion period. Almost certainly these more local residents assimilate air conditioning, when available, into an established and habitual pattern; it is, we might say, more institutionalized for this category, whose members have no problem determining "how to use it" or "how it ought to be used," and for whom it is less of a "free good" or a "treat," and perhaps quite a bit less optional as well. This is in turn probably reinforced by the fact that most of this group lives in Solano Park (and is the modal group there by a sizeable margin: its unfurnished apartments have slightly lower rents and permit these more local residents to bring a good deal of their material culture with them). As a result - according to nonresident observers other than ourselves - Solano seems "private" in a way that
Social Structures and Economic Conduct Table II. Regression Models of Pre- and Postconversion Summer Electricity Consumption, Controlling for Temperature, Apartment Location, and Air Conditioning (kWh/month) Preconversion (June-August 1984; June, July 1985) Orchard Park Second/third floor apartments No air conditioner (AC) Small AC unit Length of residence (months)
Postconversion (August 1, August 2 1985; June-August 1986) -1.7 36.lb -18.5a 3.7 1.4b
180.9b 110 lb
European Middle Eastern/African North Asian South Asian $10,000/year and less $20,000/year and more Couples (no children) Larger families (2+ children) Days about 90' Intercept
-23.6a 62.5a 3.4 214.8b -27.6 16.1 43.Oa 61 b 74b 54.8 R 2=
42.lb -19.6 -13.1 5.3 -8.8 18.1a
1.4b 185.3 R 2 = .149
Reference categories Solano Park, first floor apartment with air conditioner North American, couples w/one child, $10,000-20,000/year
ap < .05. bp < .01.
Orchard does not, to belong more to the residents and less to the university, and we believe this means a different attitude toward the consumption even of prepaid services. This difference between the two complexes is represented by the coefficients for Orchard Park: even with several other, possibly contributing, factors controlled, Orchard's special character meant much higher electricity consumption than Solano in the preconversion period. The models in Table II estimate the average kilowatt hour consumption associated with air conditioners of various sizes, the upstairs location of some apartments (considerably higher air conditioning use than
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
downstairs apartments, since heat rises), and variations in family size all of this variation considerably reduced after the billing change. Of special interest here - as a confirmation of the situational nature of consumption - is the apparent effect on consumption of tenure, or length of residence in the Parks: the coefficients estimate kilowatt hour differences per month of residence, so that this effect is substantial and this indicates a considerable adaptation over time to the norms of relatively high aggregate consumption in the setting before the conversion. For example, while Park laundries are equipped with dryers fueled by natural gas, in our interviews only 31% of residents who had lived in the Parks for less than one year said that they would select a gas dryer for their own homes; but a majority (57%) of those who had lived in the Parks for three years or more said that they would purchase a gas dryer. This finding supports our argument that a historical perspective on the emergence of consumption norms, and in fact simple attention to the fact that they have histories, might conduce to a view of these norms as outcomes of the same energy-using practices they might otherwise be thought to explain. Along with the comparative perspective that is encouraged by these data, this finding also supports a view of consumption profiles not as precisely calculated nor simply arbitrary, but rather as the outcomes of extended and socially situated energy-using conduct itself.5
ENERGY CONSUMPTION AS OBLIGATORY The comparison that we are exploring, between microeconomic and social models of energy consumption, is an effort to place that consumption in a broader and more social context than that of the individual "decision maker." In urging exploration of the linkage between consumption and social status, we follow a well-worn sociological path, one whose best modern traveler is perhaps Veblen (1899/1979), although our emphasis here is less on the prestige correlates of consumption and more on the expectations of persons occupying publicly defined social categories that indicate appropriate conduct in given settings. Our argument, moreover, is that seemingly innocent variations in modes of payment for resources that consumed, or payment structures, are in fact social structures -so
5Perhaps ironically, the postconversion cessation of air conditioning, rather than encouraging a new market-oriented self-interest, instead gave rise to open windows and doors, and to community norms regarding the rights of neighbors to be free of noise, smoke, and other invasions - the latter, conditions that were common features of the premarket environment in which the constant drone of air conditioners often forced residents to retreat behind closed windows and doors.
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
changes in them involve changes in status relations and hence implicate consumption patterns. Thus we would urge attention to what might be termed the obligatory element in consumption, the sense in which consumption is "built in" to social identities, and to the importance of those who supply the materials of consumption to achieve just such a social place for their products. When consumers from a variety of countries enter the setting being described here, they bring with them habits of living that may, as we have seen, influence their use of the technologies now available to them; but they see the material of their environment as something to be mastered and appropriately deployed, not simply as an array of devices for meeting preexistent wants and needs. They come to live in a world in which much of their consumption has the quality of a "given"; devices for space heating and cooling, the cold storage of food (and a great deal of food, we might add, by the refrigerator-size standards of most other countries), the continuous availability of hot water, and the "automatic" cleaning and drying of clothing are simply features of their situation. So too are the socially learned procedures for using these devices; and, we would suggest, so too are the socially acquired and self-confirming rationales for doing so, although these rationales need not be explicit - one's "need" for a refrigerator being lodged at least in guests' expectations that the beer they proffer can be stored in the usual place. The role of simple presumption in all of this is probably major - that one will enjoy, want, come to take-for-granted daily hot showers followed by cold drinks, or gas heating and electric cooling of entire dwellings, or the consumption of "leftover" food, and that one will understand this to be a proper use for money. The newcomer encounters a material culture and the instructions and rationales for deploying it already in place. As our exploration of the importance of tenure suggested, residents adapt to what is in essence a given pattern of consumption, so that their resource "demands" are not appropriately thought of as a priori, but rather as emergent. Moreover, that to which adaptation is made includes not only hardware and its rationale, but also conceptions of appropriate expenditure for - in this case - direct energy costs, so that one might speak not only of the marginal or the total or the average but also of the normal cost of energy. If energy consumption can be said to exhibit normality (and thus, of course, deviation as well), this implies in turn some sharing of information about consumption patterns among the members of a community, and this means that institutions of privacy - as in the "privileged" or "confidential" nature of communications about money matters between vendors and consumers - might also be said to condition the consumption of energy, and perhaps dramatically
Hackett and Lutzenhiser
so, since privacy facilitates a very considerable "standard deviation" from socially normal conduct. The application of concepts such as obligation, normality, and the emergence of demand to the study of energy consumption is intended to contribute to the ongoing sociological critique of rational models of social life and to extend the critique to cover forms of conduct whose rationality is yet virtually unquestioned. Perhaps especially if the sociological model of consumption is given an historical dimension - so that consumers can be seen to adapt their conduct to social situations, to change their conduct with changes in their social statuses, and to have their demands the conemerge as a consequence of using the supplies at hand -will ceptual separation of means and ends that is a cornerstone of rational thought be called into question. The utility, the need for, or the value of a technology - including the home heating and cooling technologies that almost all of us habitually employ - is not a priori but rather an emergent consequence of the institutionalized use of the technology itself; our ends ought properly to be seen as, in Dewey's (1929) felicitous usage, "endings." If this is so, then we can expect to find persons adapting their needs to the devices they have for meeting them in precisely the same manner that methodologies are now seen to fashion the scientific problems that they were once said merely to solve. The adaptation of demand to supply is not a novel notion; in spite of the hypothetical autonomy of the "law of demand" in economic analysis, studies of advertising (e.g., Ewen, 1976) and of extramarket arrangements that privilege particular industries or products - federal highway spending and tax laws promoting suburbanization perhaps being the "type cases" of this - have promoted an appropriate skepticism regarding the extent of consumer sovereignty. Our findings regarding the clearly elastic character of demand for electricity indicate at least the possibility that Schnaiberg's (1980) critical observations regarding the inflation, manipulation, and even coercion of demand for natural resources are well founded; they also lend credence to Laura Nader's insistence that levels of energy consumption have very little to do with the quality of life (Nader and Beckerman, 1978).6 This again supports the argument that means and ends, or solutions and problems, or supplies and demands, are in practice inseparable; a parallel argument can be found in the anthropological treatment of economic life offered by Mary Douglas, in which the relationship between consumption and production - insofar as
6Nader's argument is empirically supported by a number of comparative cross-national studies of energy consumption and well-being (e.g., Schipper and Lichtenberg, 1976; Buttel, 1979; Rosa et al., 1988).
Social Structures and Economic Conduct
these are separable at all - is viewed as circular (Douglas and Isherwood, 1979:19-24). Regarding the consumption of resources in general and of energy in particular, these considerations should be sufficient, in our view, to raise the question of whether our public utilities do not in fact privilege very particular ways of life - on the assumption that they merely provide the tools from which a way of life is constructed. It would seem to be at least a sound principle of inquiry to proceed, in the study of energy consumption or the use of any other technology, to treat individual demand not as a starting point but as a secondary and emergent product of social actors' adaptation to the situation and supplies at hand. A fully sociological treatment of this process, however, would view consumption not simply as a response to supply, but also as a social act that affirms, and in fact constitutes, membership in a community of a particular character, that character being both object and reference of suppliers and consumers alike. Acknowledging the limitations of economic models will allow the development of an alternative view of technology and resource consumption that sees these phenomena as cultural processes in their own right, and in turn, as embedded in social structures, situations, and statuses. A sociological approach to the study of energy, technology, and resource consumption is necessary for a proper accounting of their true social costs, and it can help as well to mend the unfortunate theoretical bifurcation of sociology and economics as approaches to the understanding of social life.
Arrow, Kenneth 1987 "Rationality of self and others in an economic system."In Robin Hogarthand Melvin Reder (eds.), Rational Choice. Chicago:The Universityof ChicagoPress. Buttel, Frederick, H. 1979 "Social welfare and energy intensity: A comparative analysis of the developed market economies." In C. Unseld, D. Morrison, D. Sills, and C. Wolf (eds.), Sociopolitical Efficient Energy Use Policy. Washington, DC: National Academy of Science. Cross, John 1983 A Theory of Adaptive Economic Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Deutscher, Isaac 1973 What We Say/WhatWe Do: Sentiments and Acts. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman. Dewey, John 1929 Experience and Nature. New York: Random House. Douglas, Mary and Brian Isherwood 1979 The World of Goods. New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ewen, Stuart 1976 Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill. Friedman, Debra and Michael Hechter 1988 "The contribution of rational choice theory to macrosocial research." Sociological Theory 6:201-218.
470 Granovetter, Marc actions and social 1985 "Economic A of problem structure: embeddedness." American Journal of Sociology 91:481-510. Hackett, Bruce 1987 "Energy consumption and energy billing in apartments." In Willett Kempton and Max Neiman (eds.), Energy Efficiency: Perspectives on Individual Behavior. Washington, DC, and Berkeley, CA: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Hardin, Garrett 1968 "The tragedy of the commons." Science 162:1243. Herschleifer, Jack of 1985 "The domain expanding economics." American Economic Review 75:53-68. Kempton, Willett and Laura Montgomery of energy." 1982 "Folk quantification Energy 7:817-827. Marshall, T. H. 1964 "A note on 'status."' In Class, Citizenship and Social Development. New York: Doubleday. Mazur, Alan and Eugene Rosa 1974 "Energy and lifestyle: Cross-national comparison of energy consumption and quality of life indicators." Science 186:607-10. McCloskey, Donald 1985 The Rhetoric of Economics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. Nader, Laura and S. Beckerman 1978 "Energy as it relates to the quality and style of life." Annual Review of Energy 3:1-28. Nelson, Samuel 1981 "Energysavings attributableto switching from master to individual metering of energy."Argonne, IL: Argonne National Laboratory. Parsons, Talcott and Neil Smelser 1956 Economy and Society. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
Hackett and Lutzenhiser Rosa, Eugene, Kenneth Keating, and Clifford Staples 1981 "Energy,economic growth and qualityof life: A cross-national trend analysis." Proceedings International Congress of Applied Systems Research and Cybernetics: 258-264. New York: Pergamon. Rosa, Eugene, Gary Machlis, and Kenneth Keating 1988 "Energy and society." Annual Review of Sociology 14:149-172. Schipper, Lee, Andrea Ketoff, and Adam Kahane 1985 "Explaining residential energy use by combottom-up international parisons." Annual Review of Energy 10:341-405. Schipper, Lee and Allan Lichtenberg 1976 "Efficient energy use and well-being: The Swedish example." Science 194:1001-1013. Schnaiberg, Allen 1980 The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. New York: Oxford University Press. Simon, IIerbert 1982 Models of Bounded Rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Socolow, Robert 1978 Saving Energy in the Home: Princeton's Experiments at Twin Rivers. Cambridge: Ballinger. Stern, Paul 1986 "Blind spots in policy analysis." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 5:200-227. Stern, Patil and Elliott Aronson Use: The Human 1984 Energy New York: W. H. Dimension. Freeman and Co. Veblen, Thorstein 1979 The Theory of the Leisure Class. (1899*) New York: Penguin. Vine, Edward, Paul Craig, James Cramer, Dan Thomas Dietz, Bruce Hackett, Kowalczyk, and Mark Levine 1982 "The applicability of energy models to occupied houses: Summer electricity use in Davis." Energy 7:909-925.
*Original publication date.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.