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Sustainable Domestic Technologies:
changing practice, convention and technology

Project Summary | Approach | Aims & Objectives | Methodology | Project Team | Project Publications to Date | Related Publications | Links

Dale Southerton (Principal Investigator), Martin Hand, Elizabeth Shove and Alan Warde

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Project Summary


A third of all UK energy is consumed in homes. At home, food is turned into meals; dirty dishes, clothes and bodies become clean, and cosy, comfortable settings are created. From an environmental perspective, the most significant forms of resource consumption take place in two places: the kitchen and bathroom. Within them, domestic appliances have become necessary through their time and labour saving functions.

In both kitchens and bathrooms, radical but often invisible changes have occurred in the ways that people behave. For example, domestic laundry has increased five fold over the last century, and people in Britain are showering more than ever before. While technological innovation can reduce the resources consumed by individual appliances, it has also fuelled escalating standards and expectations of service. For example, 'cold appliances' (fridges and freezers), dishwashers, tumble dryers and washing machines accounted for nearly thirty per cent of UK household energy consumption in 1999, while water consumption in the home has increased by 70% over the last thirty years. In many cases, household technologies have the effect of binding their users into extensive complexes of service provision.

This research will explore how domestic appliances - especially, washing machines, dishwashers, freezers and power showers - become normal. The historical development of kitchens and bathrooms is being investigated to see how technologies make their way into routine - yet resource intensive - use.

This project begin in January 2003 and will continue until January 2005, and is funded under the UK ESRC's Sustainable Technologies Programme:


Much policy-related research has sought to understand people's failure to adopt and appropriate more sustainable technologies. Relatively few have stepped back from this problem to consider how it is that present technological regimes have become so unambiguously `normal'. This question is, however, of central concern to writers like Schwartz Cowan (1983), Cockburn and Furst-Dilic (1994), and Silva (2000). Their studies demonstrate that domestic technologies are consistently positioned and conditioned in terms of necessary, normal, and ultimately inescapable modes of consumption. As domestic technologies become accepted as normal they are embedded in changing patterns of practice within households. Consequently, while devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners were thought to reduce the time spent cleaning there is evidence to suggest that their widespread adoption has in fact contributed to the increasing frequency within which washing and hovering goes on (Vanek, 1978). But it is misleading to focus upon isolated devices. Many domestic technologies assume or demand the presence of others, for it is in combination that they acquire meaning and are actually deployed in practice. The microwave, first introduced as an alternative to the oven has since become a defrosting machine (Consumers' Association, 1998). In addition to demonstrating how consumer `resistance' to innovative technologies can change the outcome of their use, this example illustrates how practice-based alliances, as between freezer and microwave, have the effect of redefining the status and positioning of all the elements involved. The result is a process of creeping but inconspicuous normalization: a process whereby domestic technologies develop through their relationship to one another and to the contexts in which they are used, and a process in which social practices and taken for granted conventions are modified as a result.

To date, the sociology of consumption has largely ignored sustainability beyond the occasional call for `downshifting' in the total volume of consumption (Schor, 1992). Meanwhile, the environmental literature tends to view consumption in terms of personal choice and autonomous decisions (Giddens, 1991; Jochem et al. 2000; Cohen & Murphy, 2001). Framed in this way, questions of sustainable consumption are reduced to questions about changing consumer motivations, offering incentives and encouraging `greener lifestyles'. Authors who, by contrast, emphasize the socio-structural and sociotechnical conditions of `choice' and change, have yet to fully articulate the environmental implications of their approach (Akrich, 1992; Latour, 1992; Rip & Kemp, 1998).

Addressing these three omissions, we investigate the appropriation of goods and services into social routines in a manner that takes account of inter-connections between modes of production, including design, distribution and marketing, and practices of consumption - practices which are at the same time symbolic, normative and socially significant (Harvey et al, 2001). In short, we take the consumption of resources like energy and water to be strongly mediated by the social norms, collective conventions, and suites of technology on which the definition and routine reproduction of `appropriate' standards of everyday life depend (Bourdieu, 1984). In practical terms, the question is whether, and how, domestic technologies can be configured so as to `script' (Akrich, 1992; Jelsma, 1999) and thereby embed more sustainable practices and concepts of normal `service'?

In pursuing this question, we exploit insights from the sociology and history of technology, combining these with more structural approaches to the analysis of consumption in order to develop a new way of conceptualizing and addressing the challenges of environmental sustainability. The implications of such an approach are profound, not least because it runs against dominant paradigms focusing on the actions of what are taken to be autonomous and sovereign consumers.

Aims and Objectives

The research has three central aims:


The research methodology can be summarized under three analytic headings:

Contextualizing the Present

This involves an historical review of the changing style, design, and purpose of British kitchens and bathrooms. Data will be collected from a variety of sources, including, documentation held at the Manchester Science and Technology Museum, and content analysis of publications of the Good Housekeeping Institute. This will be followed by a more focused investigation of the 'careers' of four appliances: freezers; washing machines; power showers; and dishwashers. The product biographies of these technologies will be traced by reviewing advertisements in appropriate magazines and trade journals (held at the British Library and British Newspaper Library).

Understanding Current Practice

This forms the main substantive empirical focus of the project. This element investigates current constellations of belief, practice and technology influencing patterns of consumption within a selection of British kitchens and bathrooms. A total of 60 detailed and semi-structured interviews will be conducted with households in the York area.

Anticipating the Future

This involves interviewing representatives of key companies and organizations involved in developing kitchen and bathroom technologies. Approximately 20 interviews will be conducted with people responsible for the research, design, marketing and retailing of key products; with representatives of trade associations representing bathroom and kitchen designers; and with individuals responsible for energy and water related policies and appliance standards.

Project Team

Dr Dale Southerton (CRIC) -

Mr Martin Hand

Dr Elizabeth Shove (Lancaster) -

Professor Alan Warde (CRIC) -

Project Publications to Date

Hand, M. Shove, E. and Southerton, D. (2003). 'Explaining Daily Showering: A Discussion of Policy and Practice.' ESRC Sustainable Technologies Working Paper, Number 2003/4.

Hand, M. and Shove, E. (2004). 'Orchestrating Concepts: kitchen dynamics and regime change in Good Housekeeping and Ideal Home, 1922-2002'.

Related Publications

Southerton, D. (2001) 'Ordinary and Distinctive Kitchens; or a kitchen is a kitchen is a kitchen'. In Gronow, J. & Warde, A. (Eds.) Ordinary Consumption. London: Routledge.

Shove, E. & Southerton, D. (2000) 'Defrosting the Freezer: from novelty to convenience. A story of normalization'. Journal of Material Culture, Vol 5, No. 3: 301-320.

Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience, The Social Organization of Normality, Elizabeth Shove, Berg Publishers, July 2003, 224p, Hardback and Paperback versions available.


ESRC Sustainable Technologies Programme -

Department of Sociology, University of Manchester -

Department of Sociology, Lancaster University -

Return to Dale Southerton's Home Page


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