Kate Burningham is a Professor in Sociology of the Environment; a joint appointment between the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Environment and Sustainability (CES) at the University of Surrey.
Her research interests focus on the social construction of environmental problems, public environmental knowledge, environmental inequalities and sustainable lifestyles.
Kate is a co-investigator and Deputy Director of the multi-disciplinary ESRC Research Centre, Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) led by Professor Tim Jackson. Kate leads one of the work themes focusing on the social and psychological dimensions of prosperity exploring how people negotiate their aspirations for the good life https://www.cusp.ac.uk/themes/s1/. One of the projects within this theme is an international study CYCLES: Children and Youth in Cities—Lifestyle Evaluations and Sustainability www.cusp.ac.uk/CYCLES. CYCLES involve research in collaboration with partners in India, Bangladesh, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and Brazil.
Kate was recently a co-investigator in both the ESRC research group on Lifestyles, Values and Energy Consumption (RESOLVE) and the ESRC, Defra and Scottish Government funded Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG) in which she led a qualitative longitudinal project Exploring Lifestyle Changes in Transition (ELiCiT). Past funded research includes: for the ESRC, 'Beyond NIMBY: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Public Engagement with Renewable Energy Technologies' and 'Understanding Lay Environmental Knowledge in Industry' ; for The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 'Vulnerability to heat and drought in the South West of England' and 'Rainforests are a long way from here: the environmental concerns of disadvantaged groups'; for the Environment Agency projects researching vulnerability to flooding, public responses to flood warnings, and environmental inequalities and a project for the ESRC, The Environment Agency and Hull City Council exploring children's experiences of flooding in Hull. Kate supervises a number of PhD students located in the Department of Sociology and in CES.
Postgraduate research supervision
I supervise students in sociology of environment, sustainability and consumption. Many of the projects I supervise are multidisciplinary, in collaboration with the Centre for Environment and Sustainability. I am currently supervising 4 students:
- Education for environmental citizenship. Claire Waterfall
- Exploring young people’s discourses of the good life. Anastasia Loukianov
- Transformation of the Transport System through New Mobility Practices: Intermodal E-Carsharing in the Rhine-Main Region. Anne Scholz
- Towards more sustainable food systems: transitioning to plant-based school meals. Elisabeth Guaker
I have supervised 13 students to completion:
- A study of personal narratives in community energy. Anna Godleman
- The roles of communities and local authorities in the UK sustainable energy transition: a commons and multi-stakeholder governance perspective. Emilia Melville
- Promoting Industrial Symbiosis: Analysing Context and Network Evolution during Biowaste-to-Resource Innovations. Anne Velenturf
- Commercialising Zero Carbon Housing Design: Towards an Economic and Socio-Technically Informed Approach. Rehan Khodabuccus
- The Swap Model: Policy And Theory Applications For Agent-Based Modelling of Soil and Water Conservation Adoption. Peter Johnson
- Communicating Climate Change: A Study of the Roles of Media and Public Perceptions in Thailand. Supoj Suttirat
- The Improvement Of Greenspace Creation On Brownfield Land. Gail Atkinson
- Constructions of the Environment in Nepal: Environmental Discourses on Air and on the Ground. Sangita Shreshtha
- Examining the social context of land regeneration: a social constructionist approach. Vanesa Castan Broto
- Evaluating the sustainability of brownfield redevelopment projects. Kalliope Pediaditi
- Stakeholder participation in company approaches to sustainable development. Abigail Oxley Green
- Definition and experience of flooding : residents’ and officials’ perspectives. Simon McCarthy
- Economy class syndrome as a case study in the construction of blame. Claire Haggett
In the Sociology Department Kate teaches on a number of research methods modules, offers options on the Sociology of the Environment and on Everyday Consumption and its Consequences and co-ordinates the final year dissertation process. In CES she teaches an introductory module on Social Research Methods for masters and doctoral students.
While the consumerist approach to what living well can mean permeates traditional media, the extent to which it appears in people’s own depictions of the good life is unclear. As the unsustainability of the consumerist approach is increasingly evidenced, both in terms of environmental and social impacts, looking into which understandings of the good life resonate with people becomes essential. This article uses a sample of posts tagged #goodlife and variants originally collected in 2014-2015 on Instagram (a popular image sharing platform) to explore which understandings of the good life can be found on the platform. Using multimodal discourse analysis, it highlights two different user generated understandings of the good life: ‘working on future goals’ and ‘appreciating the present moment’. We argue that neither approach is directly or necessarily congruent with the traditional consumer good life. Yet their shared photographic codes with advertisements can contribute to their framing into the consumer good life. Additionally, the temporalities afforded by the platform and currently in place through social conventions may affect the type of narratives that are mediated. While the understandings derived from the analysis are not straightforward reflections of people’s beliefs about the meaning of the good life, they constitute conversations that at once inform, and are informed by, users’ beliefs about living well. The popularity of the platform makes these conversations crucial for anyone interested in desired lifestyles and their sustainability.
UK energy policy contains ambitious goals for increased deployment of renewable energy technologies (RETs), but concern remains about the potential of local opposition to obstruct proposed developments. Despite emerging academic consensus that characterizing opposition to RET siting as NIMBYism is problematic, the discourse remains strong in popular debate. This article responds to calls for sociological research on both ascriptions of NIMBYism and the use of deficit models. Through an analysis of interviews with key actors in the renewable energy industry, we explore the ways in which a discourse of NIMBYism is evident in their descriptions of local wind farm opponents. We conceptualize this discourse as embodying an array of deficit models of the public and public knowledge. This is significant not only because developers' constructions of publics inform their modes of engagement with them, but also because they may influence public responses themselves.
This book examines the multitude of ways in which we value the environment from a social science perspective.
This paper analyzes an online discussion that followed an article published by UK environmental activist and journalist George Monbiot (2007) in The Guardian online newspaper. The analysis addresses the ways in which participants in an online forum debate responded to the tensions and contradictions between lifestyle, consumption and sustainability highlighted in the original article. The discursive construction of class, green political orientations and identities, visions of “the good life”, and appeals to religion and science, are highlighted throughout the analysis – as are the discursive strategies for positioning self, other and audience in the debate. The argument emphasizes the heterogeneity of discursive positioning, and reflects on the role of social media in the politics of consumption and sustainability, especially given the inherent reflexivity of web forums as online communicative forms.
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 The current generation of older people who are approaching or recently experiencing retirement form part of a unique generational habitus who have experienced a cultural shift into consumerism. These baby boomers are often portrayed as engaging in excessive levels of consumption which are counter to notions of sustainable living and to intergenerational harmony. This paper focuses on an exploration of the mechanisms underpinning the consumption patterns of baby boomers as they retire. We achieve this through an understanding of the everyday practices of grocery shopping which have the potential to give greater clarity to patterns of consumption than the more unusual or ‘extraordinary’ forms of consumption such as global travel. In-depth interviews with 40 older men and women in four locations across England and Scotland were conducted at three points in time across the period of retirement. We suggest that the grocery shopping practices of these older men and women were influenced by two factors: (a) parental values and upbringing leading to the reification of thrift and frugality as virtues, alongside aspirations for self-actualisation such as undertaking global travel, and (b) the influence of household context, and caring roles, on consumption choices. We conclude with some tentative observations concerning the implications of the ways baby boomers consume in terms of increasing calls for people to live in more sustainable ways.
Research on product life-spans tends to link the causes of psychological obsolescence with end-users and product designers, and posits the consequences of obsolescence in terms of increasing e-waste and energy use. Drawing upon qualitative fieldwork conducted with employees of a global computer firm and users of its laptop computers this article brings together the poles of production and consumption to explore the dynamics of de-stabilization in product qualities, connecting the intensification of this process to psychological obsolescence and unsustainable patterns of consumption. First, we demonstrate that consumer-facing functions within the firm such as user research, sales and marketing play a key role in driving the pace of technological change within the firm by specifying consumer demand. We argue that by distilling an imaginary demanding consumer from various sources, the firm justifies and drives rapid de-stabilization in product qualities and specifications. We show how this prompts end consumers to constantly re-evaluate product qualities, devaluing existing products and contributing to psychological obsolescence and disposal of functioning products. We then go on to discuss the environmental implications of this process, suggesting that whilst premature disposal due to perceived obsolescence may not increase waste in the short term, it is still likely to contribute to an increase in material and energy use in manufacturing.
The idea that lifecourse transitions might offer ‘moments of change’ in which to encourage more sustainable consumption is popular. However insights from sociological literature on lifecourse transitions have rarely been brought to bear on this assumption and little research explores how everyday consumption may change through such transitions. This paper focuses on two distinct lifecourse transitions - becoming a mother and retirement – and through qualitative longitudinal research evaluates the assumption that such periods provide opportunities for movement to more sustainable consumption. Three interviews were conducted with 40 new mothers and 40 retirees in the UK exploring change and continuity in aspects of everyday consumption. While our findings confirm that these are times of significant change with potential impacts on the sustainability of everyday consumption, we conclude that to characterise such transitions as ‘moments of change’ fails to adequately capture their lived experience.
The purpose of this paper is to draw on data from 16 interviews (two each with eight women) to explore some of the ways in which everyday shopping may change as women become mothers. The meanings, practices and implications of the transition to motherhood have long been a topic for sociological inquiry. Recently, interest has turned to the opportunities offered by this transition for the adoption of more sustainable lifestyles. Becoming a mother is likely to lead to changes in a variety of aspects of everyday life such as travel, leisure, cooking and purchase of consumer goods, all of which have environmental implications. The environmental impacts associated with such changes are complex, and positive moves toward more sustainable activities in one sphere may be offset by less environmentally positive changes elsewhere.
The considerable literature on domestic energy consumption practices has tended to focus on either the (re)production and contestation of normative imaginaries, or the links between escalating standards and energy use. Far less has been written which links these related areas together. Accordingly, this paper is positioned at the intersection of debates on domestic consumption, energy use, and home cultures. Through a qualitative study of laptop use in the home, we illustrate how energy-intensive practices, such as ‘always-on-ness’, and changing computer ecologies and infrastructures, are intimately bound up with the reproduction of particular domestic imaginaries of family and home. A key insight in this paper is that a purely physiological conception of comfort would fail to explain fully why practices such as always-on-ness emerge, and thus we theorise comfort as an accomplishment comprised of inseparable temporal, bodily, spatial, and material elements. Ultimately, we argue here that comfort needs to be understood as a multivalent imaginary that is itself bound up in broader idealised notions of family and home in order to comprehend shifting practices, computing ecologies, and rising energy consumption.
This paper considers the intersection of institutional mechanisms for creating and maintaining commons with mechanisms that increase or decrease inequalities in wealth, power and dignity. This is explored in the context of the development of local energy systems, based on a case study in a UK city. It explores different conceptions of fairness and equality among those working towards a local sustainable energy transition, and how this affects the way that inequality manifests, is perpetuated, and is challenged. The paper explores the inclusion and exclusion of participants in the community energy sector, which has been criticised for being mainly white, middle class and male; the distribution of financial benefit from renewable energy through community investment or municipal ownership; and the focus on people in fuel poverty relative to people who overconsume energy. It concludes that although a commons approach to local energy can risk exacerbating inequalities, it also provides opportunities for increasing equality, of wealth, power and individual dignity. These require commitment, and need to be designed into evolving local institutions.
This article provides a critical introduction to the concept of NIMBYism. NIMBY is an acronym from N(ot) I(n) M(y) B(ack) Y(ard) used to describe opponents of new developments who recognise that a facility or technology is needed but are opposed to its siting within their locality. The article starts by discussing the origin of the concept and indicates some of the complexity in the literature. Alternative ways of understanding local opposition (as ignorant, selfish, or based on valid concerns and interests) and corresponding ways of responding to it are outlined. Research has increasingly moved away from a focus on the negative attributes of individual opponents as ignorant and selfish to engage with the broader motivations and contexts of local opposition. The article concludes by documenting recent calls for an end to using the language of NIMBYism.
Understanding individual energy use can inform interventions for energy conservation. A longitudinal qualitative interview study shows that energy use behavior is not simply a matter of individual choice, but rather is influenced by unique personal circumstances and familial and social relationships, which change over time.
This thesis offers a sociological analysis of food waste as a social issue of importance. Alongside government intervention, numerous community groups and social enterprises have emerged across the UK which attempt to mitigate the costs of food waste in different ways. Drawing on ethnographic examples, this thesis draws attention to one grassroots social response to the food waste issue, freegan dumpster diving. Freeganism is a counter cultural movement which rejects capitalism and promotes more socially and environmentally equitable relations. Freegans reject the normative categorization of discarded food as valueless, unhygienic and inedible, and instead reclaim food disposed of by retailers for human consumption. Literature to date constructs freegan dumpster diving as a niche practice performed by individuals for political resistance or food poverty. Little attention has addressed the transformation of food waste into a valuable resource or what happens to food waste once it has been reclaimed. Drawing on participant observations and interviews conducted with six freegan community groups in the UK over 18-months, this thesis draws attention to the processes freegans engage in when dumpster diving to explore how food waste is re-valued and re-used. This emerges as a complex process. Dumpster diving is not an independent moment of recovery; attention to the different food waste pathways, as practitioners access, assess, reclaim, consume and distribute food waste varyingly, is required. Freegans regularly enact dumpster diving but for multiple reasons and in shifting configurations. A shared practice is visible across all freegan communities, albeit with some variations. These deviations allow freegans to navigate the social barriers to performance in different ways, enabling the practice to become entrenched in everyday life. When barriers prove insurmountable, practitioners move in and out of affiliation with the practice over their life-course. A similar but distinct practice has emerged in recent years with the growth of food redistribution organizations (FROs). FROs promote the re-valuing and re-using of food waste as a joint business and charity venture, supporting retailers in managing food waste by redistributing it to vulnerable people in food poverty. Utilising insights gathered through participant observations and interviews with two different FROs, these practices promote a more socially acceptable and scalable approach to reclaiming food waste than dumpster diving through their partnerships with food retailers. This, however, is at the expense of the wider socio-political objectives at the core of freeganism. The radical philosophy of freeganism thus both define its existence yet also constrains the ability for wider participation and social impact. This analysis provides useful insights into the freegan subculture and the food waste debate more widely, by exploring 1) the journeys of food waste 2) processes of reclaiming food waste 3) practitioner relationships to food waste over time and space. Freegan dumpster diving is revealed as an everyday practice that is constrained by, and constrains everyday life. At any one time, multiple food waste practices circulate, connect and transform. If points of intervention or transition to more sustainable food waste configurations are sought, further attention to this linked nexus of practices is required.
Existing literatures have discussed both ethical issues in visual research with young people, and the problems associated with applying ‘universal’ ethical guidelines across varied cultural contexts. There has been little consideration, however, of specific issues raised in projects where visual research is being conducted with young people simultaneously in multiple national contexts. This paper contributes to knowledge in this area. We reflect on our experiences of planning and conducting the International CYCLES project involving photo elicitation with young people in Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK. While some issues such as varying access to technology for taking and sharing photos and diverse cultural sensitivities around the use of photography were anticipated in advance, others were more unexpected. Balancing the need for methods to be appropriate, ethical and feasible within each setting with the desire for sufficient consistency across the project is challenging. We argue that an ‘ethics in context’ approach and an attitude of ‘methodological immaturity’ is critical in international visual research projects with young people.
This paper explores when environmentally sustainable consumption occurs for new mothers, and how their constructions of sustainable lifestyles align with, or are challenged, by the everyday priorities of family life. The study involved longitudinal qualitative research with new mothers. Interviews focused on how ordinary consumption shifted or remained stable, with sustainability only being explicitly discussed in the final interview. Environmentally sustainable modes of consumption were adopted when they were considered to be in synergy with the over-riding project of doing family. Participants constructed environmental sustainability as an ideal at odds with the reality of everyday family life. We suggest there is a need for greater attention to the gender and relational dimensions of environmentally sustainable practice, and for the promotion of holistic discourses of sustainable consumption which align sustainable living with the maintenance of family life.
This study explores how energy might be conceptualised as a commons, a resource owned and managed by a community with a system of rules for production and consumption. It tests one aspect of Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for successful management of common pool resources: that there should be community accountability for individual consumption behaviour. This is explored through interviews with participants in a community demand response (DR) trial in an urban neighbourhood in the UK. Domestic DR can make a contribution to balancing electricity supply and demand. This relies on smart meters, which raise vertical (individual to large organisation) privacy concerns. Community and local approaches could motivate greater levels of DR than price signals alone. We found that acting as part of a community is motivating, a conclusion which supports local and community based roll out of smart meters. Mutually supportive, voluntary, and anonymous sharing of information was welcomed. However, mutual monitoring was seen as an invasion of horizontal (peer to peer) privacy. We conclude that the research agenda, which asks whether local commons-based governance of electricity systems could provide social and environmental benefits, is worth pursuing further. This needs a shift in regulatory barriers and ‘governance-system neutral’ innovation funding.
Background: Young people’s processes of meaning-making in relation to what it means to live well are supported by the shared understandings of the good life that are available in their particular sociocultural and historical contexts. These understandings are tied to questions of environmental impact and social justice, as each ‘good life’ entails different levels of material throughput and some may undermine the ability of others to pursue their chosen ‘good lives’. This paper draws on the insights from an exploration of Instagram posts tagged #goodlife to consider the role of Instagram in the constitution of good life narratives that are available to young people. Using network analysis tools, the researchers analyse the relationships between themes of hashtags appearing on 793 posts tagged #goodlife. The findings from the thematic approach to network analysis are used to support a thematic qualitative exploration of a subsample of 200 of the posts. Findings: The paper gives an overview of three good life narratives that can be found on the platform: the good life of the self-made affluent entrepreneur, the good life of the world-traveller, the good life as shared experience. Additionally, it highlights the differing levels of popularity of each narrative on the platform, and considers their respective implications for environmental and social sustainability. The paper then provides a conceptual reading of the platform that enables considerations relating to its place in the creation and maintenance of good life narratives. Conceptualising Instagram as a social conversation, the paper suggests that adequate participation on the platform may require engaging in less sustainable practices. Conclusions: The paper concludes by arguing that while the most popular narratives on the platform are less likely to support sustainable lifestyles, more sustainable understandings of living well are also promoted by users.
Abstract It has been argued that lifecourse transitions are transformative moments for individuals when lifestyles, habits and behaviours are potentially open to contemplation and change. Within sustainability research such ‘moments of change’ are regarded as offering potential to encourage less environmentally damaging consumption patterns. Research on consumption indicates that orientations to material goods and their affective significance are complex. Whilst sociological work understands attachment to things as integral to maintaining kinship relations, this is hard to reconcile with long-standing moral concerns about materialism and psychological research which indicates a negative relationship between the acquisition of material objects and wellbeing, and the environmental implications of acquiring and divesting ‘stuff’. Yet there has been little engagement with how older people orient to their material possessions and divestment, the implications of this for later-life wellbeing and for environmental sustainability. In this paper, we draw these different strands of work together to understand how retirees relate to their material possessions and their divestment. Drawing on serial interviews with individuals in the United Kingdom, we explore how the transition to retirement highlights the complexity of participants’ attachment to things. While some items had profound relational significance, others were experienced as troublesome. Decisions on what to divest were shaped by pragmatic considerations and levels of attachment, whilst modes of divestment were aligned with values of thrift.
Following the severe flood events of 1998 and 2000, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency prioritised the need to increase public flood risk awareness. Drawing on data collected during research undertaken for the Environment Agency, this paper contributes to understanding of one aspect of flood awareness: people's recognition that their property is in an area that is potentially at risk of flooding. Quantitative analyses indicate that class is the most influential factor in predicting flood risk awareness, followed by flood experience and length of time in residence. There are also significant area differences. Our qualitative work explores how those defined as ‘at risk’ account for their lack of awareness or concern about their risk status. We conclude that the problem is often not simply a lack of awareness, but rather, assessments of local risk based on experience that underestimate the impact of rare or extreme events. We underline the importance of engaging with local perspectives on risk and making local people part of ‘awareness-raising’ processes.
The public’ are potentially implicated in processes of sociotechnical change as political actors who welcome or resist technology development in general, or in particular places and settings. We argue in this paper that the potential influence of public subjectivities on sociotechnical change is realised not only through moments of active participation and protest, but also through ‘the public’ being imagined, given agency, and invoked for various purposes by actors in technical – industrial and policy networks. As a case study we explore the significance of an imagined and anticipated public subjectivity for the development of renewable energy technologies in the UK. We use interviews with a diversity of industry and policy actors to explore how imaginaries of the public are constructed from first-hand and mediated experience and knowledge, and the influence these imagined public subjectivities may have on development trajectories and on actor strategies and activities. We show how the shared expectation of an ever present latent but conditional public hostility to renewable energy project development is seen as shaping the material forms of the technologies, their evolving spatiality, and practices of public engagement involved in obtaining project consent. Implications for the actors we are interested in and for broader questions of democratic practice are considered.
Against the backdrop of the imperatives for actors within the institutional framework of energy socio-technical systems to engage with the public, the aim of this paper is to consider interdependencies between the principles and practice of engagement and the nature of the imagined publics with whom engagement is being undertaken. Based on an analysis of 19 interviews with actors in the renewable energy industry, the paper explores how publics are imagined in the construction of the rationales, functions and mechanisms for public engagement. Three main themes are identified. First, the perceived necessity of engagement – which is not contingent on public responsiveness. Second, engagement is primarily conceptualised in terms of instrumental motives of providing information and addressing public concern. Third, preferences for engagement mechanisms were often a function of the specific characteristics attributed to imagined publics. Implications of this analysis for future engagement around siting renewable energy technologies are considered.
The growing body of literature that seeks to understand the social impacts of flooding has failed to recognise the value of children's knowledge. Working with a group of flood-affected children in Hull using a storyboard methodology, this paper argues that the children have specific flood experiences that need to be understood in their own right. In this paper, we consider the ways in which the disruption caused by the flood revealed and produced new - and sometimes hidden - vulnerabilities and forms of resilience and we reflect on the ways in which paying attention to children's perspectives enhances our understanding of resilience. © 2012 Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
Research examining the relationship between place and identity shows that the experience of places influences a person's process of identification, through which an emotional bond with the place may be developed. However, the implications of this literature for land restoration remain unexplored. This is partially due to a gap in empirical research that explores the performance of identities in environmentally degraded settings. This article examines the relationship between identity and place among residents living around five coal ash disposal sites in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The article develops a qualitative model to understand the emergence of divergent responses toward the pollution and illustrates that in an environmentally degraded setting the bonds between the individuals and the place are not necessarily dislocated; in some cases, these bonds may be even reinforced by the performance of adaptative identities in response to environmental change.
To date analyses of media climate change constructions have mostly focused on coverage in western newspapers. Consideration of coverage in developing countries, and analyses of media constructions alongside local understandings of climate change are comparatively rare. This article provides an analysis of the construction of climate change on Nepalese radio and lay constructions of environment and climate change within the country. Data from a radio programme and six focus groups are analysed. Analysis of the radio programme indicated that climate change was portrayed as a certain reality with national impacts caused by the actions of the West. While climate change dominated the radio headlines, in focus groups local environmental problems received far more attention. The paper aims to both inform directions for future climate change communication in Nepal and the wider research agenda.
Flooding has only relatively recently been considered as an environmental justice issue. In this paper we focus on flooding as a distinct form of environmental risk and examine some of the key evidence and analysis that is needed to underpin an environmental justice framing of flood risk and flood impacts. We review and examine the UK situation and the body of existing research literature on flooding to fill out our understanding of the patterns of social inequality that exist in relation to both flood risk exposure and vulnerability to the diverse impacts of flooding. We then consider the various ways in which judgements might be made about the injustice or justice of these inequalities and the ways in which they are being sustained or responded to by current flood policy and practice. We conclude that there is both evidence of significant inequalities and grounds on which claims of injustice might be made, but that further work is needed to investigate each of these. The case for pursuing the framing of flooding as an environmental justice issue is also made.