Critical insights on nexus, home and transitions at the Sheffield workshop

The first ‘nexus at home’ workshop made for an excellent start to the series. After some transition and nexus themed warm up orchestrated by Will Medd, Zoe Sofoulis (University of West Sydney) got things  rolling with critical insights on home and household – thinking of it as node, assemblage and as distributed in community relations – in relation to understandings of water management and use. Rebecca O’Connell (UCL Institute of Education) followed, based on a review of recent work in relation to food practices drawing out particularly temporal themes of historical time, generation and life course while conveying a real sense of engagement with the empirical groundings of much of the work covered. Kate Burningham (University of Surrey) gave us critical food for thought in relation to the ideas of life course transition underpinning part of the logic of the workshop, emphasising the multiplicity and diversity of such transitions with very different implications for the possibility or utility of intervening to use the disruptive effects of life changes to reduce environmental consequences of routine patterns of action. Unfortunately a ‘nexus of bugs’ meant Elizabeth Shove did not make it, but her slides and notes were circulated and the critical take on the fundamental grounds of the workshop – in ‘the nexus’ of energy food and water – still helped to inform the workshop.

Questions and discussion between and after the speakers ranged widely, but dominant themes included the invisibility of fundamental relations of power, not least around gender, in discussion of the nexus, and in relation to the ways practice theory is deployed in relation to the flows of resources. Related to that was development of critical points in relation to assumptions about the household as an appropriate unit of analysis or object of intervention.

After lunch – often the slowest point of day workshops as audiences doze off – was instead an engaging and pressured process of collaborative analysis and evaluation. Will divided the group into 5 teams of analysts and 2 teams of evaluators. Each team of analysts had 3 of 11 case studies of different transitions – from getting connected to mains water to the difference made by retiring and children leaving home to futures without domestic kitchens – to analyse. They did so with the imperative to use ‘the nexus’ as constructively as possible in tackling the job, helped by a ‘dump’ wall to stick post-its of frustrations and critique. While they got started on the first case study, evaluators worked out the criteria they would use to evaluate the analyses the other groups got to them. While analysts got on with a second case study, the evaluators criticised and asked for clarification/elucidation on the first, which then got sent back to the analysts to address.

The tasks on all sides were productively awkward, frustrating while generative. Beyond the distinct analyses, the activity overall provided the basis for a really fruitful closing discussion. Overall, the workshop was really satisfying as a first serious go at working through the utility and challenges of engaging ‘the nexus’, with its basic observation that different resources flows are inter-related, with the profound complexity of inter-relations that characterises the kind of understandings of domestic practices represented in the room. Will did an excellent job of restraining our trained social scientific instinct to critically undermine ideas and approaches through most of the day, pushing constructive engagement with the agenda. This meant that once criticism was unleashed at the end of the day, it was very well informed and consequently much more constructive. The real insights from the workshop will take some digesting and working through, but are sure to provide useful foundations for the next workshop in Manchester.

Published by Matt Watson

A Human Geographer at the University of Sheffield, interested in how everyday human action and social orders make each other, with implications for sustainability and wellbeing.