Report of workshop 3, nexus, policy and practice

What can policy (broadly understood) do differently to get people to do things differently at home, such that demand for resources of food, water and energy decline? That was the fundamental problematic underlying a day of creative engagement and informed critique between people from government, regulation, civil society, consultancy and academia in London in December.

The key outcomes of the day, building on the previous two workshops, amounted to the shaping of a research agenda aimed at enabling engagement of policy practices in ways to usefully reframe how initiatives seek to reshape domestic practices to reduce resource demand across the EFW nexus.

The day was predominantly about us working together to produce ideas for future change to domestic practice; and work through what would need changing and aligning to get there. In this we were ably facilitated by Will Medd.


‘pizza slices’ – which segment represents your assessment of ‘the nexus’?

After a brief introduction to the concepts of the workshop series and the purposes of the day from Matt Watson, Will got us warmed up, not least by getting us to choose one of 8 given positions in how we thought of the Nexus as a concept. From ‘more of the same’ to ‘revolution’, ’emperor’s new clothes’ to ‘like a pomegranate’. People ended up fairly evenly distributed, including between ‘too big’ and ‘too small’, with only ‘something else’ getting a particularly large number of recruits.

Next came a run of presentations to get the day framed up for discussion. First David Evans (University of Manchester) gave a concise and insightful summary of the outcomes from the first two workshops in the series (slides here). In this he pushed forward critical discussion at the first workshop of the idea of the nexus (as specific to inter-relations of water, energy and food – WEF) in relation to social science, to emphasise its positive potential. First, its emphasis on relations and interdependencies chimes readily with good contemporary social scientific analysis. Secondly, in pushing social science towards considering EFW, it has the potential to thicken and deepen social scientific analysis in relation to sustainability and resource use. From across the first and the second workshop (LINK), David emphasised the different dimensions in which concepts of ‘household’ and ‘domestic’ had been problematised.

Following on directly, Ali Browne (University of Manchester) took discussion towards policy intervention. Working from a range of existing examples of policy engagement around practices, resource use and change, Ali focused on recent work which articulates understandings of domestic practices with the practices of professionals, including questioning of the way ‘publics’ are imagined in professional practice, and highlighting the extent to which responsibility for issues like water demand or food waste production are profoundly distributed.

Peter Jackson (University of Sheffield) next spoke, from his experience of engaging with policy settings with particular emphasis on his years’ of working with the Food Standards Agency (FSA). This positive experience demonstrates the space for meaningful engagement between theoretically informed social science and processes of policy. This contention was backed up by Helen Atkinson from the FSA.

The speaker session was finished off by Andrew Darnton (AD Research and Analysis Ltd) (slides here). Andrew drew on his extensive professional experience of engaging with different policy and corporate actors around ‘behaviour change’ agendas, and brining social theories into that engagement.

With cultural references from Bob Dylan (Bringing it all back home) to the Magnificent Seven, Andrew gave a trenchant assessment of the potential of both practice theory and the idea of the nexus to effectively engage policy, bringing comparison with the ISM (Individual, Social, Material) model through consideration of the archetypal ‘nexus’ example of meat consumption and attempting to reduce it. Ironically he was interrupted as he introduced the magnificent seven of different approaches needed to fully apprehend and tackle issues like meat consumption by the arrival of lunch. Happily, this was 100% vegetarian.

After lunch, we got rolling with ideas generation. 5 tables, each a mix of academics and non-academics, generated as many ideas for future changes to domestic practices which could mean WEF consumption being reduced.


Reflecting the instructions to think freely, ideas were very diverse, in topic, scope and reasonableness, from return of routine hat wearing to the return of (a modern form of) larders.

These provided the basis for the next stage. A representative from each table (with a newly configured group) chose one idea for the group to focus on. These included: the promotion of ‘co-practices’ – generally represented by sharing the means of service provision, whether laundry, food, transport or more; development of kitchenless homes; more use of dehydrated foods; through to different possibilities of technologies intervening, like microwaves and fridges taking on a health advocacy or waste reduction role.

The first stage was to flesh out the implications of the suggested stage and work through what would be needed to make it work. The second was to take on another groups effort at that and consider what questions followed, what evidence was needed, the steps that might follow. Inevitably discussion provided the basis for comparing understanding, approaches, sense of institutional and professional location and more between the diverse participants.


The process was drawn together in a final plenary discussion, based on over-arching questions the groups generated. Questions we started with, on evidence and on the challenges as well as potential of engaging policy processes with understandings of social practices, took on new depth and sophistication in the light of the days’ workshop activities.

The day was a good finale to an excellent workshop series. As a team we are committed to doing what we can to maintain the intellectual and collaborative momentum built up over the workshops. The initial focus is on a research proposal which builds directly on some of the key themes of the day, which might seen fresh research within this agenda getting underway next summer.

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.

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