Understanding social identities, cultural imaginaries and political agendas in the history of electricity and electrification

Daniel Pérez's picture
September 24, 2020
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Environmental History / Studies, Social Sciences
The Electrical History Research Group (CHPS - University of Leeds) announces its first online research workshop. Established in 2018 by a group of researchers at the University of Leeds and Leeds Trinity University with interests in histories of electricity in varied historical contexts, the Electrical History Research Group hosts monthly virtual reading groups, discussing new and established scholarship on electrical histories. We intend to reach out to and include scholars from around the world, and expand our activities through discussions, blog posts, and interviews.
Registration to the workshop is now open. Please note that registration will be required to participate. Please express your interest, or send your queries to D.Zapico@leeds.ac.uk.
The link to the online workshop and further details will be made online at https://electricalhistoryresearch.wordpress.com/
Understanding social identities, cultural imaginaries and political agendas in the history of electricity and electrification
Electrical History Research Group
Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science
24TH September 2020
Climate change and resource depletion are prompting a re-assessment of modern forms of energy usage, including assumptions about the sustainability of high-energy use and unlimited growth (Smil, 2003 and 2017). In that context, historians are encouraged to re-evaluate the larger implications, constraints and consequences of energy in human society and history (Nye, 1999; Crosby, 2006). Since energy transition to a more sustainable way of living cannot be reduced to the market or purely technological solutions, we need an urgent interdisciplinary conversation to understand the social, cultural and institutional forces inscribed in energy practices and systems (Abram, 2019).
Therefore, the challenges of the pending energy transitions of the 21st century presents an opportunity for social scientists to provide a more reflective picture on the complex relationship between energy and society, as well as the forms of interpreting, managing and imaging energies and our future with them. This includes take into consideration disparate and often conflicting elements such as technologies, infrastructures, energy resources, government regulations, business practices, but also consumers choices, cultures of consumption, societal perceptions and other public controversies that could shape public acceptance of systems of energy production. This way, energies emerged as sites of controversy and social experimentation (Mazur, 2013).
Within that frame, historians can provide a more detailed and critical understanding of past and present energy societies and its capacities of transition (Môllers and Zachmann, 2012). This should include an integrative expertise based on deep knowledge of how energy systems emerged historically, the particularities of distinct energy histories on the regional or the national level, energy consumption practices as the outcome of societal contracts and cultural traditions, the uneven distribution of energies benefits and costs throughout history -prices, environment, health-, the variety of energy choices available and the interrelation between new and old forms of energy (Sandwell, 2016).
As the Electrical History Research Group (CHPS – University of Leeds) we would like to cooperate with this endeavour through an interdisciplinary dialogue with other scholars inside and outside the University of Leeds by means of a one-day workshop focused on the historical development of electricity and electrification.
Throughout the meetings of our recently formed research group, we have discussed the practices and ideas embedded in electrification. From the second half of the nineteenth century (and across many countries), different narratives shaped different understandings of electricity’s agency as an autonomous force able to trigger broad social, cultural and even political change. Hence, electrical technologies have been incorporated within the triumphalist rhetoric of a Western-dominated modernity. This deterministic approach to the history of electricity has permeated the way in which different audiences -historians included-, have represented the sociocultural and historical encounters with electricity and the configuration of energy choices through history.
Within this frame, the narrative of electrification, still deeply influenced by T.P. Hughes’s Networks of power (1983), usually portrays a top-down inevitable process with an emphasis on the agency of engineers, entrepreneurial circles or political and institutional authorities. Recent studies, however, have pointed out how the advent of an ‘electrical modernity’ was not an unavoidable but rather a contested process, since different individuals and groups imagined and employed electricity from within their social identities and wider political, ideological and cultural frameworks (Kline, 2003; Gooday, 2008; Vermeir, 2016; Morus, 2016; Harrison-Moore and Gooday, 2016; Brassley, Burchardt and Sayer, 2016). Our reflections especially build upon Graeme Gooday’s work Domesticating Electricity (2008), which explores the problematic advent of electric lightning in Victorian homes. This work points out to the need of crossing classic interpretations of electrification with other socio-cultural concerns such as gender or class issues to form the most socially inclusive and culturally differentiated account of its heterogeneity.
Therefore, with this workshop we would like to explore approaches which help to provide a more complete picture of how historical choices around electrical technologies were conformed and evolved. This includes taking into consideration consumers sensibilities and the active role of users, but also the recognition of the diverse groups and actors participating in the process and their distinct -even discordant- social, gender, ethnic or spatial identities. Our account would consider also political issues such as nationalism, colonialism, the engagements with different types of modernity and wider socio-technical dreams and imaginaries. In this way, we argue that the history of electricity and electrification should be understood as a history of successive adaptations to specific historical, social or national scenarios where the different electrical languages were appropriated, and the distinct meanings of electricity were articulated.
Some of the questions that we would like to address are:
  • What is still useful about the system-centred approach to the history of electrification and what new directions do we need?
  • What benefits are there instead of talking about different even divergent- ‘electrical cultures’?
  • How might we characterize these cultures?
  • How far have such cultures shaped energy-choices through history?
  • How the historiography of electricity could benefit from the social sciences, especially from the social studies of energies and other correlated fields?
  • Abram, S., et al. Electrifying anthropology: exploring electrical practices and infrastructures. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
  • Brassley, P., Burchardt, J. and Sayer, K. (eds.). Transforming the countryside. The electrification of rural Britain. London: Routledge, 2016.
  • Crosby, A. W. Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy. Norton, 2006.
  • Gooday, G. Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.
  • Harrison-Moore, A and Gooday, G. True Ornament? The Art and Industry of Electric Lighting in the Home, 1889-1902. In Wade, R, Williams, G. and Nichols, K. (eds.) Art versus Industry? New Perspectives on Visual and Industrial Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. p. 158-178
  • Hughes, P. T. Networks of Power. Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983.
  • Kander, A., Malanima, P., and Warde, P. Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries. Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Kline, R. Resisting Consumer Technology in Rural America: The Telephone and Electrification. In Oudshoorn, N. and Pinch, T. (eds.). How users matter. The co-construction of users and Technology. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, A. Energy and electricity in industrial nations: The sociology and technology of energy. Routledge, 2013.
  • Môllers, N. and Zachmann, K. (Eds.). Past and Present Energy Societies: How Energy Connects Politics, Technologies and Cultures. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2012.
  • Morus, I. R. No mere dream: material culture and electrical imagination in Late Victorian Britain, Centaurus, 2016, 57(3), 173–191.
  • Nye, D. E. Consuming power: A social history of American energies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
  • Sandwell, R. W. Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600, McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP, 2016.
  • Smil, V. Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Smil, V. Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: MIT Press, 2017.
  • Vermier, K. Electricity and Imagination: Post-romantic Electrified Experience and the Gendered Body. Centaurus, 2016, 57 (3), 131 - 155.

This is the programme for the workshop. All times given are for the UK (BST).

Registration (9 –10 am)
Keynote Speaker: Prof Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) (10 – 11am) Revisiting Domesticating Electricity
Coffee Break (11–11.30 am)
Panel 1: Social identities and choices in the histories of electricity and electrification (11.30 am – 1 pm)
  • Abigail Harrison-Moore (University of Leeds) Consumer Decisions: Professional Women’s Advice on Energy Transitions, 1870-1890'
  • Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity) Cultures of Sustainability and Growth: electricity as a power for good in the rhetorics of C20th food and farming
  • Animesh Chatterjee (Leeds Trinity / University of Leeds) The Social Life of Electricity in Colonial Calcutta
Lunch break (1 – 2pm)
Panel 2. How the historiography of electricity could benefit from the social sciences? (2 – 3.30pm)
  • Simone Abram (Durham Energy Institute; Durham University). Histories of energy futures
  • Ronald Bolton (Energy & Society Network; University of Edinburgh) The political origins of electricity markets in Europe
  • Léonard Laborie (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UMR SIRICE) From the history of electricity to the history of energy: why and how creating the Journal of Energy History
Coffee Break (3.30 – 4pm)
Panel 3: Challenging the Modernity framework: adaptation and national cultures of electricity (4 – 5.30pm)
  • Clarence Hatton-Proulx (Centre Interuniversitaire de Recherche sur la Science et la Technologie, Université du Québec à Montréal) “Under your Feet, a Wonderful System": Burying Montréal's Electricity Distribution Network, 1890-1910
  • Michael Kay (University of Leeds) The electrification of the English country house
  • Paul Coleman (University of Leeds) The role of the military in the development of the British National Grid
  • Daniel Pérez Zapico (University of Leeds): The Languages of Electrical Modernity in Spain: Regeneration and National (Re)construction after the 1898’s Disaster
Final words /conclusions (5.30 – 6pm)
Contact Info: 

Daniel Pérez Zapico. Visiting Research Fellow. Centre for History and Philosophy of Science.

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