Conceptualising Demand: A Distinctive Approach to Consumption and Practice

By Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove, Greg Marsden. Routledge, 2020, ISBN 9780367465025.

Anders Rhiger Hansen reviews this book which uses examples of mobility and energy practices to conceptualize, describe, and exemplify demand as it is materially constituted, temporally unfolding and steered through policy.

Today’s Western societies are facing severe problems related to, for example, energy provision, loss of biodiversity and climate change. Each of these problems calls for new ways of understanding and steering consumption practices and behaviors, but such efforts must start with thoroughly conceptualizing demand. The urgent need to change societal demand to balance societal needs with planetary boundaries is the primary relevance of this book. However, it also provides inspiration for rethinking how demand changes and reproduces as well as how demand is shaped by material relations.

The book is timely, useful, and relevant, and incorporates several contributions that make a worthwhile read. First, this book summarizes, in a clear way, most of the important and original thinking and research on the issues of demand. This is based on the work of Elizabeth Shove and her colleagues over 23 years, especially at The Demand Centre [1], which co-authors Jenny Rinkinen and Greg Marsden also are affiliated to. Second, the examples given are easy to understand and operationalize for further application in research and policy. Third, the book is well-written, well-structured, and short – all of which make the book highly accessible for a wide audience.

The book challenges the dominating assumptions about demand. First, it shifts the understanding of demand from something that emerges from consumers’ (universal and non-negotiable) desires to a negotiable ‘need’ that should not be taken for granted. As the authors state on page 7: “Demand does not simply exist, ready-made”, but instead is “actively constituted within and outside markets”. Second, it changes the understanding of demand from being the logical partner of supply to asking how demand is constituted, changed, and might be steered (beyond its relation to supply). For example, by  asking more fundamental questions about what energy and mobility are ‘for’, which relates to dynamics of social practices, as in previous works by Shove (see for example Shove et al., 2012 and Shove & Walker, 2014). In this way, demand is an outcome of complexes of social practice, which entails that demand is ocnstantly and actively reproduced.

The book revolves around five propositions, which constitute its main messages (p. 8-9):

  1. Demand is derived from practices
  2. Demand is ‘made’, not simply met
  3. Demand is materially embedded
  4. Demand is temporally unfolding
  5. Demand is modified and modulated, deliberately or not, via many forms of policy and governance

This book sets out to provide a ‘distinctive approach’ to energy demand, which the authors themselves highlight as a bold ambition (p.84). I agree that the presented approach to demand is ‘distinctive’ in the sense that it constitutes a relevant alternative by building on the authors’ previous work.  However, I would have liked more references describing exactly where the authors see the ‘dominant’ economic position, particularly recent evidence that this is still most influential. A more thorough review and summary of exactly how the dominant economic understanding of demand is insufficient would have helped in framing the subsequent discussion. Similarly, it would have been valuable to see more empirical evidence drawn on to support claims throughout the book, especially by looking outside the sociological practice theory literature. For example, the empirical explanation of the link between everyday practices and peak energy demand overlooks several recent social science studies (e.g. Ellsworth-Krebs et al., 2019; Morley et al., 2018; Nicholls & Strengers, 2015; Satre-Meloy et al., 2020). Moreover, it could have been refreshing (and bold) to reinterpret empirical results found in research from other disciplines, for example psychology, economy, and inter-disciplinary research on mobility and energy demand. Although such studies might apply research designs that are incompatible with theories of practice, it might be interesting to discuss findings in relation to the guiding propositions of this book.

The book is strongest when it presents ways of understanding the link between demand and different forms of material arrangements, for example the detailed description of the connection between energy demand patterns and everyday rhythms as well as the useful distinction between three roles of things, which is also referred as three genres of material relations. These are 1) resources that are used up or transformed in practice, 2) appliances that are directly mobilized in practice, and 3) infrastructures which form a necessary arrangement for multiple practices. This builds on previous work of the authors, (e.g. Rinkinen et al. 2015 and Shove et al. 2015).

The book’s contributions are certainly relevant to people interested in temporal, embodied, and material aspects of energy practices, but it also provides further inspiration. A good example (which relates to previous works (e.g. Royston et al., 2018)) is how policies that are seemingly disconnected from energy demand can nevertheless have great influence on dynamics of it, and the same goes for mobility. For readers of Building & Cities, especially practitioners such as urban planners and architects, this is an important message when designing, planning, and building. It is likely that the policies that do not directly target demand for energy or mobility which shape it the most (p. 83).

Another key message is the need to focus on systems of practices rather than a single technology. The book uses the example of cold appliances (e.g. fridges and freezers) and energy demand. Although the efficiency of these appliances has doubled in 13 years, “the volume of frozen and refrigerated space continues to increase in the UK and around the world” (p. 88). In other words, the impact on demand from the apparent efficiency improvements of the appliance should be seen in context with what it is for (service) and what it demands in other processes (complexes of practices). Other disciplines are also aware of similar mechanisms, most famously conceptualized as Jevons Paradox, but the socio-material dynamics presented in this book raises (new) questions that merit empirical investigation in other contexts and other fields of research.

Infrastructure developments related to for example improving energy efficiency of buildings, designing vehicles, and extending electricity grids would benefit from empirical investigation of the impact on demand with focus on what energy or mobility is for and the complexes of practices that constitute demand.  

The challenge for researchers, policy makers, and businesses is to test and investigate mechanisms like those presented in this book. For example, did the design of an appliance or an urban plan meet the expected demand, or did it actually increase demand and expectations of services, and if so, how? If the aim is to steer demand, then stop ‘nudging’ (Thaler & Sunstein, 2012) and target complexes of practices instead.


[1] The center has a website and a YouTube channel


Ellsworth-Krebs, K., Reid, L., & Hunter, C. J. (2019). Home comfort and “peak household”: Implications for energy demand. Housing, Theory and Society, 0(0), 1–20.

Morley, J., Widdicks, K., & Hazas, M. (2018). Digitalisation, energy and data demand: The impact of Internet traffic on overall and peak electricity consumption. Energy Research & Social Science, 38, 128–137.

Nicholls, L., & Strengers, Y. (2015). Peak demand and the ‘family peak’ period in Australia: Understanding practice (in)flexibility in households with children. Energy Research & Social Science, 9, 116–124.

Rinkinen, J., Jalas, M., & Shove, E. (2015). Object relations in accounts of everyday life. Sociology, 49(5), 870–885.

Royston, S., Selby, J., & Shove, E. (2018). Invisible energy policies: A new agenda for energy demand reduction. Energy Policy, 123, 127–135.

Satre-Meloy, A., Diakonova, M., & Grünewald, P. (2020). Cluster analysis and prediction of residential peak demand profiles using occupant activity data. Applied Energy, 260, 114246.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and how it Changes. Sage.

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2014). What is energy for? Social practice and energy demand. Theory, Culture & Society, 31(5), 41–58.

Shove, E., Watson, M., & Spurling, N. (2015). Conceptualizing connections: Energy demand, infrastructures and social practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 18(3), 274–287.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2012). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Penguin UK.

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