Reshaping the domestic nexus at home: engaging policy understandings of kitchen practices and how they can change

Introducing the ESRC ‘Reshaping the Domestic Nexus at Home’ Project:

Working with key policy partners, we are applying practice theory to better inform interventions aimed at changing demand for water, energy and food in the home.

This project applies a practice theory approach to a range of policy initiatives in the water, energy and food nexus with a focus on consumption practices in UK kitchens. Working in partnership with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency and Waterwise, our purpose is to better inform policy intervention in this field. This project follows on from The Domestic Nexus Networking project (funded by ESRC Nexus Network) between the University of Sheffield (Watson, Jackson, Sharp) and the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute (Evans, Browne, Warde, Southerton).

The concept of the nexus of water, energy and food has increasing traction in research and policy, confronting the interdependencies between these fundamental resources. Most work in this field focuses on the supply of these resources. Reshaping the Domestic Nexus starts from concern with how demand for these resources and their associated service infrastructures are constituted with a focus on everyday practices happening in domestic kitchens.

Practice theory informs a large and growing field of empirical research generating distinctive ideas and evidence in relation to resource consumption in the home. This project will build on the research teams’ existing activity in bringing practice theory research into dialogue with policy makers and other stakeholders, to enable a step change in the effectiveness with which practice research can inform the increased effectiveness of policy and intervention.

Understanding Resource Use in the Kitchen:

Given the significance of the kitchen as a site of resource consumption, it is unsurprising that specific kitchen practices are a target of policy intervention including initiatives aimed at water and energy efficiency, food safety and waste avoidance. While varied in approach, such interventions draw on only some of the available ways of understanding why people do what they do, and how people’s current practices might be changed.

One alternative approach is grounded in a focus on practices. Practice research has shown that generally people do not consciously ‘consume’ energy and water but rather require the services those resources enable in order to do particular practices – such as cooking or cleaning. From the practice perspective, food consumption occurs as part of practices of eating that are bound up with fundamental rhythms and meanings of household life. In turn, the practices characterising kitchen life are substantially shaped by the systems which provide energy, food and water, and/or allow the disposal of waste.

As our ESRC Nexus Network funded workshop series The Domestic Nexus showed, there is an array of existing knowledge that can inform understanding WEF service demand as emergent from social practices. The workshops also worked through the promising affinities and synergies between practice research and the emphasis of nexus thinking on interdependencies and relationships, across scales.

The potential of practice theory informed approaches to make a difference to policy approaches seeking to effect change in pursuit of sustainability is already apparent, through work that includes major projects involving members of the project team, such as the Sustainable Practices Research Group and the DEMAND research centre. This potential has been increasingly recognised by policy actors, with different parts of government and other stakeholders commissioning reports and engaging with practice oriented research. However, so far practice research has had limited visible impact on how policy interventions are conceptualised and carried out.

This partnership will work to better understand the potential and challenges of effectively articulating practice research insights with policy approaches to effecting change. The following questions provide the structure for this undertaking:

1.       How does current research into kitchen practices shed distinctive light on the interdependencies of water, energy and food in the home?

2.      In what ways are such practices currently understood and acted upon in WEF policy?

3.       What are the implications for sustainability policy of putting ‘practices’ and ‘nexus thinking’ as a central focus in reworking stakeholder approaches to engender change in domestic practices?

Who is Involved:

This project will bring a team of researchers across two leading groups in practice research on domestic resource consumption. The project is led by Dr Matt Watson at the University of Sheffield together with Prof Peter Jackson and Dr Liz Sharp; and University of Manchester’s Dr Ali Browne, Dr David Evans, and Profs Dale Southerton and Alan Warde. This team will be joined by a Research Associate in 2016/2017 as well as collaborations with with 4 policy partner organisations representing the different domains of the water-energy-food nexus (DECC, FSA, Waterwise and DEFRA).

For more details go to or follow the hashtag  #nexusathome