Go back to article: Refrigerating India

Researching the impacts of refrigeration

As I have argued in a number of publications over the past few years, much of the theoretical focus on household consumption from an energy and environmental sustainability perspective has omitted the importance of the socio-cultural context in which both technologies and individuals participate (Wilhite, 2008b). Social practice theory is a theoretical approach that corrects for these reductions, directing attention to interaction between people and technologies and acknowledging the importance of social relations and culturally-embedded knowledge in the formation of household practices. Over the past couple of decades, social practice theory has begun to get a foothold in consumption studies and policies aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of consumption (Warde, 2005; Shove et al, 2012). Social practice theory has its roots in the work of Bourdieu (1977; 1998) and his concept of habitus, defined as a domain of dispositions for action, created and perpetuated through performance of a practice in a given social-cultural space. These dispositions constitute a form of knowledge which influences or disposes subsequent practices. The habitus engages with the ‘presence of the past’ (Bourdieu, 1998, p 304) in forming and embodying knowledge. In other words, social practice theory takes account of the fact that many consumption actions have histories, both at the societal and individual levels, and that these histories make themselves present in current actions (Ortner, 2006).

In the recent surge in interest in social practice theory, the definition of a practice by Reckwitz has been widely accepted. He defines a practice in the following way (2002, p 249, cited in Warde, 2005): ‘A “practice” (Praktik) is a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one another: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge.’ Practices involve the exercise of reflexivity and intentionality, but also bring to bear embodied and tacit knowledge, the latter mainly absent from the theorising of consumption in mainstream research (Wallenborn and Wilhite, 2014). Social practice theory acknowledges the importance of the material (things and technologies) in shaping practices. This material perspective is particularly relevant for understanding practices that take place within the four walls of the home, such as cleaning clothes, preparing food, and attending to thermal comfort levels in the house (heating and cooling) (Wilhite, 2012; Wilhite, 2015). An important grouping of materialities that have saturated homes in places like the USA, Europe and Japan is the household energy appliances such as televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves and air conditioners. These are now central to home entertainment, food, cleanliness and comfort in the rich countries of the world and are rapidly making their way into households everywhere. These technologies are situated in the home, but are anchored in an interlinked regime of infrastructural technologies that bear energy, food and water through systems of provision and into homes, industries and both public and commercial buildings.

The refrigerator is the most widely diffused of the household appliances. One might assume from its appearance and controls that it is innocuous. Once in place in the home and plugged in, the refrigerator requires little control or adjustment by its owner. It performs its task of producing chilled air in an insulated cabinet with virtually no need for intervention or management. This design simplicity and mundaneness, along with the use of bland colours (hence the designation ‘white good’) have been part of a strategy by manufacturers to emphasise its normal place in home food practices (Shove and Southerton, 2000). Compared with the ‘conspicuous’ technologies such as the car, smart phones and the various home entertainment systems, the refrigerator and freezer have quietly and un-dramatically made themselves essential and normal to food preparation in the rich OECD countries. This normalising process played out over the course of a half century from the early to mid-twentieth century. As I will discuss below, the bland appearance is deceiving. The refrigerator has played an important role in comprehensive changes in food practices in OECD countries and is rapidly spreading to the so-called emerging economies where household practices are changing rapidly (Hansen and Wethal, 2015). India began a period of rapid change in both political economy and household practices with a significant shift in its openness to global markets in the 1990s. Below, I will discuss the ‘opening’ of the Indian economy to global markets and transnational capital in the early 1990s and how many of the household technologies that were normal in the households of USA and Europe became available and affordable in India. The aftermath of this ‘opening’ provided an excellent setting for researching the relative strengths of technology scripts, local knowledge and social relations in retarding and/or enabling changes in practices.

Based on a generous research grant from the Norwegian Research Council I was able to fully deploy ethnographic methods to the study of changing household consumption in the state of Kerala in South India over a period of several years in the early 2000s (Wilhite, 2008a). Kerala was one of the highest consuming States in India in the 1990s and 2000s, despite its history of social democratic governance and strong redistributive economic policies. During this period, Kerala led all other states in the consumption of many ‘durable goods’, including cars and household appliances. Another unique aspect of Kerala society is the high proportion of Christians relative to other states – about thirty per cent of the population is Christian. The Christian church was established early in Kerala, with evidence of a Christian ministry as early as the first century AD. The long coexistence between Hindu and Christian (Muslims constitute only about ten per cent of the population) has led to a cross-fertilisation of cultural rituals and practices, including practices involving food.

My research was centred in urban, middle class neighbourhoods in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala and surrounding villages, which are made up of a mix of socio-economic groups from poor to middle class. The methods deployed included:

•    Deep participation. My wife, two children and I rented a house in a middle-class neighbourhood in Trivandrum and developed close relationships with neighbours and their extended families.
•    Semi-structured interviews with over one hundred households representing differing castes, household types and age groups. Repeat interviews were conducted with about twenty households.
•    The use of diaries by selected female head of households in which they recorded time used in daily practices on various activities like cooking, washing clothes, shopping and watching television.
•    A survey questionnaire with four hundred households, conducted by female research assistants. The survey contributed data on issues such as the size of the house, technologies owned, family income, family size, ages of family members, educational levels and type of work.
•    Interviews in retail appliance stores with customers, managers and sales personnel.

Another important source of information was discussions with local scholars at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum and an extensive review of local literature and policy documents. These various methods together provided an excellent platform for the analysis of changing household practices as new technologies became widely available in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180903/002