A Method for Researching Perceptions of Disruptive Events

29 Mar 2023

In many sectors, systems are becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, which can lead to risk of unexpected disruption. In the energy system, rapid changes to system components, infrastructure, and patterns of supply and demand mean that the resilience of the energy system is changing. This means that now more than ever, it is important to plan for disruptive events and to prepare for them.

Unanticipated energy disruptions are rare in most parts of Western Europe. However, they are not completely unknown; nor can we avoid them entirely. In addition, climate change brings increased threats to energy infrastructure, for example from floods and storms. Because of this, it is important to think in terms of resilience – how to cope with and recover from a disruptive event. Understanding what happens during a disruption is just as important as avoiding it in the first place. Therefore, my research with UKERC has been trying to understand people’s perceptions of, and responses to, energy disruptions, particularly in city locations where they might be rare and unfamiliar.

‘Black swan’ events

Events such as this are sometimes called ‘black swans’: outlier events which are difficult to predict, and which have low probability of occurring but very high impact if they do. Researching black swan events is difficult because the events, by their nature, are rare and poorly understood, meaning that there is often a lack of available data. Yet in most cases, this does not mean that these events will never occur. Mitigating the impacts – for instance, by developing an understanding of how to improve resilience in the face of such an event – is of crucial importance. This sort of resilience thinking is relevant across many different aspects of energy systems, as well as other ‘non-energy’ sectors.

The aim of this project was to develop a methodology for understanding individuals’ and households’ perceptions of energy disruptions, in the context of changes to people’s practices due to decarbonisation and digitalisation. I hoped to identify ways of improving resilience to disruptions as the system changes; my findings are available here. However, when designing the research, the hypothetical nature of such events created a methodological challenge – how to understand responses to an event which has not yet occurred?

Combined diary-interview methods

My goal was to combine practices from qualitative social science research – ideal for understanding people’s perceptions and expectations in depth – with diary methods to make people’s energy practices more ‘visible’ to them. Otherwise, energy practices might be so routine that the study participant struggles to recall or discuss them. The initial aim was to achieve this visibility by doing interviews ‘in situ’, for instance walking with someone through their house. However, the Covid-19 pandemic made this impossible, and I eventually had to shift to an online methodology, using diaries for participants to complete at home. As a result, this method can be used in situations where face-to-face research is impossible, for instance with international samples.

The diary-interview method was adapted from a paper by Kenten, who argues that greater depth of understanding can be gained by combining solicited diary methods with a semi-structured interview. In my study, the initial interview was designed to focus on the participant’s life, their routine, and their general perceptions about energy use and disruptions. The diary then enabled them to think through the implications of an energy disruption in more depth, in the context of their own experiences and routines. Participants were asked to choose two days during the week on which to complete the task; they wrote down five things they did that day (their practices), plus their activities relating to six critical infrastructure sectors which were of particular interest to this study. This latter part enables researchers to focus in on particular sectors or topics of interest. I wanted to use the diary entries as objects of discussion, rather than necessarily trying to capture a representative dataset of participants’ practices. The second interview then encouraged participants to talk about their diary entries, allowing them to expand on their entries and reducing the risk of analytical misinterpretation. This second interview enables the researcher to dig down into particular diary entries, themes, or topics of interest, and to build on and compare against the initial interview. Full interview protocols and blank diary sheets are available here.

When creating a diary study, there are many design considerations to think about. One of my key concerns was in striking the right balance between collecting enough data and not being too intrusive to my participants. The pandemic encouraged me to pay more attention to ethical implications such as this. Online interviews are also quite different from those conducted face-to-face, with extra issues to consider around rapport, trust, and non-verbal cues. The online design also meant paying attention to digital inclusivity, for instance by ensuring that all stages and aspects were fully discussed with participants throughout, and giving participants a diversity of options for how to complete the tasks.

Method step-by-step

The pandemic created huge challenges for social science researchers who previously relied on face-to-face data collection. However, it also created opportunities to develop new, flexible methodologies which can help us to understand the pressing challenges of our changing society. I hope that this method will prove useful to those studying disruptive events and ‘black swans’, in the energy sector and beyond, to understand people’s perceptions and expectations and their crucial role in improving resilience.