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From rational to relational: How energy poor households engage with the British retail energy market

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Publication details

JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
DateE-pub ahead of print - 1 Dec 2020
DatePublished (current) - 1 Dec 2020
Number of pages10
Early online date1/12/20
Original languageEnglish


In the sociological tradition, markets are understood to be constituted of social relations: relations of trust, friendship, power and dependence, which have moral and emotional qualities. In this paper, we explore how people in energy poor households construct the energy market and its impact on energy policy. Drawing on secondary analysis of a large collection of qualitative interviews on the lived experience of energy poverty carried out from 2003 to 2018 (n = 197 interviews and 20 selected), and the results of an OFGEM quantitative survey on consumer engagement released in 2018, we document the experience of the energy poor as actors in the British retail energy market. We uncover a number of challenges and opportunities facing energy poor participants in the market: having access to good quality information about suppliers, energy tariffs and grants, and having the skills and resources to act on this is important, without these it can be difficult for people to take action. In explaining people’s engagement with the market, we draw on the concept of ‘socio-economic attachments’, showing how a supportive network of family and friends, and people’s trust of and resulting loyalty to their energy supplier mediate their engagement. These findings lead us to relational explanations of the retail energy market, with related policy recommendations: if we are to aim for people to act ‘rationally’, they will need support to navigate the market from intermediaries.

    Research areas

  • Intermediaries, Market Devices, Secondary qualitative data analysis, Social Relations, Socio-econommic attachments, sociology of markets

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