Grant to fund study of alternative energy impact on daily life

By Liz Lebron

Associate Professor of Anthropology Erin Dean has been awarded a grant to study the effect that the growing alternative energy industry is having in Tanzania.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Erin Dean.
Associate Professor of Anthropology Erin Dean.

The National Science Foundation will help fund the work Dean and a colleague from Emory University, where they will use an energy justice framework to study the impact of alternative energy development in Tanzania, and the distribution of the costs and benefits associated with it.

“We’re interested particularly in the domestic sphere,” explained Dean, “how alternative energy is transforming people’s lives, especially women and the poor, and also transforming their relationships. So, how do people relate to each other differently within the family, within the household, between households, between people and the state when they’re not relying on the state for electricity and power.”

Of particular concern are foreign companies that have come to Tanzania, developed its solar and wind sectors, and now want to increase energy consumption to increase profit at the detriment of the people. “That raises a lot of questions about the sustainability of alternative energy using that business model,” said Dean.

Dean will travel to Tanzania for the next three summers to examine whether the proliferation of alternative energy firms is creating or exacerbating the same types of unequal relationships between the state and its people as the oil and gas sector did.

“We’re looking through a gendered framework at domestic use of alternative energy,” said Dean, who will study whether having alternative energy in the home makes life less or more difficult for the women who are its primary consumers.

Dean has conducted research in Tanzania for 15 years, which will work to her advantage when she travels to the African nation to conduct interviews. Her existing relationships within government and policy circles will give her access to individuals who are working on these issues, and she will focus her time in country to learning about the alternative energy sector’s direct impact in the domestic sphere.

“Anthropology is really based in ethnography,” said Dean, “which is long-term and in-depth research with a group of people over time. I think the challenge will be access to households where we don’t already have access. This first summer we’ll be thinking about how to get into the spaces where we need to be.”

Dean said the majority of her work will be mostly observational at first. She and her Emory colleague will visit people in their homes at three different sites and record how they use alternative energy in their daily lives. They will also conduct interviews to ascertain their understanding of broader societal issues related to alternative energy, such as their expectations for the future of Tanzania as these technologies develop.

“In development in general, the pattern is to implement these programs, put them in place, and then move on to the next program,” explained Dean. By gathering data about what kinds of alternative energy are being used and how households are using it, “Our hope is that, that information will enable people to make better decisions about how they introduce, or don’t introduce, some of that technology.”

Dean hopes her research will transcend Tanzania and help other countries find the most effective ways to build infrastructure to develop the alternative energy sector.

— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre bay front campus is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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