How social practices change behaviors – the perception of ‘cleanliness’.

– By Nga Huynh

Exploring Elizabeth Shove’s Comfort Cleanliness and Convenience 

Elizabeth Shove’s Book “Comfort Cleanliness and Convenience”

The expectations of comfort, cleanliness and convenience have changed/altered as we live through our daily lives, unnoticed. Elizabeth Shove’s book of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality looks into alternative insights into aspects of energy use and addresses sociological issues in the consumption of technology. Shove explores the idea that patterns of resource consumption and practices are linked in reproducing what people take to be normal and, for them, ordinary ways of life. And instead of emphasizing one’s behavior as the focal subject of analysis, the case is concentrated in a way that draws more attention on the construction and transformation of a number of conventions. Her theories interrogate the meaning of “normality” of our daily rituals/routines and proves to us that “routine consumption is controlled by conceptions of normality and profoundly shaped by cultural and economic forces.” [Amazon, 2004].

Hot/Cold Dial

Shove presents three dimensions of “ordinary life”, the comfort of air-conditioning, the personal cleanliness of washing oneself and convenience of domestic laundering as “probes” into changes in our daily lives and social beings. Unlike much research or literature on the sociology of consumption that does not consider the aftermath of the purchase of a good or service, Shove emphasizes the fact that when trying to analyze the changes in the normality of consumption, technological innovations and the production of new domestic tools for living, needs to be addressed.


Practice’s made possible by water and energy are set within wider social and cultural norms that are directed by notions around what it means to have a clean body, clothes or house, or be conformable in any particular cultural or society. There are the negotiability and non-negotiability practices. For example, in bathrooms users would try to improve the practice by changing the technologies used such as changing to water-efficient showerheads or energy efficient light globes. The non-negotiable side of it can be the result of two main factors: the majority of people shower once or twice a day therefore wear new fresh clothes everyday because “they believe society expects them to, and because this expectation becomes habitualised into daily life”. [Strengers, Y 2008]. The idea of embarrassing one by wearing dirty garments is generally unacceptable. Secondly, a range of actors is pressuring the expectations of comfort and cleanliness placed upon each individual. [Shove, E 2003] There are various different innovations today that aim to reduce one’s carbon footprint, benefiting both the environment and their own wellbeing. An example to this is the use of established methods to reduce residential water consumption. Water efficient appliances or objects such as dual flush toilets, water-efficient washing machines and showerheads, and changes to one’s routines or activities such as reducing shower times are a few of many effective measures to cut down on water consumption. But have they resulted in any positive behavioral changes?

Shower timers (photo: North Shore Times)

In a study conducted in Sydney, Australia, results had identified some behavioral triggers to the user when new objects were introduced to habitual practices. Shower timers for example, reminded the user about the actual action of saving water. Furthermore, users were able to identity that the commitment to using the product was a powerful tool when discussing about environmentally sustainable practices.

New water saving devices

Another was the development and trial of the Smart Shower Meter that provided shower users flow rate and shower volume through visual and audio sounds to give awareness of water use in shower [Smart Water Fund, 2002-2013]. The device were tested voluntarily by households therefore those who chose to take the product were interested in conserving water (not representative of a larger community or group). Other then that, it was reported that the user of the device created a sense of competition between shower users that had proven to reinforce consistent water efficient behavior. “The Smart Shower Meter sets up a family dynamic,” Invetech Senior Consultant, Simon English said, “each member doesn’t want to be the one who uses the most water.” [Smart Water Fund, 2002-2013]. It is clear that the term of cleanliness is misleading in that “there is more to laundry and bathing than the removal of dirt.”(Shove E., 2003) What people see as appropriately laundered garments and showered or bathed bodies, requires the use of appliances in particular ways. “The concept of cleanliness may still be useful not as a measure of purity and danger (Douglas, 1984), but as an encompassing umbrella, a theme around which ideas and activities gather.” (Shove E, 2003, p408).

The term cleanliness is misleading in that there is more to laundry and bathing than the removal of dirt.