Dr Matt Watson

Senior Lecturer in Human Geography

Matt WatsonRoom number: F9
Telephone (internal): 27911
Telephone (UK): 0114 222 7911
Telephone (International): +44 114 222 7911
Email: M.Watson@Sheffield.ac.uk


Matt Watson’s work is concerned with understanding social change in relation to sustainability, through a focus on everyday life and the socio-technical systems that shape it. His research and writing engage with geographical and sociological theories of practice, materiality and everyday life and have covered issues relating to biodiversity, waste, food, mobility and energy.

Matt joined the department as a Lecturer in 2007 and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2013.

He gained a BSc in Geography from the University of Edinburgh. After a couple of years trying other things, he returned to higher education with an ESRC funded Masters in  Society, Science and Nature at Lancaster University. This led on to an ESRC funded collaborative and interdisciplinary PhD, working with the National Trust and supervised across the Centre for Science Studies and the Unit of Vegetation Science at Lancaster University. After the PhD he worked part time as an Associate Lecturer for the Open University while being a full time father, before a series of postdoctoral research jobs at Durham University.


My work engages and develops practice theory to develop insights into shifting social practices to reduce resource consumption. Humanity each year is using around 150% of the resources the earth can produce each year, with the world’s relatively wealthy disproportionately responsible. Getting resource demand within sustainable limits and fairly distributed will take radical changes to everyday life and ideas of good living, and so will require changes to the social processes and structures which shape everyday life. Through my research, I seek to develop and work with practice theory and related approaches, to produce and communicate new insights into broader social change.
Different projects have covered issues relating to biodiversity, waste, food, mobility and energy, and involved interdisciplinary collaborations across History, Design, Architecture, Planning, Sociology, Physics, Engineering and more. Reflecting motivations to inform change, I have worked with a range of partners outside of the academy – see projects below for some examples.

Current Research

Change points

I am currently leading a team of researchers across Universities of Sheffield and Manchester, which is engaging with a range of partners, including Defra, Food Standards Agency, WRAP, WWF. Together we are collaboratively developing a new approach to developing interventions to reduce resource use in the home. This approach, called Change Points, draws on insights from social practice research to inform a workshop toolkit that enables the development of new insights into the diverse relations that come to shape household energy use, as a basis for identifying new sites of intervention. The work has been funded by the ESRC, most recently via University of Manchester and University of Sheffield Impact Accelerator awards.

This approach has developed from ideas and insights generated by two funded research projects on the Nexus at Home (see below). More on the Change Points project is available on the project website.

Redefining Single-Use Plastics

I am co-investigator on a major interdisciplinary project which is stimulating creative thinking across discipline and exploring novel social and technical solutions to the challenges of plastics. See more on the project at its website.

Recent Research

Reshaping the domestic nexus

This was a project I led, bringing together academics from leading research groups with policy partners in DECC, DEFRA, FSA and Waterwise. The researchers are from research groups which have been at the forefront of new ways of understanding how householders’ routine activities end up demanding resources, including of energy, food and water. This project’s purpose is to make that understanding useful for informing actual policy processes with our policy partners. The project is funded by the ESRC Nexus Network.

The Domestic Nexus: interrogating the interlinked practices of water, energy and food consumption

I was lead for this collaborative network across the Universities of Sheffield (Prof Peter Jackson and Dr Liz Sharpe) and Manchester (Prof Dale Southerton, Prof Alan Warde, Dr David Evans and Dr Alison Browne). It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Nexus Network, as a programme of workshops and other activities involving academics and non-academics through late 2015. It brought together prominent researchers taking a practice theory approach to understanding domestic resource consumption, to consider the implications of the ‘nexus’ concept currently apparent in research funding priorities across UK councils. The final report is available here.

DEMAND: Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand

The Demand centre advanced understanding of the processes and dynamics through which energy demand is constituted, and identify the opportunities for tackling it. The centre was a collaboration across of 9 academic institutions, led by Lancaster University, with non-academic partners including the European Centre and Laboratories for Energy Efficiency Research, the International Energy Agency and Transport for London. It was funded with £5m from the Research Councils UK Energy Programme for 5 years from summer 2013. I was co-investigator in the centre, and led the University of Sheffield’s contribution to it.


In much of my teaching, the topics, concepts and knowledge which I help students learn about are related to my own research on themes of sustainability, governing, technologies and consumption. Through modules like Environment, Society and Politics or Geographies of Consumption, a key aim is to engage students critically with big geographical themes, like climate change, food security, wellbeing and social justice, and with contemporary ways of thinking about them, by reflecting upon their own lives as members of the society which produces and responds to these challenges.

I taught with Open University, Lancaster University and Durham University before arriving in Sheffield. In addition to topical teaching like that above, I have taught research methods from 1st year undergraduate through to PhD training.

Current and recent teaching includes:

Environment, Society and Politics
Environmental issues are a key area of contemporary public concern and current political debate. They raise fundamental questions about the relationship between society and environment. This second year module provides a geographical introduction to these issues and debates with examples from a range of scales from the global to the local. After a review of key concepts, the module is developed in three inter-related sections covering energy, food and housing.

Critical Ecologies
This third year module explores the critical, contested and controversial debates about environmental and ecological issues. Ecologies encompass the relationships and interactions between organisms (people, animals, plants, etc) and their environments, including other organisms. Using a range of examples of research undertaken by staff in the department from a variety of different countries this module develops a critical geographical approach to understanding environmental controversies. I contribute teaching on biodiversity and on the Anthropocene.

Uganda Field Class
This third year module involves students in undertaking a research-led project with communities in Jinja, Uganda. through which to develop and apply critical thinking and research skills in relation to the geographies of the global south. The module develops research skills, understandings of theories of development and context-specific knowledge through lectures and practical experience during fieldwork projects. I have written an account of staffing one of these field classes here.

Geographies of Consumption
Exploring the spaces and places of contemporary consumption provides a critical perspective on modern societies and cultures. This third year module examines some key debates about material culture and mass consumption, including an investigation of commodity chains, actor-networks and other object-centred approaches. The module studies the social relationships which converge in consumption, at a variety of scales from the body and the home to the national and the trans-national.

Nepal Field Class
This Masters module takes an international group of students for a 12 day field class in Nepal. At the core of the field class is 5 days primary research by students, working in small groups with a Nepali research colleague and local guides, to research topics like maternal health, migration or forestry with communities in Dhading district. I have written an account of leading one of these field classes here.

PhD Supervision

I have supervised 13 students through to successful completion, as either primary supervisor or co-supervisor. Currently I am primary supervisor to four research students, with projects on four different continents

Current PhD students

Sandra Barragan Contreras, CONACYT (Primary supervisor)
Energy transitions and energy justice in south Mexico

Hannah Mottram, EPSRC (Primary Supervisor)
Minigrids for Rural Electrification in Tanzania – Bridging the Gaps between Social and Technical Research

Katie Sumner, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (Primary supervisor)
Disrupting the Rhythm: disruption and energy demand

Vaibhav Kaul, University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor’s Indian Scholarship (Primary supervisor)
Understanding and enhancing the adaptation and resilience of remote high-altitude Himalayan communities to hydrometeorological extremes in a changing climate

Completed PhDs

Dr Ava Maria Penzkofer, ESRC White Rose (Primary supervisor)
Growing Sustainable Food Systems from the Grassroots

Dr Lewis Cameron, ESRC White Rose Social Sciences DTC Studentship (Primary supervisor)
Optimising Energy Access for Sustainable Development in Remote Regions.

Dr Trevor Ballance (Co-supervisor)
Employing Social Practice Theory in the Understanding of Sustainable Practices at a Japanese University

Dr Ian Humphrey, Faculty studentship (Primary supervisor)
Digging for sustainability: Socio-cultural perspectives on alternative food initiatives

Dr Jo Oldfield, EPSRC (Co-supervisor)
Planning for low carbon communities

Dr Huw Birch, EPSRC E-futures DTC studentship (Co-supervisor)
Methods for predicting and controlling the benefits and behaviours of renewable energy

Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford, ESRC White Rose (Primary supervisor)
Emergency food provision in the UK: Understanding its rise and implications

Dr Rosie Emeny, ESRC (Primary supervisor)
Performing the Rural Through Materialities : Thinking Critically About Cars

Dr Nick Piper, ERC (Co-supervisor)
Consuming popular food media

Dr Robin Lovelace, EPSRC (Co-supervisor)
The energy costs of commuting: a spatial microsimulation approach

Dr Annabel Townsend, ESRC (Co-supervisor)
Spilling the Beans: quality and waste in the speciality coffee industry

Dr Anna Krzywoszynska, ESRC
We produce under this sky

Dr Joby Williams,i ESRC (Co-supervisor)
'The Ethic of Regard': Artisan Practice and The Stuff of Food

Professional Activities

I have provided peer review and have served in reporting and advisory roles for national and international research councils including the UK Economic and Social Research Council, the UK Research Councils’ Energy Programme, Research Council of Norway, Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences, the Leverhulme Trust and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

From 2016 I am a member of the EPSRC Peer Review College, and I am a registered expert with the European Commission.

I have been a PhD external examiner for Stockholm University (Sweden) Aalborg University (Denmark), Copenhagen University (Denmark), Aalto University (Finland) and RMIT (Australia) as well as Manchester and Lancaster Universities, and the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

I have been an invited peer reviewer for over 30 scholarly journals and reviewed book manuscripts and proposals for publishers including Sage, Routledge and Polity.

Current and recent advisory and working group roles include:

  • International Advisory Board member for ERC Advanced Investigator eCAPE, “New Energy Consumer roles and technologies – Actors, Practices and Equality” Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, Copenhagen University, Denmark, 2018-22
  • Working Group invited member Institutional Rhythms and Energy Demand, engaging with researchers and National Health Service professionals, 2016-17
  • Expert Advisory Panel invited member for Systemic Participation and Decision-making in Energy Transitions a project funded by UKERC based at UEA, 2015-17
  • Advisory Panel member for AHRC project Intergenerational Justice, Consumption and Sustainability in Comparative Perspective, PI Prof Gill Valentine, 2014-16

Within the department I am currently Director of Masters Programmes and sit on Departmental Executive and on Teaching and Learning Committee. I have previously served as Faculty co-Director of PGR, Departmental PGR Tutor, and Principal Ethics Contact.


Key publications

Watson M (2017) ‘Placing power in practice theory’ in A. Hui, T. Schatzki and E. Shove (eds) The Nexus of Practices: Connections, constellations and practitioners pp169-182. London: Routledge. Full text available here.

Watson M and A Meah (2013) ‘Food and waste: negotiating conflicting social anxieties into the practices of provisioning’, in Evans, D, Murcott, A and Campbell, H (eds) Waste Matters: New Perspectives of Food and Society, Sociological Review Monograph, Wiley-Blackwell 60 (S2) 102-120.

Watson, M (2012) How theories of practice can inform transition to a decarbonised transport system. Journal of Transport Geography, 24, 488-496.
http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/74552/ | doi:10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2012.04.002

Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice. Sage, London. ISBN 978-1857020427