Our paper on the fly-in/fly-out work regime at the uranium mine in Saskatchewan is now published with open access. Click here to access the paper via the homepage of the Journal of Rural Studies.
Our paper on the remote uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, has just been accepted to the Journal of Rural Studies (JRS). It’s a relief, since we’ve worked a long time with this paper and worked hard to improve it after every setback (see the posts from April 2018 or December 2018). JRS got the best version! As soon as the paper comes on-line first we’ll make another post to notify you. Meanwhile, here’s the abstract:
The article presents a case analysis of the work regime at a uranium mine, located on indigenous land in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. All the miners are flown in and out (FIFO), and with nearly half the workforce coming from different indigenous communities. We ask how the miners participate in and experience life as FIFO workers, and enrol the community concept in the analysis. Defining community as not merely a group of people or a place but also, in the wake of Tönnies’ classic work, as a matter of attitude, the case analysis reveals a community at work but fragmentation of indigenous communities off work.
Whether in the Region of Bougainville (Papau New Guinea) or Malmfälten (Sweden), the economic, social and environmental impacts of mining are significant and tend to provoke strong reactions from a vast variety of actors. Contested business, contested areas, means navigating multifaceted, complex and value-laden relations. This requires engaged and sensitive social scientists that continuously reflect on their own values and interests. This is a discussion that we have covered before on this blog, but we just got a very good reason to revisit it.
Stuart Kirsch, anthropologist at the University of Michigan, who previously have contributed to this blog, have written yet another thought-provoking book, this time more focused on the research approach he has practiced and developed when studying mining conflicts, Engaged anthropology: politics beyond the text. ‘Engaged anthropology’, it triggers our thoughts on an ‘engaged organization studies’. Not sure we’ve heard of such a term, have you? Maybe ‘reflexivity’ comes close, but it is, we think, more of an apolitical character; as if reflexivity would be possible from a neutral position.
Engaged, we believe that without being engaged we would never get interesting empirical material, but Stuart takes this more than one step further. So, if you get nervous when scientific ideals such as objectivity, neutrality, distance etc. are challenged, do not read further.
To give you a teaser and an idea of what Stuart’s approach is all about, here are some quotes from the introductory chapter:
- “a commitment to mobilising anthropology for constructive interventions into politics”
- “engaged anthropology is primarily concerned with the politics of participation“
- “the practice of engaged anthropology involves taking risks in how we conduct research and make use of ethnographic knowledge”
- “anthropologists have more to contribute to the solution of these problems [social justice, environmental devastation, neocolonialism etc.] than their texts”
- “It is the desire to both understand and actively respond to these issues that motivates anthropologists who pursue contemporary forms of engaged anthropology”
- “engaged research lacks the certainty of more conventional forms of research in terms of guaranteeing academic outputs”
- “advocacy can actually provide access to a wider range of interlocutors and facilitate participation in events”
As might be guessed, Stuart’s engaged anthropological research on mining, particularly in Papau New Guinea, has also been the target of critique, such as: being dogmatic, not robust enough, lacking symmetry between actors, not levelling stakeholders on equal footing, more activism than science etc. We can recognise our own engagement in Organizing rocks in some of this critique and we have to some extent struggled with it since the start. How do our values, interests, methods, readings, influence our ‘science-in-action’ in the Kiruna and McArthur mines? Are we neglecting some actors, perspectives, statements, signs? Are we shying away from certain topics because we are scared to put our chins out? Are we always ready to question ourselves, ready to change? We’ve previously written about the “risk of being co-opted or of developing rather dogmatic stances” and that we should “constantly be in doubt, a bit skeptical, and to have a sensitive mode”, which, we admit, might come across as rather cryptic formulations, but yes, they matter, to us.
We’ve also met the oppressed, heard the voice and read the words of the privileged, and, yes, we’re not immune to these influences. It is impossible to be impartial, to stand on neutral ground. So, in this sense, why not claim that active engagement (through dialogues, in our case) is required?
In the type of critique launched against Stuart’s work, we do share the call for broad, inclusive engagements, in terms of whose voices are heard, and the need for phenomenon-driven (less a priori-settled) research strategies. If the phenomenon is complex and multifaceted so must also our methods and conceptual frameworks be. Paraphrasing John Law’s rather brutal take on this: it takes mess to capture mess. A priori openness, a sort of curiosity of what might be found when talking openly, with genuine interest and respect, with a diverse set of people, in different settings, is a research strategy that we’ve practiced in Organizing rocks.
But, we don’t agree with most of the critique launched against Stuart’s work. Although useful to be aware of it, it does suffer from one major deficit: it lacks power and power relations. For us, these issues were upfront, input-value in our project. Entering a large-scale mining arena, such as the one in Kiruna, we know that power relations are asymmetrical and we cannot be naive about this. A priori, whose voices are heard, who matters? Who are marginalized, excluded, silenced? In our case, the first answer on people’s lips is the company, LKAB. In a way, the old saying is true: ‘When LKAB has a cold, society sneezes’. This is an early-warning signal that there are power asymmetries and, hence, no equal footing, in Kiruna. How did we deal with this?
Organizing rocks is a basic research project. One way that we handled power asymmetries while also studying them was to remain in control of our research aims and questions; to not, for example, compromise on the questions we ask. This is our area of control, our responsibility, and one way to treat them all on equal footing. It was also one reason why the company (e.g. top management) did not want to meet us. Top management did not want to participate on any equal footing. Meeting, for example, local unions or local indigenous people, they never tried to control the questions we were asking. They agreed to meet, to converse, so for them we could have empathy, we listened, we tried to understand, and tried to come out as slightly different actors following our meetings. Luckily for a study striving for a ‘multi’ approach, the actor refusing to meet us (e.g. top management) ‘speaks’ in other ways (media, web, social media, reports etc.) so we have at least some idea on where they stand and why, but as we understood it, they felt that we were engaged in the wrong issues, and engaging these in the wrong way. As was told to us: we are not useful to LKAB. So, as also written about on this blog before, we were banned by top management (in Luleå and in Stockholm) from coming inside the gates to the mine in Kiruna (local workers and managers seemed to think that what we were asking were relevant and important).
As Stuart also has reported, when one door closes, others are opened. Ironically, when top management said no, closed the entry gates to the mine for us, actors who would not talk to us previously now decided to do so – but again, without trying to control us.
While our access to people inside the gates in Kiruna was restrained in the end, this was not the case with Cameco at McArthur in Canada, which immediately raised the risk of a wrong type of engagement, of us ‘cozying up to the corporation (see Emily Eaton’s blogpost). Many times, it felt like balancing on a knife’s edge. It’s never easy, for us at least. You might be a judge of how we’ve navigated, comparing the Kiruna case with the Canadian case (based on our blogposts on McArthur; there’s the scientific article on the case, but we’ve just submitted it, again, see the logbook). For now, it helps reading about engaged anthropology!
What if all scholars were as articulated on positioning and engagement as Stuart (what if we were?)? It would for sure enhance derivation and honesty-in-field and in-text, make it easier to evaluate whether or not to trust the descriptions and their arguments, to be able to judge how they have positioned themselves when analyzing. So, we try to consider research that hides behind screens of neutrality, objectivity and impartiality as highly problematic; those who most likely are very engaged but only implicitly so (of course we’re not saying that any subjective stance are okey; again, we’ve to avoid dogmatism and fight analyses that ‘stand on’ shaky ground). But, mirror mirror on the wall, who are you researching for, and why? What about those who write about ‘equal footing’ or assume that capitalist expansion as a ‘natural good’, and their research? We know dozens of skilled Swedish researchers who in their research engage fully in making mining more efficient, productive and profitable, but without any reflections whatsoever about the politics of their engagement. It is more or less taken for granted; perceived as a natural, neutral position; from one perspective thus conflating a currently dominant perspective with a right. Would it not be fair to ask for a similar transparency as in Stuart’s case?
Questions to Stuart (maybe he’ll answer!):
- Stuart, how do you (besides suggesting they should read your book) answer the type of critique we’ve mentioned above?
- Knowing that you want to destabilise the dichotomy between academic and engaged forms of research, we still need to ask: Can basic (phenomenon-driven, no idea of a solution etc.) and engaged research be a happy marriage?
The mining industry is one of those sectors where a gendered division of labour (GDL) is highly evident. Things are changing, however, but sloooowly. Below, we’ve gathered some of the quotes from four different storytellers at MCA, the mine in Canada we visited. We think they help illustrate that thinking about organizing rocks not only need to consider gender but also both life inside and outside the gates (on gender, see also previous posts, here, here and here):
What do people in your community do?man, indigenous, manager
Majority of the guys work in the mines. A lot of guys I hang out with work in different mines around the area. The women keep busy with working back home.
The normal situation is that the man, father, works here and the wife would be with the children?
Yeah, there are a few women that work here that has their kids at home but that is part of their aboriginal culture that they have the family structured to look after the children, like the grandparents. […] There are very few women here that have children back home.
woman, non-indigenous, manager
People at home, they are very helpful. When you have a shift schedule like this you find a lot of people are ready to bend their backs backwards to help you while you’re gone as they know someone is needed to step up and help out, while you’re not there.woman, indigenous, manager
Most stories I have heard so far, the man works here and the woman stays at home.
Haha, I don’t know who you have been talking to. We have a lot of women up here. […] if I had started when I was younger I would probably only have one child. Especially if I had wanted to continue working up here. Like I told you I do understand that the wife tend to be staying home.
Sometimes things are tough but I call my wife to talk with her every night so if anything happens then she will be pretty helpless when I’m up here, right. Well, especially with a young family it’s tough but when the kids get a little bit older they grow more independent and stuff, and they get used to the schedule too. […] Everyone needs to deal with it and big credibility to my wife that needs to deal with it, she is a strong woman. A lot of other couples can’t handle it and they break up.man, non-indigenous, worker
We are eager to share our paper on the Canadian case with you, but the paper is dividing reviewers, and editors have so far gone with the more critical one. It is a bit frustrating. Below you’ll find an extract from the last reject of the paper, with a focus on what the two reviewers think about our case study:
Reviewer 1 (inviting ‘revise and resubmit’ where we must re-work how we theorize the case):
This is a well written paper and presents a fascinating and engaging case analysis of a Uranium mine in the far North of Canada. The empirical material is brilliantly captured to present a nuanced analysis of the intersections of class, ethnicity, geography and the overlapping of workplace culture and wider social divisions. It is certainly worth publishing this empirical material and this would be a great case for teaching, as well as for future research, on the extractive industries, cultural identity at work, shift-working, and social divisions within the workplace.
Reviewer 2 (advocating a reject of the paper):
The Methodology section was very hard to read and it did not give a strong sense of the paper’s purpose. Despite the author(s) tried to explain the rational for the selection of the study samples, the information presented was less focused, and all the information was mixed together. The author(s) may wish to consider employing appropriate headings in order to better outline the structure of this section.
More specifically, the reader needs a great deal more information regarding the format and details of your analysis, as well as justification for the selection of informants. In addition, a more detailed description of the analysis of the interviews is needed. For example, interview protocol: Was there an interview protocol? Who conducted these interviews, several researchers, only one, different in the interviews? When were the interviews conducted?
Were the respondents provided the questions before hand?
Please provide a step by step protocol covering all aspects of the interviewing process.
Transcriptions: How were the digital recordings transcribed?
How were the transcriptions verified and checked for errors?
Who did this?
For example, who coded and analyzed the data?
Was there just one coder, or were there multiple coders?
If there were multiple coders, how was inter-coder reliability addressed?
Did the author(s) leave an audit trail?
Data analysis: How was data analyzed, software or manually?
In either case provide how the results were evaluated based on prior codes and categories?
Were any other codes identified for the assessment? If not, how was the data categorized to evaluate across respondents?
I strongly recommend the authors read books or papers on qualitative research, particularly the chapter on trustworthiness in qualitative research. I think it might be helpful in providing fodder for your methodology section. Addressing these issues may also then provide a framework by which you can justify/clarify your informant selection.
The editor concludes:
The manuscript is far from being ready to be published in its current form, as you can see from the reviewers comments below. It is not possible for me to ask you to do major revisions, as I have had great difficulties finding reviewers. Three reviewers agreed to review the manuscript, but only two has delivered so far, and I could not wait for the last one to deliver as I have been unable to get in contact with the person again. Of the two remaining reviewers, only one is willing to continue to review the manuscript. To put it simply, it is not possible to let you revise the paper under this submission.
A decision letter from the editor, handling our Canadian case-based paper, had a ‘reject’ in it, but also comments from two reviewers (none from the editor).
After a first reading, some of the comments seem very helpful (must say, though, we are not our best us when reading comments in a reject for the first time; they sort of have to sink in): choices/re-choices we probably must make, readings we probably should engage in, nuances leading the reader the wrong way that must be changed etc.
However, we couldn’t also help feeling that we were not really read for who we were claiming to be, feeling a bit like lost miners. If allowed:
Scene 1: The feeling when submitting the paper – we have drilled and blasted, created cavities, and a lot of waste for sure, but managed to sort out and crush (it’s a metaphor, remember) that high-qualitive material that could be sent up to the Dream factory above ground where the findings in the shape of a small but genius little pellet was produced and sent away through the electronic manuscript submission system, a pellet that beyond any doubt would change contemporary thinking about the world of work in mining.
Scene 2: The feeling when receiving reviews and the reject – we drilled and blasted in the wrong area, the cavities were apparently created two hundred meters to the side of where we blasted (and didn’t appear until recently), for some reason we managed to sort out and crush mostly waste, not iron ore, though we did send the crushed waste to the Dream factory okay (hey, high-five!), where the pellet produced in the end was more un-shaped than round, way too porous for others to handle, fell apart too easily when put under pressure, way too light to carry any weight.
Scene 3: The feeling when getting back into re-writing the paper – unknown, to be written, we’re now on vacation.
Framing scenes 1 and 2 in a song, but not one of our own, we quote two verses from the seven dwarfs and their mining song “Heigh-ho” (from the movie Snow White and the 7 dwarfs), where the end of the second got us a bit hooked:
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in our mine the whole day through
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we really like to do
It ain’t no trick to get rich quick
If you dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick
In a mine! In a mine! In a mine! In a mine!
Where a million diamonds shine!
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig from early morn till night
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig up everything in sight
We dig up diamonds by the score
A thousand rubies, sometimes more
But we don’t know what we dig ’em for
We dig dig dig a-dig dig
Again, this is a post more towards fellow academics, but with some relevance for the ‘universe’ outside academia as well.
We just got a decision from the scientific journal Work, Employment & Society that our qualitative paper on the Canadian case was not sent out for review, a so-called desk reject. This is not the first time it has happened to us(!), but it always brings out the bad-loosers in us. Then things usually calm down and we re-work and submit it to another journal. Sometimes this ‘cycle’ takes years, which is also where the practical relevance comes in: it is very tempting to just publish the paper here on the blog so it is up to all of you to decide its relevance and usefulness. Maybe we’ll do this eventually.
Why was the paper rejected then? Here is the letter-from-the-editor in full (anonymized):
Thank you for submitting the above manuscript for consideration in Work, Employment and Society, which I read with interest. I have decided not send it out for review, and will set out my reasons for this.
This is a well written paper about a an interesting topic. You have located it well in the sociological context and in terms of current debates, and no doubt the research will at some point form the basis of a good paper.
However, there is a significant problem with your methodology, insofar as it can be understood from your paper. Firstly, I was unclear as to how many interviews had been conducted, with the demographic profile of the participants, and with the form of the interviews. It was not clear how interviewees were selected, nor what the ‘meetings’ constituted, nor whether interviews with contractors were recorded.
Secondly, interviews with ‘people’ at the mine were described as informal and therefore not recorded, although the sentence setting this out appears to contradict itself on this point. If these were miners, as distinct from managers and administrators, we need to know if they were invited to participate in interviews and declined. More generally, we need to know whether participants gave any sort of informed consent to the use of their words, and whether the quotations used were from transcriptions or from the notes you say were made shortly after the informal conversations.
These are important points, and as it stands the lack of clarity regarding methods means that the paper is not suitable for publication in WES.
There is clearly useful material in your research, and I would encourage you to address these points in preparing a paper which is closer to being in a publishable form, whether in another sociological journal or in one dealing with industrial relations or human resource management.
I am sorry not to be the conveyors of better news, and wish you well with redrafting the paper for submission elsewhere.
Our view is that these objections/questions can be viewed as fair (and highly manageable) reviewer comments, but not grounds for a desk reject. We looked forward to a discussion on the actual substance of the paper, its ideas and contributions, but missed this opportunity, based on objections/questions more on form than on content.
This might be a post more towards fellow academics and more in tune with what we, as academics, are supposed to do today – publish articles!
As for more ‘scientific deliveries’ we’ve promised two articles and a book from the project. One article (the one about Kiruna) is already out for review and today we managed to submit the second article, the one about the Canadian case. Let’s hope the editor and the reviewers find the article interesting enough to offer it to the readers of the journal. We’ll be able to tell more about what it is about once it has made it through this, or X number of other, review process!
Oh, by the way, we must confess that submitting a paper on a Friday, before embarking on the weekend, is not a bad feeling, particularly for us who have spent more time doing empirics and writing blog posts than working on producing scientific articles.
Oh, by the way, the book will be in Swedish… It’s been decided now. Finally. We think.
Have a nice weekend – rock on!
The general trend in the mining industry is to increase the use of contractors in order to be more flexible, adaptable and cost-effective. Whether this is achieved can be debated, but the trend is clear and although the markets for iron ore (the Kiruna case) and uranium (the McArthur River/Key Lake case) are different, they are both nevertheless highly influenced by ‘boom and bust’, ‘feast and famine’. Walking the fine line between stability and adaptability is highlighted in northern Saskatchewan, where companies like Cameco has to engage local firms and workers as part of the regional agreements (written about earlier on this blog). Interestingly, in some of the conversations, this is lifted as a competitive advantage from both sides of the table, and although more complex than this, the arguments boil down to ‘local knowledge’ and to ‘loyalty’. The first quote below is from a contractor owned by an indigenous band from the north and the second quote is from a manager at Cameco.
companies like Cameco learn that we can deliver and can count on our loyalty to mobilise quickly and to do it quickly as well because we understand what it takes to get it up there. We get to know the local people, it’s easier to identify with the locals. So after a period of time companies like ours starting to have a clear returning in investment back to Cameco.
I would say that the work we do with the contractors has become more stable over the years because we have pushed to have more northern content in our contracts, for workers as well. I think things like that have made Cameco more stable, has made it more stable for the contractors.
Next storyteller is a man from Saskatchewan, Canada, living in a small town up north called La Ronge. He works at MCA. When reflecting over the challenges for northern communities where a large portion work for the mining industry, he praises Cameco, the company, for its efforts, but also emphasises the many challenges still to deal with. This quote about La Ronge comes to mind as we’re daily seeing pictures from Kiruna and the tearing down of houses due to the mine expanding (just recently, the old railway station):
when I was growing up we had movie theatres and pool halls, bowling alleys. We had a sport store for fishing gear and hockey equipment and all that stuff. None of that is there anymore, only Robertsons trading. There is a liquor store there and a few bars. That is not a good thing, because of the youth and those who are not working they tend to fall into the alcoholism and that’s bad for everybody. It starts fights and wreck families.
As noticed from all the storytellerposts perhaps, we’re in the process of writing-up our empirical material. The feeling of having too little material is quickly changed into a feeling of having too much…
At the outset of the project we aimed at writing two scientific papers and one research monograph. The two papers are now in process. We sent one extended abstract of a paper on the Kiruna mine to the European Group of Organizations Studies (EGOS) conference in Copenhagen, early July. We just got accepted, which is great news. EGOS tends to be a high quality conference. For us, this means a clear deadline, which is also great news (how else get things done?!). We’ve also sent one extended abstract on the Canadian case to the Swedish society for working life studies (FALF) conference outside Malmö in mid-June. Hopefully, they’ll give us the green light, and another deadline. Maybe we see some of you at one or two of these conferences?
The research monograph, however, is debated between us at the moment. It’s not a debate on whether or not we should write it – we will – but in what format (traditional or more ‘thick magazine’ like) and in which language (English or Swedish). While quarrelling, the massaging of the empirical material continues. Either way, we look forward to come out and speak with more ‘traditional’ scientific products in the near future.
Next storyteller is a woman, an aboriginal, working at the mill at Key Lake. She talks about the strong social bonds created at work and therefore about having two families, one at home and one at work:
Actually, if you talk with anyone here who has been long term they’re going to tell you that ‘this is my family’. We live with them, we work with them over the years. We have two families. Sometimes they intermingle because we are friends with people up here who are also friends back home. So it’s just like coming from one home to another. If you look at any person’s room at camp, especially here at Key Lake, we’re allowed to make our rooms our home. So I got one wall that is covered with pictures of my children, my grandson, sister, mother. I walk in there and I’m home for the week and then I go on a plane and I get home there. The only difference from when I’m up here, I’m working from 6.30am to 7.30pm, but it’s fun. Ready for anything and I love the job, I love the people up here.
Next storyteller from Canada, a woman, working above ground, 7/7, here on the social life on- and off-site, and on why she couldn’t see herself returning to a normal 9-5 job:
Well here is very social, you are always around people, you are always interacting with people. […] At home it’s a little bit more quiet. You usually just see you family, your immediate family and then go back to work again. A lot of times too, the people you work with here are often the people you go out with for a beer or something in the city back home. So they become your friends here at work and back in the city because you’re on the same schedule even with no work. […]
Could you imagine having a normal 9-5 job?
No, not anymore. It’s hard to think about going back to the city and having to deal with rush hour and packing meals and, you come up here and you are fully taken cared of. You got your meals cooked for you and your rooms cleaned for you. You just have to work, and socialise.
Our next storyteller is an aboriginal man, working as a manager at the mine and as a representative of his local community in the north. Mining companies, including their contractors, operating in the north have to hire Residents of Saskatchewan North (RSN) as labor (see previous blogposts on this, just search for the category “Canada” or “Aboriginals”). Below is an extract from our conversation about this:
So in Canada you have that duty-to-consult. So that is one thing companies do with the local people, the aboriginal. So that’s a good thing, to keep everybody happy.
What would be the critical issues that are argued about during these meetings?
It would be… probably doing new projects and not following up on their agreements. So if they agreed on hiring 50 % and they only have 40 %, then we ask why? I can see it from our part but also from the companies’ part. I work there and I know you can’t keep a guy there that can’t make it to work. You can’t drag them to work. So I can see the companies’ side and the people from the areas’ side. But I think when people are ageing in different generations, I see the younger generation now, a lot of the aboriginals are going to universities now. From what it was before when there were almost no one. So now I see a lot of them getting into universities and getting management positions in different companies, not just in the mine and this province but in the city and in Alberta and the oil industry. That’s what I should have done when I was younger, go to school.