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.
AC/DC, the groin and science
The frontman of AC/DC, Brian Jonson, once replied to a journalist’s question about why AC/DC has remained so popular since the 1970s, that their music enters the listener through the groin first – men and women alike. Listening to, playing and recording music we can sort of relate to this groin sensation. But what has this to do with science?
Nothing says the instrumentalists and the purists. Nothing says those who fear conflict and going against the grain. We say that the importance of groin is there, for sure, but it’s almost a taboo-thing to expose and talk about. Doing fieldwork, reading a text or engaging in conversations, is something that the groin is taking part in. It’s not bracketed off from the rest of the body. The groin, however, is not always related to physical attraction and sex, although this sometimes is the case when reading or writing texts, engaging in conversations or observations.
By this we do not mean to downplay reason. There is great danger in following your groin (or your gut feeling or a sudden feel in the heart), in following your senses, without consulting the faculty of reason. But, we have to accept and be open about that our groins (as well as gut feeling and heartaches) sometimes are dead right from the beginning and without which the faculty of reason many times is helplessly left in the dark.
This post could be interpreted as another text seeking to address the problematic abyss between body and soul, mind and body, but it has a twist: the groin, so connected to physical attraction and sex, is an “elephant in the room”. Very rarely do we come across researchers who take in their groinly experience in research and seriously ponder its scientific importance (scientists do spend time and effort trying to understand how, when and why the groin matters for their objects of study, or interviewees, or respondents, or even co-participants). So, the basic point is to bring in the groin to accompany stomach, heart, senses and reason. An example from our Organizing rocks study would perhaps be appropriate here, but we need to come back on this one…
Johan has read “Mining coal and undermining gender: rhythms of work and family in the American west” by Jessica Smith Rolston (Rutgers University Press, 2014). Here are some of his reflections:
At the outset of our project we knew that gender would play an important role, particularly given the history and context of the Kiruna mine (also for the Saskatchewan-case). There’s almost a mythology around the miner, a man of few words, with strong hands and a will to take risks in order to get the job done. For sure, many other mining areas share a similar myth. On occasions, we’ve also experienced stories and instances in Kiruna where this myth is reproduced, but the most common example is some sort of ‘light’ version of it, mixed up with more modern discourses on gender, equality and work environment. A lot has also happened since ‘men of high statue’ “founded” the mine in the late 1890s, but there is still a long way to go, as shown by Eira Andersson in her dissertation “Malmens manliga mysterium” (in Swedish, title translated: “The ore’s male mystery”, from 2012; see also the video-interview on gender and mining with professor Lena Abrahamsson on this blog from February 9, this year).
Reading Smith Rolston’s book gave a new dimension to gender and mining. Her in-depth ethnographic study of the coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (the largest coal producer in the US) gives a contextual feel for, and a nuanced, almost positive, perspective on how gender is done and undone in the mines. I won’t attempt to cover the entire book here (visit her work-page to access references to her work and reviews of the book), but to share some of the thoughts, hopefully giving you reasons to pick up your own copy of the book!
The context, oh the context, it cannot be emphasised enough: it’s always important to ground studies in context. This book makes an excellent case of this. Gender is performed differently in this particular context (as compared for instance with the Appalachian mines, a recurrent comparative case in the book; in Sweden, we often direct our comparisons to Brazilian mines and, not surprisingly, we look quite good). Between 20-25% of those working in the Wyoming mines are women (this is higher than in any Swedish mine!) and this has been the case since the start of the mines in the late 1970s, partly explained by the region’s agrarian history and cultural context where both men, women and youth worked in the fields (making the person asking the question ‘why couldn’t a woman be a miner?’ look rather stupid – of course they can!). Several matters addressed throughout the book are recognisable in our studies, albeit with some contextual differences: great examples on how bodies matter in a gendered labour process (urinating, menstruation etc.), the rotation schedule and the context of work matter for the family-strong bonds created at work and the juggling act between work and home, being a non-unionised site matter for the relation between workers and workers-managers, enabling well-paid but low education jobs (“blue-collar aristocracy”) matters for the providing of family and for creating the opportunities for the kids to attend university (and thereby avoid ending up in the mines), and much more. I also like the emphasis in the book on how the miners talk to each other, how it matters in order to understand gender performances (the jargong and particularly the humor). One thing I missed was a more elaborative discussion on how career and recruitment were played out in practice, how gender was performed related to these issues.
Focusing on the method, the author has close ties to the worksites, the homes and the people, and, hence, to the phenomenon she is researching. It’s an inspiring ‘native ethnography’, making me think of the four days and three nights I spent at the McArthur River uranium mine in Saskatchewan. I left with the feeling of only scratching the surface of ‘what’s going here’, writing the lyrics for our song “Wolfpack” (on our Production album) on my trip back home. Reading Smith Rolston shows the benefits (as well as some of the challenges) from truly engaging with the field, even when it includes family.
Her father works in the mines she’s studying and she has also worked their during Summer, later spending a lot of time on site as a researcher. Epistemologically, the way she approaches the phenomenon is very interesting, enrolling all senses, on site, in order to understand gender performances. The empirical material is unique, giving me a feeling throughout the book of getting to know the people, their work-ethic, work culture, and how they balance work and family with a tough rotation schedule. This approach also create strong bonds with several of the persons studied. The author mentions that this creates a responsibility of not jeopardising their trust by painting outsiders (such as me) “negative portrayals” of the miners (which seems to be a common type of portrayal in the US according to the author; I think of a fiction book I read last year where this is the case, on Appalachian coal mining, “Grey mountain”, by John Grisham). This is an issue of representation, of how to communicate findings from the study that are scientifically interesting and relevant, while not necessarily being in agreement with, or seen as positive by, those studied. This balancing act goes on throughout the book and although the author is very transparent about it, I’d sometimes liked to have seen a more front-loaded treatment of issues-with-friction.
A feeling that occasionally came back throughout my reading was that although particular performances of “gender neutrality” could be argued, some of these nevertheless took place on an already gendered stage (there’s no “ungendered” space). In lack of better words, this meta-level of analysis could have played a more important role in some sections. I also lacked a more thorough treatment of the wider context, missing a deeper analyses beyond the local context, on the overall market context for the coal mining and how this is perceived by the miners. This also goes for the growing importance of sustainability issues, particularly the climate change debate and the role of coal in the work towards sustainability. It’s understandable that locals focus on the local context and natural environment, and that they take good care of it, loving their outdoors, but I imagine that they also have thought about, for example, climate change related to their work and off-work life. That is, just as much as I enjoyed reading about how the miners reflected on how people outside the area didn’t understand the importance of the coal mines for the supply of electricity in the US (a miner is quoted: “Half of every lightbulb in the U.S. is lit by coal… but a lot of people can’t think behind the wall”, p 31), I miss how they in turn reflected on how their idea of how work and place matter when focusing on how mining coal also risk undermining other places and people (past and future).
As noted in the Storyteller-posts, we’ve started to read interviews related to the Kiruna mine. This awoke a discussion between us on how much we should allow theories and concepts to guide our reading. On one hand, lets just read them and trust our reading. After all, we know what we’re interested in. Don’t we? On the other hand, lets fine-tune a coding scheme based on an extended view of labour process theory and ship it all into NVivo. Order in the project! On top of that, reading interviews is fun but really deceptive, isn’t? A full-senses conversation once upon a time reduced to 15 pages of text…
In principle, we’re in favour of the first alternative. In principle, social science is in favour of the second alternative (one clue: Robert Yin’s case study book, on today’s date, has 120615 citations in Google Scholar). Given our bias then, we agreed on a rather simple and open ‘coding scheme’ (for now without NVivo), reminding us to make notes in the texts of the following themes or categories(?):
Context – background descriptions (historical or contemporary) of how it is to live, work, be in Kiruna; how the mine unites and/or pulls Kiruna apart
Labour process – knowledge/skills, technology/technology development, influence/autonomy, identity/subject, global/local, boundaries (time/space, mine, work, society, nature)
Method – when methodological issues are explicitly drawn into the conversations
Stories – highlight all stories that, for whatever reason (don’t have to be labour process connected), have a strong impact on us
These very broad themes are – and should be – amorphous and we try to read the interviews parallel to each other, reading, talking, reading, talking, now and then write a storyteller post so that you’ll get a feel for our material and where we are in the process. So, to be continued.
Organizing rocks goes to Krakow!
On November 9-13, we are invited to Krakow, Poland, to give talks and live concerts about Organizing rocks, at the Jagiellonski University as well as down town Krakow. It’s a fantastic opportunity to tell stories on research method and on mining, labour and power, through a mix of talking, showing images and videos, and playing music.
Perhaps the most evident, positive effect (so far) from our decision to go public from the start with Organizing rocks is our new friendship with Dr Michal Zawadzki at Jagiellonski University in Krakow, Poland (warm hugs to Monika Kostera who connected us). Michal early on started to follow our project and he proved not only a very intellectual, engaging academic (he is an assistant professor in management), but also a beyond awesome drummer. When you listen to our music production, it’s Michal who plays the drums.
At a conference
On October 20-21, we participated at the annual conference for business studies in Sweden, FEKIS, at Uppsala University.
During the day, our project was one out of three examples of scholars in business studies researching societies; a session built on the idea of research challenging the predominant focus on formal organizations. Besides Organizing rocks, there were Caroline Wigren’s study of Gnosjö and Mikael Holmqvist’s study of Djursholm. Our project, however, does not aim at studying Kiruna as such (although it is hard to avoid), but definitely aimed at challenging a lot of formal organizational boundaries, given that an understanding of the labour process cannot be confined to such boundaries. The crowd was large and although difficult to say, interest also seemed to be high.
Some of the questions asked during the session were: how do you know you have the theories needed, how do you present yourself in the field, why did LKAB stop you from going inside the gates etc.
After the sessions ended and people were mingling before dinner, we played live outside the lecture halls, in total four songs from our upcoming Swedish album on the Kiruna mine. The songs were: Regn över berget, Den svenska malmen, Stänger alla kranar and Vackert. This was the first time we played together (photo by Mikael Holmqvist):
We were out riding in our rented car when it struck Tommy: Somebody is actually doing something to their house!
The thought came quick and Tommy did not understand at first why this thought emerged so strongly. Then we realized – being in the zones in Kiruna that will be teared down, is being in an area where not much happens in terms of renovation and maintenance of buildings. What is taking place is a gradual wearing down of facades, yards etc. (very visible to visitors) and demolition (as the tearing down of the area Ullspiran). We realize that we’ve done these observations throughout are many stays in Kiruna and that this puzzlement has been going on in our heads for quite some time. But it all makes good sense. If you have a house or an apartment in the area which is to be teared down you do nothing (besides what is absolute necessary). It makes sense to think that it makes sense doing nothing.
Seeing this “nill” activity makes us wonder what effects the LKAB:s plans to move a large part of the city that was announced more than ten years ago have had on the mindsets of the people living in the zones? Might there be other areas in life that are in need of “re-construction” but that have grinded to a halt?
As we’ve started to read interviews that we made last year, we also get reminded of that Kiruna-citizens have talked about this issue in the conversations with us (see also blogposts from May 1 and Feb 16, 2015). So, that’s the loop! We notice something and ask about it, forget about it, observe it again, and then rediscover it in already produced discourse. Is this sloppy and to be cured by a Robert K Yin case-study protocol, or is it a part of a normal back-and-forth process in research? Well, we opt for the latter, not to save our asses, but because our case is rather complex, eluding us again and again in a way that a protocol, no matter how ambitious it is, can handle. We also think that protocols can have the effect of ruling out heterogeneity and that which cannot be sorted in relevance, type, phenomenon etc. soon after being discovered.
Then again, the self-imposed task of feeding our blog, which you’re reading from now, could be a kind of protocol. To tell short stories, most often produced soon after an empirical experience (in Kiruna, or elsewhere), that leaves things open, we think protects us from excluding things that appears as non-relevant at first but that can prove extremely relevant later on.
Moods in the field
The morale of this story is that any kind of social science research implies going in and out of moods. Being in a mood, and throughout life, in different contexts, going in and out of moods, is a precondition for human lives. And of course, this is a lived experience that is totally left out in social science textbooks, conferences and PhD education. Different moods imply different conversations, different writing, different analysis, different reading, different, well, you name it. So, here follows a rather moody text about different moods in our project – so far.
At first, we passionately ”wrote” the project (i.e. research applications). Passion, then, was the primary mood. Then when entering the field in Kiruna, we fell in love with the project. Love at first sight, actually. Call it “the Kiruna people effect”, all the stories they told, the way they did it. The mine and the people are deeply, historically, connected, and so are our interests in the project, changing power relations and the labour process.
After that we got into a sort of “nitty-gritty” mood; visiting the site, trying to understand the complexities in rather familiar ways (eg. very loose conversations, normally called interviews in the genre of social science) and in unfamiliar ways (eg. shooting film, taking photos, writing blogposts, making music). The prime mood in this stage was joy.
Then all of a sudden, we stumbled upon problems: we were denied entry to the mine. The mood here was a mild shock. The post-shock mood, at first, was of the kind that “this will be solved”, a mood best called pragmatic. Working in this mood for a couple of months, eventually realizing that this will most likely not be sorted out, led to a post-shock sadness (on some days, even a bit anger) mood. The project continued, but was seriously changed as we could no more observe and take part in the daily work in the mine, and also losing out on the top-management perspective.
However, sadness turned to a need to change plans. We entered into a sort of a strategy mood and started to focus on broader categories of people and society. These had been on our “radar” and in our plans, but now we took time and effort to meet and engage. New meetings, new people, brought back some of the initial passion and love (meeting new people up here always do!), but experiencing difficulties meeting more employees of the company (as we’re always honest with them about how top management approaches us, employees get a bit worried, even though they would like to meet us), there is always a semi-dark cloud of hanging over the project.
This is where we are today, reflecting on our research process in a hotel room in Kiruna (where we are right now). Time has therefore come to start taking stock of what we have, partly in order to start writing up, partly to return to the field with analyses.
Spatial divisions of labour
We think that it is always of great interest to read a so-called classic book. Doreen Massey’s book Spatial Divisions of Labour (social structures and the geography of production) is definitely a social science classic and a relevant one for our project (Palgrave, second edition, 1984/1995). In Tommy’s words:
Massey is for me a rather demanding author; not that the language is tricky, nor the analysis exceptionally complicated. The demanding part is that she, quite frankly, writes rather boringly. But this is of course just a shallow complaint from a reader that is too easily bored. From (finally) reading this book, I take away quite a few gems (you have to discover yourself) and a clearer understanding in what way this intellectual person affected the academic discussion and ways in which to understand capital and capital accumulation and how capitalism ‘works’ with geography and how geography affects capitalism. More specific, I also learned more about economic uneven development, conceptualization of place and time, and also gendered spatial division of labour.
My favorite quote from the book is: “The motif of all these arguments, and one which is repeated in various forms throughout this book, is that the ‘the requirements of accumulation do not arrive raw at the factory gate’.” (p. 309)
Feeling it, knowing it
The blogpost by Anette Hallin on August 30 was – besides a really good read – very timely. On the most recent trip to Kiruna (August 23-25), the importance of enrolling senses and sensibilities beyond the analytical part of the brain proved itself again. This time, Johan traveled alone so in his words:
When in Kiruna, I usually don’t wake up when they blast at night, but this time it was different. I don’t know why; it might have been because of where they blasted that night. It was very evident, feeling it in my chest before hearing it; a powerful vibration, like a dark voice coming through a bass amplifier, hit me internally [in a sense Johan was experiencing what a previous interviewee expressed when working underground, but in that case it was the sound of the mountain at 1365 meters, as Tommy tried to imitate with the help of an electric guitar in the song The Sound]. I didn’t think much about it, however (the photo for this blog post is taking from my hotel room). Next day, during the day program with Tornedalsteatern, two of the documentaries shown, one about Kiruna by Liselotte Wajstedt and one about Malmberget, frequently came back to how it is to live with the blasting and the mountain sagging. Parents and relatives being worried about their places of living and of loved ones working underground [Johan has written a lyrics on this theme, The worrying song, on the second album]; those working in the mine shrugging their shoulders, ‘what can we do, the ore has to be extracted’. We’ve frequently heard such stories during our project and, sure, we think we understand what they mean. Being underground previously, both Tommy and I were all ears for saggings, but haven’t heard anything so far. We’ve been there, but not yet experienced the mountain from this perspective. And sure, we’ve also been awake, and awaken, when they’ve blasted before, but somehow the blasting is easier to cope with as it is a planned, human activity. It simply feels and seems more rational. At that particular time (01.17), a button is pushed, boom, than the vibrations. I get it. It’s another story when the mountain sags, unplanned, unexpectedly. For me, that’s more spooky.
During the last day in Kiruna, I had an interview at Scandic hotel Ferrum with a person who has grown up in Kiruna and who has worked both inside and outside the gates. Just before 10AM, the whole hotel shakes. I looked at him, searching for a confirmation that this wasn’t too serious, right? No such look from him. After all, my first instinct was like ‘let’s go’ (to where I don’t know and nobody else in the hotel moved). With a serious but still rather cool face he eventually looked at me: “This wasn’t good.” That didn’t calm me down, but he then rationalized it: “You know, they might not even have heard this underground.” He added that it depends on where the sagging occurred. On with the interview, that is. I felt like tying my shoes, just in case… The day after, LKAB communicated this (my translation below):
“En seismisk händelse inträffade i Kiruna klockan 09.59 på torsdag 25 augusti. Händelsen lokaliserades till 925 meters nivå i hängväggen intill malmkroppen och hade en lokal magnitud på 2,2. Högsta uppmätta vibration i samhället var 2 mm per sekund på Bolagshotellets annex. Inga skador är rapporterade, men många i samhället kände av händelsen.” “A seismic activity occurred in Kiruna at 09.59 on Thursday, August 25. The activity was localized to 925 meters below in the hanging wall close to the ore body and had a local magnitude of 2,2. The highest recorded vibration in the community was 2 mm per second at Bolagshotellet annex. No damages have been reported, but many in the community felt the activity.”
This is of course not the only seismic activity recorded and felt recently. For people in Kiruna (and in Malmberget) this is more routine than exceptions. Click here for LKAB’s reports on seismic activities.
I then remembered the day before, walking through town, overhearing four locals that were enjoying the sun, talking to each other about the devastating earthquake southeast of Perugia in Italy. Small observations. They think about it.
Below is text on responsible research by guest blogger, Anette Hallin at Mälardalen University, Sweden (read more about Anette by clicking here):
What is our responsibility as researchers? To develop knowledge about the world, most people would answer. But how do we do this in a responsible way?
According to my view, performing responsible research involves issues about the relationship between the researcher and that which she studies; a question addressed in several blogs here (see Jan 29 and March 24). My conviction is that it is necessary for us, if we are claiming to develop knowledge about the world, to engage in all ways possible with that which we study. We need to combine sense and sensibility.
But how to we do this? As researchers we are trained to use our heads; to observe, document, measure, analyze and theorize. We are less skilled at feeling and expressing emotions. It is as if we have ruled out the possibility of knowledge residing also in the parts of the brain where this type experiences are processed. Even though there has been a lot of talk about “embodiment”, “situated practices” and phenomenology-informed research, we seem, also as qualitative researchers, to trust one part of our body the most when developing knowledge about the world: the part of our brain prone to analytical thinking.
Maybe we are not to blame. After all, the moving away from the human body as the source of knowledge about the outside world and the development of logical positivism was developed based on the same set of ideas that led to development of the metric system. Before this, people used their bodies to gain knowledge about things outside their bodies through anthropomorphic measurements like “a foot”. In stratified societies, exact and non-anthropomorphic measures however were symbols of justice and came with time to be seen as a criteria distinguishing civilization from non-civilization. Today, just as the knowledge about how to use the physical body to measure and weigh things has gone out of fashion, we seem to not know how to use all of that which is ourselves when it comes to doing research. We may even have lost our ability to feel with other people, as concepts such as “feelings”, “emotions” and “empathy” seem to belong to a different discourse than that of science.
This is sad because if we are to believe Aristotle and his idea of catharsis, knowledge about the human condition (which we all are interested in understanding better in some way as social scientists), can be developed through the internal process of experiencing a strong emotional experience, which is what fictional tragedy provides us with, according to him. And he is right. How many of us have not been struck with radical insights when reading a piece of fiction, or when watching a film? The notion of catharsis suggests that knowledge can only be developed when we experience strong emotions in relation to something. This is, as we all know, quite far from how we are supposed to perform research.
What would happen if we became better at using all of our selves when performing research; if we combined sense and sensibility? I think that developing a research of sensibility would help us move beyond the dichotomies that we seem to be so fond of creating in our attempts at making sense (sic!) of things. For a long time now, thinkers have argued that dichotomies like subject-object; body-mind; local-global; humans-artifacts; science-art; etc, don’t correspond to reality – in the world there are no dichotomies, only continuity and interaction. At the same time we keep using them, lacking better ways of making sense of what we experience. A research where we combine sense and sensibility would thus provide us with a different understanding of the world.
But how would such research be performed in practice? And how would scientific criteria be challenged – and met – with such a research agenda of combining sense and sensibility? There have been some suggestions as to how this could be done, often based on a phenomenological understanding of the world, for example by learning from the work of artists. And I hold good hopes there will be more. As human beings we are equipped with the ability to feel, not only to think. So in order to combine sense with sensibility we, the researchers, need to develop the ways we work with feelings and emotions in addition to our work with (visual) observations and analytics in all phases of research work. This way, the research we perform will be “thick” and will draw upon all kinds experiences we have when studying a phenomenon.
The exploration by the Organizing Rocks-team, of how to express their research in music is such an example. Music can in a special way express emotions and capture feelings, thus relating to a different sphere than the sphere of analytical logics that we so commonly use as researchers. Therefore, music has the ability, together with other forms of expression – also the traditional ones such as papers in journals and presentations at conferences – to constitute a “thick” description such as the one argued for here.
As researchers and intellectuals we organize, direct, lead and educate others, which means that we inevitably exercise cultural hegemony as Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it, also when aiming at making our informants active participants. I think that our position as researchers involves a responsibility to aim at a nuanced understanding – to the extent that this is possible – about the life-worlds and practices that we aim at saying something about. In order to do so we need to make research a matter not only of sense, but of sensibility.
There is a golden rule in research that you can stop a case study when you have theoretical saturation, that is, when you sense that what you hear, observe and see are same-same-but-not-too-different. As all golden rules this one is doubtful. Can there be an end to a case study for this reason?
So far, we have managed to equip ourselves with new questions and issues – and the very reason for this is all the insightful and reflecting storytellers that we meet in Kiruna and elsewhere. We ”only” have to engage in dialogues, to listen, to ask, to discuss. Nothing more, nothing less. If theoretical saturation occurs, it is rather a sign of that the researcher(s) have locked themselves in to a certain framework, and certain questions, and therefore are unable to sense anything ”new”.
Yes, a research project has an end – it has a financial start and stop, and it has a pre-planned time period. Researchers can also show signs of fatigue because of the tremendous mental weight interesting empirical material carries with it, and as a consequence the field is fled from. These are practical reasons. Theoretical saturation, so commonly referred to, we don’t believe in it!
We’re reflecting on the book Mining capitalism (University of California Press, 2014) by Stuart Kirsch, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.
We’ve mentioned this book before, but thought we’d dedicate a post on why we see it as relevant and useful to Organizing rocks. First of all, it’s a very encompassing book, targeting the relationship between corporations and their critics, between capitalist modes of production and critics of it, a dialectical relation that “can never be completely resolved; they can only be renegotiated in new forms” (p 3). Kirsch’s main research focus is how corporations “counteract the discourse and strategies of their critics” (p 3), and vice versa, our reading tells us. The book, and the main case in the book, is based on “more than two decades of ethnographic research and participation in the indigenous political movement that challenged the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea” (p 9).
Kirsch states that as the mining industry traditionally hasn’t been involved in consumer politics (not a consumer product), it rather recently has had to engage in public relations (PR) and communication, where the Ok Tedi case constitutes a pioneering case. It’s now common that mining companies have elaborate strategies for targeting their critics and for their need to achieve or keep a social license to operate mines (the quest for legitimacy).
Kirsch outlines two different strategies, the politics of space and the politics of time. The politics of space is used to deal with how indigenous people and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) organize in “transnational action networks” (p 2) and how this enables them to “replicate the geographic distribution of capital by putting pressure on the corporation wherever it operates” (p 3; p 53). Global, boundary-crossing corporations (and their use of the politics of space) are today matched by global, boundary-crossing NGOs. The politics of time is used to deal with “the means by which elites extend their power over the body politic through their control over the social construction of time” (p 191). We think particularly of the sunk costs and inertia permeating mining projects. Once started, they are usually very difficult to challenge; talk about a rock solid path dependency! Or? It’s of course not carved in stone, solids (usually) leak and risk becoming something else (e.g. a mine turns into an environmental problem in the presence and future, a mine turns into a turist attraction, etc.). This makes Kirsch conclude that focusing on the time before a mine is opened is a more hopeful strategy when aiming to prevent environmental harm. This is also a debate that has emerged in Sweden rather recently.
Kirsch’s chapter on “Corporate science” speaks very well to our project. It compares the tobacco, petroleum, pharmaceutical and mining industries in their approach to scientific research. In order to handle corporate critics, PR alone doesn’t seem to get the job done. Corporations also need to enroll science in their quest for legitimacy and continued exploration. Kirsch finds strong similarities among the industries in how they increasingly permeate the directions and contents of university research, enhancing the risk of uncritical science and co-opted scientists. Kirsch even argues that this might be intrinsic to contemporary capitalism. Among the examples he cites to support his analysis, we can also add the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at Nottingham University, UK, being launched with 3,8 million British pounds from the tobacco industry (click here, and see bottom of page 2). This is also an example of how industry increasingly has taken over the promotion of the CSR discourse from their critics, ending up with a weak version of sustainability, at best, often filled with oxymoron’s such as ‘clean coal’ (mentioned by Kirsch) and ‘green pellets’ (iron ore, as in our study).
A highly relevant aspect in Kirsch’s book, for Organizing rocks, is the focus on different power asymmetries. Indigenous people and NGOs are usually not in a position to offer 3,8 million British pounds to ‘independent’ researchers and institutions, or mount an impressive staff of litigators to manage a legal conflict on mining. These are not only asymmetries in financial and legal muscles, but perhaps more importantly in knowledge and in which discourses conflicts are supposedly decided. For example, for indigenous people to use their own discourse on the environment in conflicts with mining corporations runs smack into the rational, scientific discourse and the judicial discourse inherent in court rooms. On power and knowledge, asymmetries on the environmental, social and economic consequences of mining are what seem to motivate Kirsch’s engagement in the Ok Tedi case, working more on the side of the locals, of those affected. Which information did the locals get, which did they not get, and how could they interpret and make sense of it? We see similar asymmetries in the Swedish case, where, for example, neither the municipality of Kiruna or the Sami villages have an expert in geology and is therefore in the hands of the information the mining company, LKAB, gives.
Hovering over the conflicts between corporations and their critics is the role of the state(s), and it’s a complex and complicated ‘body’. The state often have multiple roles as a shareholder/owner, a regulator (also in our Swedish case) and as geopolitically accountable for securing equal opportunities and conditions throughout ‘the whole state territory’. Mining companies also come with promises of economic growth, promises difficult for states to neglect, it seems. Kirsch states that: “the state can be described as riding on the backs of the elephants, on which it depends to run the country (Kirsch 1996). The interests and appetites of the elephants may be placed ahead of the needs of citizens, who only contribute a small share of the country’s budget.” (p 32) With the state actively promoting mining, might also place a wet blanket over other initiatives to develop the particular region, resulting in that “the other sectors of the economy continue to be neglected” (p 33).
Much has been said about the eroding of the state (from the argument that it is a serious problem to that it is simply a wrong assumption), but it is hard to deny the complexities globalization (cf. Jensen & Sandström 2011*) brings with it and its pressure on (the very recent innovation) of the nation state, its governments and state apparatus.
What about the future of so-called more responsible mining, then? Kirsch states that: “More than two decades of research and practical experience in seeking reforms tempers my optimism” (p 221). The responsible mine, according to Kirsch, is like a mythical beast that people have heard about but not seen. Concluding the book, he states that: “The goal of political organizing on these issues is not to stop all new mining permanently but rather to compel the industry to improve its practices by raising international standards; to ensure that these standards are obligatory rather than just voluntary; and to establish fair, effective, and transparent mechanisms for complaint resolution, coupled with the swift application of strong sanctions to ensure compliance.” (p 221)
Reading Kirsch’s book, we also come to think of how most studies on globalization, capitalism, mining and corporations, tend to focus on tensions between a colonizing West/North and a colonized East/South, on a Western mining company in a developing nation (as in Kirsch 2014, Rajak 2014, Welker 2015; Alex Golub, Leviathans at the gold mine, 2014, x-x1, decides on the concept of “Euro-christian”), whereas we try to stay with the enactment of similar processes but in affluent settings, in well-developed nations (Canada and Sweden), and remote areas therein (Saskatchewan and Norrbotten). There are, we notice, similarities between affluent countries and countries that are hard to pin down as ‘states’ (weak states, failed states), but in our study we see emerging and somewhat unique vulnerabilities in so-called developed regions (or Euro-christian). We also argue that labor processes have been neglected in contemporary research. As Kirsch states: “Although labor conflict in the mining industry has not disappeared, its political significance has been greatly diminished” (p 5), based on the argument that worker collectives and unions are weakened and where more neoliberal ideas increasingly permeate the industry. But, we believe, therein lies an important reason to once again focus on labor and power.
These are some of our reflections from Kirsch’s book, but we promise, there are plenty more (on audit culture, freedom and money, the resource curse etc.). It’s a very rich and thought-provoking book.
* Jensen, Tommy and Sandström, Johan (2011) Stakeholder theory and globalization: The challenges of power and responsibility. Organization Studies 32(4), 473-488.