“Who [from the company] governs you?”, the middle manager asks. “Nobody”, one of us answers.
This conversation took place in a coffee room inside the gates of LKAB and the meeting was coincidental. The answer to the question was appearingly very provocative, received by a person who took very seriously the importance of line, hierarchy and control. Albeit differently put, we’ve received this question before, but we have then, to the best of our abilities, explained our project (purpose, method, the ethical guidelines, types of questions etc.) and then the response in all cases – up until now – has always been: “Ok. Then I know. Let’s go. I’ll talk to you.” We believe these persons saw us as serious scholars.
This conversation was different. The person reported it (us!) to management and we later received an email from a manager on a higher level. We answered and later received another email, but from a manager on an even higher level (top level). This resulted in an exchange of emails and a conclusion from the top manager that our project is not of interest to LKAB and that the company therefore withdraws its participation in the project.
Of course, we must respect this. Our project is not about delivering results so as to increase the company’s efficiency, productivity and/or profitability. Times are also hard now at LKAB, given the pressure to cut costs to adjust to a lower iron ore price, so spending time talking to us and other outsiders might be better spent dealing with more operational issues. But, we were still a bit surprised: the company has never participated in the project in the first place so how can it withdraw? Regardless, we couldn’t help to think: is this the end of the road for the project when it comes to getting inside the gates?
Importantly, in this conversation we were also confronted with a requirement from the company to control our research (for example, to see our material before publishing), but we carefully stated that there is no such right and that this would also imply revealing interviews with different individuals, which would be a very strong violation of the ethical guidelines (from the Swedish Research Council/Vetenskapsrådet). Some interviewees are open with who they are, but it is still a matter between us and them what is revealed, what is published.
In our last email we explained again that we are social science researchers doing basic (not applied) research about labour processes and power relations, and that neither top management, owners or union representatives can or should control our research. This said, we strongly emphasized that our door is always open to ‘the company’ (from our view, though, this mail conversation is with one top manager, claiming to represent the whole company, with one individual) and to anyone who is interested in our project. In the case of the top management of the company, we absolutely hope that we’ll have a dialogue further on (it should be said that we’ve already interviewed a member of the company’s board and the approach from the chairman of LKAB is that they must meet researchers).
In the best of all worlds, everybody shares the same fascination for the very complex labour processes in modern underground mines as we do, but we would be naive to assume this in all cases. The downside for us here, however, is that we might miss out on certain and perhaps important perspectives. This is a loss for us and for all interested in the topics of our project.
As a post script, in the final paragraph in the last email there was a general advice from the manager: “I recommend you to secure a formal approval from the top management before you start to conduct your study”. This advice, from our point of view, is quite upsetting, but also revealing. It lays bare the inherent tension between basic research and societal stakeholders’ attempt at defining the purpose, usefulness, or even utility, of research. To paraphrase Michel Foucault: “basic research needs to be defended”, or perhaps Zygmunt Bauman: “social science is under siege”.