Kiruna Luleå Storyteller

Storyteller #43 – building from-within

We’re making the last adjustments to the book about Kiruna and the mine (in Swedish) before sending it to potential publishers. In a chapter about broken memories we felt compelled to return to a conversation we had with a man who was born and raised in Kiruna, who worked with the mine for close to ten years, but now lives in Luleå.

In Kiruna, we often heard that many of those reacting strongly to the urban transformation did not live in Kiruna anymore, but had spent their adolescence in the town before moving south. This man is an example. He follows every move in the town and: “Every time [they make a move] I feel affected. In my heart I live in Kiruna, although I’ve lived in Luleå for 32 years. … I feel no belonging to Luleå Hockey. … When someone devalues Malmfälten, I react. There is no understanding of how it all hangs together, about the ore that comes down to Luleå [and the steel plant] which gives the waste heat [to heat houses in Luleå]”.

We feel this man never left Kiruna. Reflecting on the transformations since the 1980s he talks about how the community has been good at building from-within, with culture and sports, a lot of associations, and then managed to combine this through architecture in the built environment. Together, this created a strong sense of belonging and pride. “Nowadays”, he says, “I think the dimensions are wrong, with the roads and…, too forceful, they overdo it, there is no instinctive feel to it. Everything that is built is to an extent built without feeling.”


Mining and Death

Death is always present, explicitly so for people in war zones, civic unrest, starvation etc. How about death and work? For undertakers and professionals in palliative care, for example, death is highly present, but for most of us at work, the presence of death is more shady. It might be in the back of our minds, in a story over-heard in the coffee room, in an e-mail from the boss that a colleague we didn’t know has passed away. How is death present for mine workers?

We might say Death is lurking and occasionally pays a visit. Death tolls are very low in the Kiruna mine (the latest lethal incident in 2008, if we recall correctly) and there’s been real improvements over the years, but some parts of some jobs are still very risky. Many of those we speak with have stories to tell about accidents and incidents, sometimes how they or a colleague escaped death. They have mental, and some also physical, scars.

Analyzing this a bit ‘on the fly’, mining and death are salient through:

  • Rituals: saying farewell after a week’s shift by saluting that “we’ve survived yet another week”.
  • Togetherness: saying hi to familiar faces (but not necessarily familiar persons) in town
  • Superstition: there are restless souls “walking in the mine” (ghosts, spirits).
  • Humor: with a twinkle in the eye, “what can we do, we have to go work”.

In hindsight, however, as we’re done collecting empirical material, it occurs to us that during our many conversations with miners we never asked explicitly about death. Why? It also occur to us that it is rather strange that we did not talk to representatives of the Swedish church in Kiruna, as an organization in Kiruna with a significant role and impact, spiritually of course, but also symbolically. Why?

One simple, tentative and without-any-excuses answer is that in our rather open ethnography, nobody pointed us in such a direction.

Art Kiruna LKAB

Not all about mining…

Did you know, it’s not all about mining? It’s also about mushrooms, gardening and art.

* Since the 1980s, in an abandoned part of the mine on level 540, the mushroom shiitake is cultivated. The temperature is very even, no insects, basically a sterlie environment, which make the conditions perfect for the mushrooms.

* There used to be a garden inside the gates where “they grew tomatoes, grapes, melons and other fruits and vegetables that were exotic for the climate. Gardener Einar Eng worked in the garden for 49 years.” (The Book of LKAB, 2015: 155)

* LKAB has Sweden’s largest corporate art collection.

Art Music

The tones and tonnes of Malmfälten

“You are meters, you are tonnes”, sings Johan Airijoki, singer-songwriter from Gällivare, Malmfälten (in Swedish). Among the key performance indicators that miners speaks to us about, we find that those two are rather salient: how many meters advanced as new tunnels are made (drifting) and how many tonnes of ore are loaded on your shift. In short: “You are meters, you are tonnes”.

Kiruna is part of the region called Malmfälten (in direct translation “the fields of ore”), so it is not really a secret what is commonly seen as fueling the region: mining. Another answer, however, might be: art. Whether it is the mining industry, the harshness and striking beauty of the landscape, the long Winters, the heat in the sauna, the never ending nights (and mosquitos) during Summers, the people, or all of the above, this region has over time produced great art and this also drives the region.

Just recently, Kiruna became the place for the new county art hall, previously in Luleå. In Kiruna, the town hall has always also been an impressive exhibition of art for all visitors to see, apparent now as it is being dismantled along with the art collection (which will travel to the new town hall). Previously, we have told about our collaboration with local Kiruna artist Magnus Fredriksson (see our posts from our art exhibitions, of which Magnus has played a key part, click here for his webpage) and how his art (mainly animations) make use of the local culture and landscape. In our project he took some of the metaphors of the mine and the company and translated them into paintings that not only captured the particular metaphor, but also triggered the imagination further. You are meters, you are tonnes, sometimes the workers underground are spoken of as being at ‘the front’. Magnus took the metaphor to a trench in one of the great wars, with warplanes flying above miners drinking coffee. Of course, the great wars are not an unsensitive issue for the company and for Malmfälten. Iron ore was in high demand. In another painting, the metaphor of the company as a Mother was illustrated, with a naked white woman with three pairs of bare breasts, rolling in on a hamburger-bed, breastfeeding a whole choir of people through an arrangement reminding of gear used when milking cows. In a third painting, of the metaphor of the Dream factory, the factory turns zoo-animals into rainbowcolored mince…

It’s like: you had me at ‘Hello’. We cannot stop looking, and thinking.

We are continuously getting to know other local artists. Unsurprisingly, they not only give us a better feel for the place and the people, but they also many times seem more effective then us in ‘capturing’ labour and power-related issues that we see, hear and feel, and tear the few hairs on our heads to digest, understand and express.


Visiting Kiruna again

Its been a while since we were in Kiruna and although in a writing-up phase, Johan went up there earlier this week, meeting with some of those we’ve talked to over the years (and some new ones!) as well as experiencing first hand how the movement of the city centre due to the expanding mine is progressing.

Most of those whom Johan talks to are frustrated over the fact that the new city centre is dismantled while the new one only consists of a new city hall under construction. They’re anxious of the ‘in-between’ period. They share stories of people moving from Kiruna to the coast. On the other hand, there are also positive forces at play. On the day of Johan’s arrival there is a full day seminar with local people from different sectors that aims at triggering constructive processes and here the stories are more positive, more opportunity oriented. On the day, the annual book fair also has its first out of three evenings with nationally and internationally renowned authors, a very impressive event, drawing full house in the big auditorium in Folkets Hus. Kiruna lives.

The city-scape, however, has really changed in a rather short time. Although Johan, as an outsider, is not supposed to have the emotional ties that so many ‘Kirunaites’ have, it still hits him. The iconic clock tower of the city hall where we had our exhibition has been dismantled (re-located to the new city hall, see picture below, part of it stands on the right side) and this single act has a bigger effect on the landscape than can be anticipated. Not to overstate it, but it’s like removing the Eiffel Tower from Paris, at least.

The last of the houses on Ullspiran has been teared down (we’ve been filming the early phases of this processes, posted on the blog) and the Hjalmar Lundbohm house has been re-located (you see the house in its new location at the bottom-left of the picture below).

We hope for one more trip to Kiruna before the project ends at New Year.

Aboriginals Kiruna Storyteller Worker

Storyteller #25 – an indigenous voice

Talking to an indigenous man from one of the Same villages in the Kiruna area, we ask:

In your village, with reindeer herding and such, is it okay to work in the mine?

Yes, it is. It must be up to each one of us because we live in a society that looks the way it does. With the economic values we have, I completely understand a young person growing up with his or her friends and who wants a modern car, a new snow mobile and… things with status. We all slip into it. They work extra in the mine. As for myself, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

Book Kiruna LKAB Luleå Music Narvik Sweden

The Swedish National Treasure

Below is a musicvideo by us (in Swedish) about “The book of LKAB : the national treasure of Sweden”, published by LKAB, the mining company running the Kiruna mine. The book celebrates the first 125 years of mining in Malmfälten and it is available in both English and Swedish. It’s a very informative read, revealing how rich and international the history of mining in the north is. We highly recommend it. But, it is also a book written for the company and the song is based on a more critical reading.

The song is on the Organizing rocks album “Gruvan, makten, samhället” and you can find it on all major digital distributors. It is also available on Youtube. Click here to get it on Spotify.

Book Nature Researcher Review Union Worker

Undermining gender

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).

Kiruna LKAB Management Storyteller Worker

Storyteller #5 – management

This story about management is told by a man who have been working in the mine for a quarter of a century, both under and above ground, previously as a worker, now as a manager.

– I have my own theory: that it’s more trustworthy, for those (workers) who have to change, when a (a leader with experience of working in a mine) comes. ‘He’s one of us, so he knows what it’s all about’. Lately, I’ve learned to listen to those ‘down there’ (as in the hiearchy and as in under ground). Don’t be up here and go down and tell them that ‘now we do it like this’. It’s much better to try to ‘draw the map’, what are our goals, to get them to understand this also, without explicitly telling them (how to do it). Describe the problem, also from their point of view: ‘How shall we do this then?’ Most often, it does not turn out as I would’ve liked to have it, but it gets close enough.

– You are more reliable, or?

– I’ve seen many managers that have entered, having been assigned management roles (while lacking experience), and then they’ve quickly been ‘dribbled’ away by the personnel.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Worker

Storyteller #4 – work and culture

Our storyteller #4 is a man, born and raised in Kiruna, a long-time miner, but who has now left LKAB. Below is a short but rather layered story on work and culture:

– There is a kind of escape tendency at LK(AB), people are curious about trying something new since LK is rather controlled. It’s a big company, there are a lot of meetings, there are unbelievably many protocols, and it shall… There are not many ways to take own decisions and so on, so it can be a bit tiresome to work in such an organization if you want a little more speed and action. But then again, as I use to say, LK is a thousand companies in one.

– At LK?

– Yes, it’s like every work-shift (group) is different from another. Some could be really committed and do a great job whereas the next work-shift could be the opposite. So you could never say that “at LK, it’s like this or that”. And then there are so many different occupations so it’s, LK is very, very broad, if I put it like that, both in terms of commitment and in all other ways. […] I get a little bit irritated with people, back then when I worked at LK, (who said) that “at LK you don’t do anything, you’re just sleeping” and so on. Then I knew how hard I worked. Those I knew worked just as hard too. Then there are also those who do nothing, who really tries to do nothing, puts a lot of energy into doing nothing.

Kiruna LKAB Storyteller Supplier Worker

Storyteller #3 – the dream factory

Our third storyteller is a man, born and raised in Kiruna. He has been working under ground since the 1980s. The story is about leaving, arriving and staying at the dream factory, a k a the mine and LKAB. It comes out of a discussion about a mutual friend of ours leaving LKAB.

– Yes, sure, there are those who have come and gone, and that have left in other directions. I was a bit surprised, I get surprised sometimes when people leave the dream factory, I actually do. With him (the friend) too, I didn’t understand why he left. For him, okay, he didn’t have the world’s most funny job and where he was… But leaving for a private company (LKAB is state-owned)… I have a colleague, my colleague, he has been working for private companies his whole life and then he was employed (here, at LKAB) to some extent with the help of our former-former manager, who was a really good manager. We got, I got him in, I helped out. I mean, LKAB is a little bit like a family company. It’s basically about friends and acquaintances. You get people in. They come from school, people, and ‘This is a son of that person, should we bring him in? You see, I knew since before that he was a fitter (a skilled mechanic), he has been working with machines’. So, anyway, he started and he said: ‘I will not complain the first year, I will not complain at all’. Because complaining, you do it regardless. It might be the pay, it might… But he said that we make really good money on the job that we have. We might get greasy but we make pretty good money. If you’re satisfied in that way, then there might be small things that you get irritated with. It might be small things. There are always that, but in the large picture it felt really good. Sometimes I don’t understand why some people leave for a private firm.

– What does the dream factory mean?

– Yes, LK is, I don’t know if I shall, I think LK is a good employer. I don’t know if I could work somewhere else. I’ve also heard, my colleague tells me that, well, given that he has worked at (a private firm in another industry) and at regular workshops, and he says that there is such a stress compared to at LKAB. LKAB don’t have the same stress. Then again, we experience more stress today compared to before. Had he arrived, lets say, ten years ago, already then it was calmer. It was about that time that it (the stress) started to increase for us, you could say. But it wasn’t the same stress as in town (a way to express working for other organisations then LKAB). In town it’s like, at private firms, it’s like, you have to work, you can’t be sick, you cannot do nothing. That’s why I get surprised when he (our mutual friend) left for a private firm. Then, you’re like, well, if he wants it then let him, but you get really surprised.

Iron Kiruna LKAB Luleå

The way of the iron ore

The theater group Tornedalsteatern/Tornionlaakson teatteri works to enhance the interest for the culture and language (meänkieli) of people living in Torndealen, close to the border between Finland and Sweden. The group is a mix of amateurs and professionals doing very professional productions.

Their latest project is a theater called Malmens väg/Malmin tie/Málmma geaidnu (the way of the ore) and is about the role of the iron ore mines in the north. Organizing rocks is part of the day program in Luleå (August 18) and in Kiruna (August 24), lecturing about the project.

A great way to start the new semester!

Aboriginals Book Nature Researcher Review Stuart

Mining capitalism

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.


Book Researcher Review

Enacting a mining corporation

We’re reflecting on “Enacting the corporation: an American mining firm in post-authoritarian Indonesia” (University of California Press, 2014) by anthropologist Marina Welker.

Although in intervals, we read. We prefer to read books, preferably good books. Not all good books happen to be relevant to Organizing rocks, though, but reading Marina Welker’s book reminded us again that we should start sharing good readings on our blog (a review of Stuart Kirsch’s “Mining capitalism” is on its way), hopefully inspiring others to pick up these books!

Welker focuses on the American company Newmont Mining, at its headquarters in Denver, USA, and at its Batu Hijau Copper and Gold mine in Sumbawa, Indonesia, following social relations and material practices tied to the company’s “ameliorative disciplines” (as CSR and environment). She sets out to “show that people enact corporations in multiple ways, and that these enactments involve struggles over the boundaries, interests, and responsibilities of the corporation” (p 1). We read it as a resistance to static, simplistic and reductionist accounts of corporations’ role and responsibilities. Both radical corporate critics and neoliberals tend to reduce the idea of the corporation to a homo economicus profit machine, but although an idea with some currency on a higher level, in practice, it is very difficult to identify such a pure enactment of the corporation.

For us, as rather eclectic organizational scholars inspired by Erving Goffman, Zygmunt Bauman, John Law, Annemarie Mol (great to see her in Welker’s book), Richard Rorty, Barbara Czarniawska, and many, many others, this is not a novel idea, but that doesn’t mean that our field celebrates complexity, ‘contextuality’, materiality and contradictions! On the contrary, we see Welker’s study as more important than ever given the complexity of the role and responsibilities of the corporation in our ambivalent times. Tracing the corporation across time and space, from Denver to Sumbawa, from the archives to ‘here and now’, through social relations and material practices, Welker shows that “enactments are provisional, context-specific, and variously successful and resonant” (p 6). Albeit with a different phenomena in focus – the labor process – we are trying to do something similar with Organizing rocks.

Particularly interesting is Welker’s discussion on how two main competing and co-existing enactments of the corporation seem to be at work: the patronage model and the sustainable development model. The patronage model is where “the company acts as a surrogate state providing jobs, tangible welfare, and infrastructure to local communities” (p 69), as sitting on a “pot of money”, in our Swedish case a model very much practiced and expected by local people in Kiruna of the owner of the Kiruna mine, LKAB. The sustainable development model is to some extent neoliberal “as it embraces programs that cost less than those of the patronage model and transfers responsibility for community welfare from the company to community members themselves or the state” (p 71), also as a kind of help to self-help, of developing a set of entrepreneurial skills (the role of the state, however, might differ here from the neoliberal model). This model is recognizable in how top management at LKAB enacts the role and responsibility of the corporation, particularly in its treatment of suppliers and in its role in the move of central parts of Kiruna, where they to some extent try to move away from the patronage model.

Echoing what we recognize in our project then is that: “From a cosmopolitan CSR perspective, sustainability occupied the moral high ground; but in the local moral economy, a patronage approach formed a political and practical necessity” (p 102). A bit harshly but very vividly put by a Newmont manager advocating more of a sustainable development model: “After the spaceship landed, everyone wanted to get on it. What they didn’t understand was that it was going to leave and wouldn’t be taking them along.” (p 104) LKAB and the Kiruna mine have a longer history (a marriage) with the town of Kiruna, but dealing with finite resources, there’ll be a day when the spaceship leaves Spaceland.

Reading the book we get several other associations and without spoiling your own reading there are excellent stuff on social distance (leaving HQ in Denver vs. leaving the Newmont’s Townsite in Sumbawa), the diffusion of corporate and capitalistic values (from HQ in Denver, in local ‘entrepreneurial trainings’ in Sumbawa), corporate strategy of transparency (where being transparent backfired on the company), supplier relations (hiring locals, unskilled vs skilled jobs, making the contracting process more competitive and suppliers more ‘individualized’), the complexities of alliances of interest (between company representatives and local community and NGOs), how local communities are affected by a mine (pollution, a gated Townsite), and the complex role of the state (as regulator, business partner, owner, responsible for building infrastructure etc.). The book can also be read with an interest in qualitative and participatory research methodology.

Regarding Welker’s empirical material, she has tremendous access to the mining company, spending six months at Newmont HQ and one and a half year in Sumbawa, inside and outside the gates (this issue is something that has been debated here on the Organizing rocks blog). Welker states that she has “independent funding for my research and no contractual restrictions on what I might publish” (p 7). That sounds almost too good to be true when having access to ‘the corporate inside’, but reading the book, we don’t get the feeling that Welker has had to compromise on her intellectual integrity. She is careful in her account when it comes to individuals, which resonates well with the research ethics guidelines we also follow. Later in the book, however, she states: “I believe they [the managers letting her in] saw the potential for an experiment in enacting Newmont as a transparent corporation” (p 34). So, there might be something here (see also Emily Eaton’s blogpost from February 8, On Cozying up to corporations, and Stuart Kirsch’s response on March 24, Mining capitalism and corporate ethnography), but then again, there’ll always be interests and they always have to be handled. Welker reflects explicitly on this and also seems to have sold the idea of ‘no contractual restrictions’ to Newmont and perhaps other mining companies can pick up on it. We’re still struggling with this issue in the Organizing rocks project. It would be interesting to learn how Newmont’s executives have received this book.

In sum, Welker’s book is s a very impressive and enjoyable read. She is reflexive considering her epistemology, navigates among literary giants and recent research, writes in an accessible style (she’s very much in the text, we love it!), reveals an impressive empirical material, and, most important of all, has an important message about scholars embracing rather than reducing the complexities of how a corporation is enacted and the consequences of this for its role and responsibilities in society. We’re glad she focused on mining!

A final reflection: “If the corporation is multiple, then our analytics must be multiple as well” (p 218), yes, but we read this in a research monograph and although it proves to be a very good injection to our own thinking, what about “multiple” in terms of how research is communicated? When do we get to see the “Enacting the corporation” movie and hear the song?