Theoretical saturation

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!


Kiruna LKAB Management Music

End of the road? Part 4

We’re not allowed anymore to go inside the gates in Kiruna, to meet workers and managers during their work-time. This is the message from both LKAB:s top management and the chairman of the board, a message that is unfortunate for the project but that we, of course, will respect. The song “Outside the Gates” is an emotional response to this decision, but as the first line goes: “This is not an unhappy song!”

Below you find the lyrics and the audio file, but first we briefly summarize the arguments put forth by different parties that led to the decision:

From top management
The project is not sanctioned by LKAB.
The project is not aligned with the company’s goals and strategies.
We have tricked ourselves inside the gates by approaching lower-level managers.

The board of the company
Agrees with top management.
Don’t see why a state-owned company should have any special demands for transparency, for accommodating basic research. On the contrary, we are told that LKAB is just like any other company, competing on the market.

Our view
It’s basic research, which is why we cannot allow it to be controlled by anyone.
We meet, and have responsibility for, individuals; not artificial bodies such as corporations (or other organizations).
We’re not studying the company, but the labor process (that involves several other organizations).
Top management simply don’t like the project.

Click below for the audio file with the song (lyrics below; you might have to reload the page for the file to show):

Outside the gates – again (black piano keys and pouring rain)

Lyrics and music: Tommy Jensen
Piano, keyboards, vocals: Tommy Jensen

Backing vocals: Alica Minina

This is not an unhappy song
Don’t think twice about that
Just because it’s in a minor key
And dressed-up in lo-fi style

It is a realistic song, yet somewhat hard
Hard to beat, hard to accept
But that’s part of the messiness in research

This is not a blame and shame song
Don’t think twice about that
Just because it is about relational breakdown
And oozing of how corporate power interferes

It is a personal song, about failed dialogues
Hard to beat, hard to accept
Human interaction matter

Outside the gates we struggle where to go next
Outside the gates it feels as the project disappeared
Inside our minds we have to adapt
Inside our minds we have to overcome
What has now become a radically different endeavor
Calls for the “science of muddling through”
But what says that this is bad and disappointing?
Maybe there are other gates to be entered

This is not a complaint song
Don’t think twice about that
Just because it is mellow and slow
And sung with a low voice and hunged head

It is a hopeful song, full of promises
Hard to beat, hard to accept
Yet breakdowns
Leads to new questions

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 Nature Researcher Stuart

Mining capitalism and corporate ethnography

Below, please find a text by Stuart Kirsch, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, author of (among many other texts) Mining capitalism (University of California Press, 2014):

“Response to Organizing Rocks blog

Many thanks for engaging with the discussion in Mining Capitalism about corporate ethnography. The question of attachment to the subject or object of scientific research is even broader than our immediate concern: we tend to develop long-standing commitments to that which we study. For example, many of the wildlife biologists I know have gone on to become active conservationists to ensure the survival of the species they study, and archaeologists and historians may see their role as actively preserving the memories of societies and individuals that might otherwise fade from recognition.

But within corporate environments, empathy isn’t the only risk. Corporations possess powerful modes of disciplining employees, which extend to internal reformers and whistle-blowers. Internalizing and domesticating critique is what lets corporations claim that while critics may have been right to target them with environmental criticism in the past, it is no longer necessary to do so as they’ve already taken these messages on board, and consequently have reformed their operations to address concerns about sustainability. Hence the popular corporate oxymorons of “sustainable mining” and “clean coal” promoted by the industry.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that ethnographers are capable of avoiding these forms of soft power entirely, even though we may try to convince ourselves of our independence. An interesting point of comparison is the relationship between the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry. Most doctors and researchers will say that they are not influenced by their financial relationship to ‘Big Pharma’, although they are less confident that the same holds true for their peers. Consequently, there have been significant reforms within the medical establishment to manage these relationships over the past decade, which mandate disclosure and attention to conflicts of interest.

While some of these measures trickle down to the social sciences through various oversight mechanisms, including ethical procedures established by institutional review boards, these policies are established primarily by people in the medical and natural sciences, and therefore may not be sufficient for our needs. Yet social scientists remain confident they can successfully navigate these relationships without any significant impact on their work, much like the majority of physicians prior to these reforms.

One of the ways this affects research on the mining industry is the often negative and sometimes dismissive reaction to social movements and nongovernmental organizations that are critical of industry practices. Close affiliations with mining companies — including driving around in company vehicles, wearing their hardhats, bunking in their facilities, and eating in their mess — may also alienate researchers from these NGOs, who are skeptical of social scientists who appear to have been captured or co-opted by industry. Furthermore, the mining industry has the resources to marshal data that is seen to trump anything produced by their under-resourced critics by virtue of their superior access to data and apparent thoroughness. Ironically, however, external critics tend to have a better track record than the industry in predicting future impacts from mining operations, which tend to be far more optimistic than is warranted.(1)

But I completely agree with the posters that we have to interact with and interview mining company personnel, and understand that getting access to mine sites and environmental data produced by mining companies is an essential part of doing research in this arena, even if this requires us to wear their hats on occasion. My only caveat is that we need to remain vigilant to the risks of cooptation and corporate discipline in these encounters, reservations that we all appear to share.

(1) See, for example, the study by Kuipers and others (2006) that shows how environmental impact assessments conducted by mining companies systematically underestimate their their impact on water quality (Kuipers, J.R., A.S. Maest, K.A. MacHardy, and G. Lawson. 2006. Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines: The Reliability of Predictions in Environmental Impact Statements. Prepared for Earthworks. 195 pp. Available online at:”

The picture heading this blogpost is of Johan and Tommy in the visitors mine in Kiruna, Sweden.

Documentary Iron Kiruna LKAB Luleå Management Moviemaking Researcher Sweden Union Worker

Work and mining

A video interview on work and mining with professor Jan Johansson, Luleå, Sweden (11 minutes):

Documentary LKAB Luleå Moviemaking Researcher Worker

Gender and mining

A video interview on gender and mining with professor Lena Abrahamsson, Luleå, Sweden (11 minutes).

Cameco Canada Emily Researcher Uranium

On Cozying Up to Corporations

Below you’ll find a post from our guestblogger Emily Eaton, Associate Professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Regina, Canada:

“I read with interest the January blog post “Empathizing with the subjects of study” and was reminded of a conversation I had with Johan when he visited the University of Regina. At that time we discussed Organizing Rocks’ relationship to Cameco Corporation, the owner of the uranium mine and mill at the centre of this study. I was happy to hear that the Organizing Rocks project is funded by public money because it has already been well-established that corporate funding of research influences projects to their core, shaping the design, methods, analysis and dissemination of research. In other words, social science research cannot be ‘dis-interested’ when funded by private corporations.

Yet, the Organizing Rocks project has had to engage with Cameco Corporation in order to gain access to the project’s research site, which is a fly-in/fly out mine and mill in northern Saskatchewan where workers stay at gated work camps. Johan disclosed in an email to me that he offered to pay all his expenses associated with travel and room and board, but that the corporation declined and paid for everything. The corporation also helped arrange access to many of the workers that Johan was interested in interviewing.

According to Kirsch (2014) this kind of ethnographic research within the corporation “poses a risk of co-optation, because the tendency of ethnographers to empathize with the subjects of their research may influence their findings or temper their critical perspectives.” Here I side with Johan and Tommy in suggesting that empathizing with research subjects is always a ‘risk’ no matter whether they are those suffering the impacts of extraction or those working within the extractive machine. Empathizing with subjects is not something to be warded against or denied, but rather, a way of getting deep into people’s stories and connecting with them on a human level. I must agree that those working for corporations, whether they are out-of-scope workers, or management are whole human beings with complex relationships to the work they do. In fact, in my experience researching the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan, such workers and management can offer strident critiques of their industries from places of intimate knowledge. Such people ought to be engaged and often need the protection of confidentiality in order to speak their truths to probing outsiders.

The more pertinent question, I think, in relation to the Organizing Rocks research project is what Cameco is getting out of the research and relationship. We have already established that they are not intervening in or influencing the research trajectory, collection of data, etc. In fact, Johan suggested they have been remarkably accommodating in granting access to their personnel and operations. If the corporation is not getting anything tangible out of the research, why would they pay for travel and open themselves up to probing researchers? When corporations offer ‘no strings attached’ funding or perks (such as travel and accommodation) social scientists consider their research conflict of interest-free. Yet corporations still get something out of these relationships. In this case, they strengthen their ties to the University of Saskatchewan and a group of public policy researchers at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy who have significant input into and influence on public debate in Saskatchewan. This is not uncontroversial, many critics are already wary of Cameco’s relationship to the University of Saskatchewan. Furthermore, in its support of the Organizing Rocks project the corporation fosters positive public relations and scores points as a good corporate citizen. All of these soft benefits play into the corporation’s ‘social license to operate’, which is required not just in the northern communities where they extract and mill, but across the province among a population that has seen nuclear energy and the uranium industry as a controversial issue and a site of fractious politics for over 50 years.”

Michal Music Researcher

Opening black boxes

Please find the second comment from guestblogger Michal Zawadzki:

With the popular metaphor developed by Bruno Latour, one could say that neoliberalization of the contemporary academia too often brings down lecture halls in the universities and business schools to the level of ‘black boxes’: discourses closed to criticism, where interpretations of the reality authoritatively imposed by the teacher are reproduced. This situation stays in contradiction to the cultural mission of the university: university is an institution with the potential for opposition, whose mission includes cultural democratization of social life, social solidarity and critical reflexivity. Preparing students for the role of critical citizens is the basic function of higher education. Teaching and learning at a university constitute a border space that should enable students to confront ethically and politically the connecting tissue of experience and thought, theory and praxis, ideas and public life.

This possibility is given by the project “Organizing Rocks” and its use in the classrooms. Both me and my students from the Institute of Culture in Krakow are impressed by the musical layer of this project: the songs composed by Johan and Tommy, and played and sung by Tommy (and a few others) which allow you to understand the twists and turns of management and work processes. Within the blues “Kiruna you maggot” we are able to understand the specificity of life in the Swedish Kiruna and work in the local mine: dangerous mountains, harsh climate, loneliness and hard work are complemented here with the beauty of the aurora and blue lakes. A song “What local people? Us local people” gives us the possibility to empathize with the situation of indigenous people of Kiruna: nomads from the north coping with the problems of globalization and commodification of the local goods. A hard rock track “We the north” – so far my favourite one, especially because of the great repetitive guitar riff – also reveals the mentality of the people from the north: cordial, but aloof inhabitants from the mountains.

“Organizing rocks” is a great resource for the teaching courses in management and gives the possibility to open the “black boxes”. As one of the students attending my bachelor seminar, Monika, observes:

“Organizing Rocks” is the one of the most interesting projects which I have met recently. This is a fantastic way to share scientific research results. Through music, we can reach a wider audience and publicize important aspects of academical issues. Thick volumes written in difficult language discourage, so the rock music is a great alternative. I hope that this project will develop and maybe will be picked up by other scientists. Aspects of quantum mechanics singing with growl in accompaniment of heavy guitars? Why not!”

Aboriginals Cameco Canada Documentary Moviemaking Researcher Saskatoon Uranium

Challenges for the mining industry in Saskatchewan

On his trip to Canada, Johan took the chance of placing professor Greg Poelzer in front of the camera (arranged and managed by Max Poelzer) to talk about the challenges to the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan. The emphasis on capacity building in the north, particularly in aboriginal communities, is strong and not something that we experience back home in the north of Sweden.

Book Documentary Moviemaking

Visual methods

We’ve heard several arguments on how the role of photos and video will increase the views, likes and hits our project gets, if we manage to use such visual methods that is. We understand these arguments even though they are rather instrumental. Feels like we’re on “the market of research projects”, fighting for attention. See us, read and view us, pick us!  But of course, to be honest, see us, read and view us, pick us, are important for this project and to us. Why else be on social media, why bother writing music and lyrics, taking and working with photographs, shooting and editing short movies.

However, visuals contain other effects than instrumental ones, which demand other arguments and views, especially methodological ones. And of course such arguments and views exist from the start of this project (see some of the references at the bottom of this post). One of our favorite sociologists, Zygmunt Bauman, has paid attention to how the increasing production and consumption of images add to the development of a liquid society (the increasing production and consumtion of images Bauman picks up from others’ work – a theme that is rather well explored; it is mainly the connection of this to his analysis of liquidity that is novel). Just think about how visual media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and so on) are changing human relations (swarm like behaviour, coordinated but not integrated, I am seen and therefore i exist), structures (big-brother or weakest link style and function, individual solutions to collective problems is the only offered way to move forward), networks (no stationary panopticon to attack, until further notice relations), time (zero-time in his conceptualization), spatial mobility (deterritoralization), geopolitics and wars, and resource struggles and fights.

Bauman primarily focuses on what happens to human responsibilty and collective political efforts in times of increasing production and consumtion of images, concluding that self-interest and consumerism are on the rise. But he also – as many others as well – concludes that visuals and social media make the heart and belly come into play, that is: all kinds of human emotions ‘outside’ the rational part of the brain. This view is important to us and to this project. Social science is, however, still very much focused on the rational part of the brain, trying in vain to stay unconnected from the heart and the belly. And therefore the discourse is still strong – rational conversations and analytical writing dominate. But visualization is a way of provoking and analytically take into consideration other types of human reactions and sensations.

A few examples suffice perhaps.

House of Science, Luleå, November 4, 2015

After a presentation of our project at the House of Science in Luleå on November 4, in which video interviews from the homepage were shown, a person from the audience concluded that: “The interviews went straight to my belly”. Visual methods, that is, might play an important role when sharing context-sensitive case studies of complex phenomena (such as a labor process in a changing mining industry) in that it also reaches the heart and the belly. What do you feel when seeing the video of Ronja or of Göran (see earlier blogposts)? And what did the video-making do to Ronja’s and Göran’s storytelling about their working-life and life in general?

Visuals also trigger our analytical imagination. Take the pictures below. The first – we think – is raw, almost brutal, like a mutant insect, waiting to attack. This is how we experienced parts of the operations underground and we searched for ways to somehow get a grip on this, through working with this picture, but also through combining still and moving pictures with a song and lyrics (the music video Spaceland).


The second picture aims to give a different view on how we also experienced life underground that is much more characterized by caring, mending, servicing, feminity.


These examples and our brief interpretations are admittely a bit simplified, but hopefully they help revealing how still and moving pictures (with music) can add to the stories we craft about life underground (in this case).

The picture heading this post, by the way, is of the platform where the workers wait for the bus to take them to their workplace before every shift (morning and afternoon).


Bramming, Pia, Hansen Birgitte Gorm, Bojesen, Anders, Gylling Olesen, Kristian (2012) “(Im)perfect pictures: snaplogs in performativity research”. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal 7(1): 54-71.

Green, Nicola (1999) “Disrupting the Field: Virtual Reality Technologies and “Multisited”’ Ethnographic Methods”. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 409-421.

Murthy, Dhiray (2008) “Digital Ethnography: An Examination of the Use of New Technologies for Social Research”. Sociology 42(5): 837–855.

Van Maanen, John (2006) “Ethnography then and now”. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal (1)1: 13-21.

Researcher Sweden

The paradox of the north

On October 24, Johan talked about the paradox of the north at a book and image fair in Luleå. The paradox of the north is basically about the enormous investments made in the north (predominantly in mining and wind power), but where the returns for the rural areas where the mines and wind power parks are located are remarkably scant.

Johan was asked to talk from a researcher’s perspective, and he was joined by author Mikael Niemi from Pajala and journalist Arne Müller from Umeå. Müller had just launched a book with the title “Norrlandsparadoxen” (The paradox of the north), focusing on the mining industry and the wind power industry. Niemi had just lived through the hopes and despairs of Northland Resources’ project in the Kaunisvaara iron ore mine outside Pajala, ending in 2014 with a bankruptcy (total debts of about 14 billion Swedish crowns).


An edited and translated version of what Johan said follows:

The paradox of the north from my perspective, as a social scientist, is that we as researchers do not ask and study certain questions enough, that we are relatively quiet on important and difficult questions, that we rather seem to endorse a one-sided story of how to grow the north than to open for up for basic social science research on what is actually going on up here.

The project ”Organizing rocks” that I, together with Tommy Jensen at Stockholm University, am running is first of all a basic research project. Basic research is motivated by the researcher’s curiosity and interest, and does not have any taker, buyer or customer. It is not controlled by the state or industry’s short-term interests and is in this sense free.

The phenomenon that we are curious of and interested in is how a modern underground mine is organized, with a particular focus on changing power relations in the labour process. The labour process in mining is complex today. It is more blurred, mutable and far reaching compared to before. It therefore has to be followed and we have to be responsive and sensitive to it. We also have to be emphatic towards the people involved in the labour process, if we want to understand it that is. That implies that the methods and theories that we use cannot impose too much order on the phenomenon before the actual study, which again means that we cannot promise any particular solutions to any particular problems. This is part of the charm with basic research.

To let a company, a union, a municipality, an NGO or a university control us and our results will therefore not be the case. People working for such organisations are most likely very valuable to us, that they participate and that we allow them to participate, but not to control us – not in terms of input (research questions, problematization etc.), throughput (how we conduct the empirical study, with whom etc.), and output (expected benefits, or utility, for certain stakeholders etc.).

Basic research also has a value beyond the particular project, which lies in the role of being a critical, independent voice. A social insurance perhaps. The word ’critical’ is important here as it does not mean being ’against’. We have colleagues that are scared to death of being perceived as critical, but for us this is perhaps our most important responsibility: to not buy into poor explanations, to unravel paradoxes and contradictions (such as the paradox of the north), to not reduce complex phenomenon too much, to challenge, to listen to what is not said and not allowed to be said, to listen to who is not talking and not allowed to talk, to those who cannot talk. That is being critical. Not to a priori being against something or someone. It is also a position from which it is possible to discover nuances in what is complex!

That is why it is difficult to a priori know if basic social research on labour processes and changing power relations in underground mines pays off for someone. That is sort of the wrong question, which might come across as rather provoking today as there is a growing pressure on researchers to deliver quick and concrete answers on utilities. These utilities have also been increasingly connected to increasing industrial effectiveness, productivity and profitability, and to a large extent built on viewing the world through the lens of what can be quantified, priced, commercialised, and turned into someone’s property.

As a contrast to basic research, there is applied research. Already from the start, you know what you want to use the results for. There is a strive to find solutions to particular problems. It could be about formulating a new policy, develop a new product, a new way to measure, improve a production process. There is a taker, buyer or customer, someone who controls the results.

Applied research is also very important. There are a lot of concrete problems out there that need to be solved. But applied research should also be critically scrutinised. Whose problems are solved, or should be solved, and based on what premises? Applied research can vary a lot in terms of whose needs and problems it is aimed for. Our impression of mining research is that it largely focuses on increasing the effectiveness, productivity and profitability in the mines of today and in the future. There is a great mobilisation of resources, time, places and people around this.

That this research exist is of course not a problem, but if it dominates, it is a societal problem. It becomes research for certain stakeholders, with certain stakes on their mind, that risk further the power assymetries between different societal actors (and not to forget the muted Nature). Several questions are not asked, several voices are not heard.

For us then, Organizing rocks is first of all a basic research project, aiming to be more inclusive in terms of who, what, why, when, for whom, and by whom, and by posing more open research problems (how is a modern mine organized, where does a mine begin and end).

Other basic research questions relevant to the paradox of the north and to Organizing rocks could be:

– Should we live where we work, besides the mine for example, or should we get used to new times, that we should not expect a society by the mine and that all should live in the cities? The ore flows and we as well? This question should be seen against the growing trend in mines being more short-lived (due to increasing effectivity and productivity), in a growing industry around mounting temporal housing solutions, in the increasing use of different short-term labour contracts, as well as in the light of urbanization. How is this perceived by the people living through these processes and which questions do they ask to the rest of us?

– How can we understand the aboriginals (for example the Same people in Sweden, First nations in Canada, Aboriginees in Australia) who often constitute the strongest opponents to new mines while more of them start working for the mining industry? What can aboriginals with one foot in each camp (so to speak) tell us about their situation and their choices, and which questions do they ask to the rest of us?

– How can persons involved in a labour process organize themselves today, in times of individualization? Is there a common ground, common interests, a common story? Is there a collective political will and capability? Is it even desirable or necessary? Why? According to whom?


Photo by: Samuel Sandström (also the featured image for this post).

LKAB Management Researcher

End of the road? Part 2

“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”.

Management Researcher Worker

End of the road? Part 1

What should be expected from social science researchers, ethics-wise? How much compromising between access and sworn secrecy is appropriate?

In this project we have from the beginning said that we will not begin by approaching any organization, for example LKAB, to ask for any type of permission to conduct our research. Why? We think that it will jeopardize our role as independent researchers and affirm an existing power asymmetry. It is based on concrete experience from previous projects were we’ve had that type of approach. First, negotiate access. Second, do the study. Third, go back and tell management about our findings. This bias wasn’t healthy for knowledge-making about the particular phenomenon or for how we could interact with people (as if we were sent from management). It also complicated writing in terms of empirical restrictions and anonymity (not necessarily persons, but organizations and industries), draining the possibility to consider the particular context in the cases. This is a serious limitation considering that we like to see ourselves as context-sensitive case study researchers.

Not seeking approval from management does not, however, indicate a sloppy or reckless attitude towards the people we study. On the contrary. Studying the ethical guidelines from the Swedish Research Council, the most commonly referred to research ethics standard in Sweden, it seems rather straightforward: protect the individual. The person must be informed about the research (purpose, how to store data etc.), give his or her consent to participate, but can whenever he or she feels like it withdraw from the research, without giving any reason for this. Click here to access the document we use before any interview commences.

So, access, trust and keeping to agreements are at the core in all our previous – and on-going – case studies.

So this regarding individuals, but what is the relation between an organization and research ethics? A short and perhaps brute answer is: none. Of course, we must not act dishonestly, e.g. circulate lies or loose speculations about organizations, but an organization is an artificial corpora, a construction in and through which people act. An organization does not contain any ethical resemblance to humans. Practically, however, organizations matter and sometimes it is impossible to get access to individuals without formal agreements with an organization (in some of our previous projects we’ve signed such agreements), but our view is that it is a scientific slippery slope, trading secrecy for access with an artificial corpora. It’s always possible to meet people outside, in our case, the labour process to talk about the labour process, but at the cost then of losing some context sensitivity. It’s always possible to work the case outside formal organizations and their management if no access is given. Doing this might also arouse some curiosity from them, which hopefully lead to the researchers being invited (what we call an outside-in movement, see “About this project” on this website).

Music Worker

Metal machine emotions

Listen to a song about having feelings for a machine by clicking the bar below:

The lyrics appears at the end of the text below.

What is the greatest divide created by science? One candidate must be the division between body and mind. This division has ever since Rene Descartes marked the superiority of rationality and the inferiority of the body and its related sensations (such as emotions, pleasures, pain). Organization theory is in this sense a typical scientific genre, and therefore we know quite a lot about rationality and deviations from this mindful state (bounded rationality, irrationality). But, less is known about how bodily sensations affect organizational members, especially so regarding how the body enables people to learn how to work and how to cope with work – a key issue in the labor process. The body is here usually slotted to belong to the irrational.

But universities and its all different sub-disciplines are of course not completely empty of bodily research – far from it. In that sense ‘bodily research’ has a scientific backlog that we can learn from. At least we can do this when it comes to how both body and mind matter to a person, or how a person engages body and mind at work – alone or in relations with others. But what happens if we extend the body and mind relation to also include machines? It becomes harder, but not impossible. Concepts such as cyborgs (Donna Haraway), heterogeneous materiality (John Law, Kevin Hetherington, Tommy Jensen) and actants (Bruno Latour and Barbara Czarniawska) have increased our understanding of human-machine interactions, suggesting that it is not obvious that the human has a superior position and is in control of the events. The relation, then, can be symmetrical. It is only in retrospect we know whether humans or machines had agency. Humans don’t always control evens – machines interfere and change peoples’ perceptions and actions, even their world view.

That said, a question still remains: has this kind of research broken the divide between body and mind? Or could it be that the human-machine symmetry is assumed from the point of view of mind and rationality? We think so. A common reading is that machines are inscribed with human scripts (that are rationally designed) and that this may or may not affect other humans – those who engage with the machines – in such a way that their capacity of acting rational is decreased or completely drained. But, of course, the body is assumed to have a role. As, for instance, in a lack of physical strength or stamina, which implies that the human is not capable of handling the machine. But besides physical attributes and limitations, the body appears as defunct of role and function, at least beyond playing an irrational part of a human state of affairs.

As you might guess, we’re moving closer to the labor process in our case, the Kiruna mine. Need it be irrational for a worker to claim having emotions for a machine, such as a truck? It might seem strange, but is it irrational? We think not. The body’s non-physical attributes assist the mind and sometimes govern and control the mind in such a way that is essential for humans in order to be able to cope, learn and thrive in the world of work (philosophers such as Hans Jonas makes a similar claim in relation to our capability of taking moral responsibility).

When we spend several hours underground with a driver, in a heavy truck, we realize how much the body are at work at work and how deeply it affects the worker. Imagine, for instance, spending years in a heavy loaded truck (40 tons) that automatically breaks (geared by the trucks exhaust-system) when riding downhill. The truck pushes the breaks, not the human, and every time the body feels this, the eyes and ears, together with the whole body’s navigation system (including the brain), learns to cope with this (and also sense when it is about to happen). Or when the worker (has to) learn the geometry of the truck, to sense when there is enough space left to continue a turn, in a narrow curve, having another truck passing by the same time, and so on.

So, it does not seem irrational to hear a truck driver saying: “Come on, dear Pearl, you can make it”, followed by a: “You did it, good girl”, when going upwards at 25 degrees (with 40 tons on the flatbed). Or saying that: “See, this truck is actually too new and sophisticated to do [her] duty down here”. Or stroking it gently on it’s side when checking for flat tires. It is hard to claim that this kind of intervention has any effect on the machine, but it surely affects the worker, enabling s/he to work long hours, in narrow tunnels, on slippery roads, in an up-beat tempo (the ore has to be delivered), in a cabin in which every bump, sound, noise, air-pressure (1365 meters below), smell etc., continuously work on both body and mind. But the extension of the body and mind to include machines don’t only apply to workers and the labor process, it also affects us as working researchers. Could we include metal machine emotions and allow ourselves refraining from categorizing it as something irrational, without the bodily experience of riding with a truck for several hours in the mine. Definitely not!

machine emotions
Text, music, song and instruments (including drum programing): Tommy Jensen

I know my pearl
Every sound and every movement
She surprises me
Knocking my bones and shocking my senses

I listen to pearl
She tells me when the wheels loose its grip
When to take a break
When to relax and when to be intense

Metal machine emotions
A strange sensation
Metal machine emotions
Call it the truckin’ effect
Never letting me down
Going upwards at 25°

I love my pearl
Thousands of miles, thousands of thoughts
Twelve gears and tvelwe wheels
Roaring through the darkness

I care for my pearl
Machine against rocks and water
She is too good to be here
A short and brutish life

Metal machine emotions
A strange sensation
Metal machine emotions
Call it the truckin’ effect
Never letting me down
Going upwards at 25°