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).

Iron Kiruna LKAB Researcher

Greetings from Kiruna!


When ends don’t meet

Being interested in doing a so-called case study about the Kiruna mine implies drawing boundaries – between different places and times, actions and actors, events and phenomena. Drawing boundaries is done by everybody, but science excels in this practice. Including implies excluding – to decide where to be, when, who to talk to, about what, how to talk, see, smell, hear… Many scholars have noticed that when you are in the field you always seems to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, targeting the wrong issues, asking the wrong questions. But, that is not really a problem. It is more of a basic condition for social science and humanities.

The norm of case study methodology (such as the one advocated by Robert K Yin), based on our experience, does not meet the realized or “lived” case study. The norm tells us that researchers have to decide most things before the study starts, or at the least very early on in the project. Otherwise, the scientific status of the study is jeopardized. This norm casts this project in a methodological shade, as something odd, maybe even strange. But in our view, it is not unscientific! There are other scientific genres or traditions than the normal (post-positivistic) science approach to case study research.

The problem for us in the early phase we’re in now is not about excluding per se, but about making exclusions too fast, decisive and convenient. A point of departure for us is that all empirical settings are messy (or liquid) and what seems stable and robust is often quite unstable and fragile. The problem with inclusion is not per se a problem either. It rather originates from the basic condition that we, as researchers, cannot be everywhere, all the time. From this basic condition, inclusion becomes a problem to us because there are so many interesting things to interfere with!

In our project the issue of inclusion and exclusion are related to the idea of the research project – to study labor processes and power relations in the mining industry. As a guiding principle (or discriminator perhaps) we ask ourselves the following: Okey, this might be interesting, but does it have anything to do with the labor processes and power relations in our cases? We constantly have to remind ourselves about this question! The principle then reads as follow: If we, together with the people we meet and interfere with, manage to establish such a connection, then it is included. If not, it’s out, at least for the time being.

Does this seem vague, messy and complex? We think so. It primarily implies, however, that there are rather big stakes at play when case study researchers make inclusions and exclusions.

Normal case study method are in love with the story about making ends meet, about arriving at a firm conclusion based on a firm methodological starting point. We are in love with the story about when ends don’t meet.

Article Documentary Moviemaking Researcher

Why go on-line?

Why should we as researchers go on-line with this project?


Going on-line:

force us to analyze and tell stories from the start

– force us to visualize research (moving pictures, still pictures, sounds and words)

– trigger our analytical imagination

– could attract other analysts and storytellers that help us advance the project

– could attract possible participants that we normally don’t find

– could make the research process more transparent

– might be an effectful way of communicating research

– might enhance the dialogue between reserach and society


Some challenges going on-line are:

how to tell good stories (escaping academic jargon)

– how to plot and visualize the organizing of rocks with moving pictures, still pictures, sounds and words

how to tell a good story about the research process

– making technology work



Book Researcher

Science is performative

”Science in action” (Latour, 1987) by the French sociologist Bruno Latour is a major inspiration for our study. Basically the message by Latour is that science is performative, not ostensive. Instead of viewing science as merely attempting to describe things, with an objective gaze, from a neutral position, a performative view on science implies that the way scientists develop their theories and assemble their methods change the very thing it attempts to describe. This also applies to other human and nonhuman things that, in the vocabulary of the English sociologist John Law, the scientific study happens to interfere with (Law, 2004). Be it atoms, microbes, plants, or organizing rocks.

science in actionJohn Law

Kiruna Luleå Researcher Sweden

First interview

This afternoon, Johan met with Curt Persson, historian at Luleå University of Technology and chief of Norrbotten county’s museum. Being from Kiruna, having worked in the mine, and thereafter with culture and history predominantly related to Kiruna and the patron Hjalmar Lundbohm, Curt proved to be a rich source of knowledge. More talks to come we hope! He also gave us a copy of his first book about Lundbohm. In Swedish only, but we’ll write about it further on. Click here to get to the book’s homepage.


Let’s go!

FORTE, the Swedish state’s research council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, has awarded us a grant to carry out this project so now it begins. The hard work is in front of us. On the road again!