Kiruna Management Storyteller

Storyteller #34 – Kiruna/Sweden/Others?

Another recurrent theme is where the profits from the mining ends up. A common position that we meet is that too little of the surplus is re-invested in the local community and that the owner in the capital Stockholm, the State, grabs too much (and put it to use in the Stockholm area). A manager reflects upon this in a conversation with us:

These urban transformations [of Kiruna and Malmberget] cost a lot of money, which means that a lot of money stays in this region. But then there are those who doesn’t have a full understanding of everything. I mean, a company is owned by someone, and they demand a return on investments, that’s how it is, nothing strange with that. Then you can think about whether or not the state should drain everything out because… But what I’m saying is that it is much better that we, Swedish citizens, receives that money than that a Canadian company filling its pockets, or an Australian company filling its pockets. Isn’t better that we get a subway or some link in Stockholm for that money or if we get a Bothnia-railway [plans for a railway along the coast from Umeå to the border to Finland]?

Book Researcher Review

Spatial divisions of labour

We think that it is always of great interest to read a so-called classic book. Doreen Massey’s book Spatial Divisions of Labour (social structures and the geography of production) is definitely a social science classic and a relevant one for our project (Palgrave, second edition, 1984/1995). In Tommy’s words:

Massey is for me a rather demanding author; not that the language is tricky, nor the analysis exceptionally complicated. The demanding part is that she, quite frankly, writes rather boringly. But this is of course just a shallow complaint from a reader that is too easily bored. From (finally) reading this book, I take away quite a few gems (you have to discover yourself) and a clearer understanding in what way this intellectual person affected the academic discussion and ways in which to understand capital and capital accumulation and how capitalism ‘works’ with geography and how geography affects capitalism. More specific, I also learned more about economic uneven development, conceptualization of place and time, and also gendered spatial division of labour.

My favorite quote from the book is: “The motif of all these arguments, and one which is repeated in various forms throughout this book, is that the ‘the requirements of accumulation do not arrive raw at the factory gate’.” (p. 309)

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.


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).

Iron Kiruna LKAB Music


Iron Kiruna LKAB Narvik Supplier

The red line

LKAB’s core process seems to be taking place below ground (and there are about 500 kilometres roads underground in the Kirunamine) and above ground at the closely related plants. This is what the company refers to as the ”red-line”, basically coinciding with what is happening ”inside the gates”. The control of the red line is crucial as all disruptions to the red line are very costly. But if the labour process is at the centre of analysis and not production per se, where does the red-line really begin and end? Are there any forks in the road that we need to take that deviate from the company’s? We know that the company has an own office in Shanghai, China, in order to be closer to their Chinese suppliers and that the iron ore pellets produced in Kiruna are exported via the harbour in Narvik, Norway (and the trains are runned by the company). Certainly, this must be included in the red line, but we have a strong feeling of still missing out on lot of other relevant labour process paths…