Moving with Energy from Periphery to Center of Society – by Ståle Knudsen

I was asked to talk about my research agenda related to energy issues, especially “what I will or would like to study in the near future” and “what should be studied”. Well, this is easy to answer when it comes to the near future as I am currently leading the project Energethics  which explores how Norwegian energy companies handle Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) when they operate abroad. Much previous research has stressed the way in which CSR has been used as a tool, especially by extractive industries, to bypass the state. Our research asks whether CSR is done differently when the corporations are partly or fully state-owned and embedded in a ‘Nordic model’. While we focus on different kinds of energy production in seven countries, we also research management in Norwegian headquarters as well as at other important sites, such as Statoil’s London office. Ultimately the project addresses issues of globalization and neoliberalization. Our multicited approach to the ‘flow’, negotiation and localization of CSR provides a way to study larger processes comparatively.

Neoliberalization in energy policies

In the longer term I want to explore further the role of neoliberalization in energy policies. I have started to work comparatively on this with a focus on Turkey. Based on my earlier work on fishers, fishery management, introduced species, complemented with current research on energy and irrigation, I have started to sketch a discussion of neo-liberalism’s manifold impacts on the environment in Turkey. Combining ethnographic work with other methods, this study will compare the extent to which neoliberal ideas and practices have been implemented in four different sectors – energy, fisheries, agriculture, and the management of biodiversity. I explore and compare the role of the material, the state, international institutions and popular protests amongst other issues, in creating different dynamics in each field. A preliminary analysis of this material indicates that state policy and neoliberal instruments are deployed differently in the energy sector than in other sectors surveyed. Why? Well, to simplify, because the state has different interests in the different sectors. While fisheries and agriculture no longer play a central role to the Turkish political economy, energy has moved to its core. Energy is considered central to the working of society, and a major concern and focus of state policies. Thus, concurrently, moving the attention of the anthropological gaze to energy also means moving ethnography from the margins to the center of society, from periphery to energy/power. This resonates, of course, with recent work on energy (Mitchell 2011) and makes, in certain respects, anthropology more relevant.

New research agendas

Then, what should we study? I suggest that anthropology should direct more, though not exclusive, attention on:

  • Energy corporations. Little anthropological work has been done inside of energy corporations. I disagree with the claim that since ethnographers have a tendency “to emphasize and identify with their subjects” they risk cooptation when doing fieldwork in corporate offices (Benson and Kirsch 2010:464). I think our methods and critical stance is robust enough to handle that challenge, which – by the way – should not be considered unique to studies of corporations. We should be able to distinguish empathy for informants from sympathy for corporations.
  • State regulatory bodies have central roles in the way production, distribution and consumption of energy are managed in most societies. They are key arenas for implementing policy changes, making it important to explore further the interface between policy, corporations and citizens.
  • Infrastructure has recently attracted (re-)new(ed) interest among anthropologists, and studies emphasize the way in which energy, technology and politics are intertwined. I think, however, time is ripe for comparative studies that explore how different types of energy, with different materialities, engender – or interacts with – certain technologies and polities to produce a range of qualitatively different networks or systems with different potentialities.

Methodological challenges

Research of all of the abovementioned issues comes with methodological challenges. Often, the classical anthropological method of ‘hanging out’ with people over time will not work. This can be because access to corporations or regulatory bodies is difficult due to the organizations’ high degree of concern about managing public knowledge of them, and the anthropologists’ lack of bargaining power in such situations – we do not have much of interest to offer. Usually, the anthropologist will not have been able to delve deep into the life of the corporation before being kicked out: the corporation often has little interest in the anthropologist’s work, and the anthropologist little to offer in return. The ethnographer will often be considered a nuisance.[1] Additionally, the character of the relations we study impels us to work in many sites simultaneously. This involves travels, more semi-structured interviews than participation, non-continuous involvement with our interlocutors, actively create platforms for interaction, mapping infrastructures of extensive geographical extent or opaque character, and being present at or attending activities that involve alternative forms of sociality (social media, websites, documents, skype-meetings). If we bringe our critical sensibilities to these issues while developing new tools and cultivating teamwork, I believe that anthropology can handle these challenges very cautiously, wisely and creatively.

References:

Benson, Peter and Stuart Kirsch (2010) ‘Capitalism and the Politics of resignation’, Current Anthropology 51(4): 459-476.

Mitchell, Timothy (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

[1] Steven Sampson, Department Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.


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