Anthropology at the Frontiers of Energy Development

Anthropological interest in energy is hardly new, but new technologies have fueled the rapid growth of unconventional oil and gas drilling in many parts of the United States, as well as Australia and Europe, creating new frontiers for energy development that bring many anthropologists into contact with extractive industries for the first time where they live and work. In particular, as more and more places grapple with the costs and benefits of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a growing number of anthropologists are drawing on ethnographic methods to document unconventional energy development and to support the creation of sustainable communities.

In response, a Topical Interest Group called “ExtrAction” was recently formed through the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) to enable networking and collaboration among anthropologists and to support public engagement with energy and natural resource extraction issues. Considering the importance of energy to social life and the urgency of addressing contemporary energy problems, as well as the ongoing public debate around fracking, we see a pressing need for anthropological perspectives and for engaged or applied ethnographic research. In addition to networking, ExtrAction seeks to facilitate rapid, peer reviewed publications, to support research and community action, and to bring social science to bear upon the analysis and decision-making involved in energy development.

ExtrAction traces back to a panel at the 2012 AAA meetings in San Francisco titled “Energy, Environment, Engagement: Anthropological Encounters with Hydraulic Fracking,” organized by Anna Willow and sponsored by the Anthropology and Environment Society. The panel brought together anthropologists working in various places in the United States and Australia and on different dimensions of fracking, including the socio-environmental impacts at drilling sites and the commodity-chain dimensions of energy production, such as the mining of raw materials used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The following spring of 2013, Ashley Collins and I organized a double session titled “Fracking and the Hydrocarbon Commodity Chain” at the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Denver. In addition to traditional paper presentations, the double session featured anthropologists in a roundtable discussion with local community organizers working to ban or regulate fracking in Colorado. Through these conference sessions, we quickly realized the necessity for collaboration, especially to sustain networks that allow us to quickly share information and experiences. Spearheaded by Jeanne Simonelli, the ExtrAction TIG was launched at the 2013 SfAA meeting.

Building upon these efforts, ExtrAction was active at the 2013 AAA Annual Meeting in Chicago, facilitating two sessions and a workshop sponsored by the Culture and Agriculture Section. A roundtable titled “Anthropology, Extractive Industries, and Unconventional Energy” asked anthropologists to reflect on how they engage unconventional energy development as a public issue, raising questions about the multiple and complex roles played by ethnographers working with rural communities, informal activist networks, NGOs, pro-drilling coalitions, and a variety of other groups. Some anthropologists have taken advocacy-oriented positions, actively engaging in contentious issues or working closely with (or as) highly politicized grassroots organizers. Others have sought to remain politically neutral throughout their research, opting to contribute through traditional mechanisms of publication, applied consulting work, or as policy advisors. Regardless of their relationship with various communities, some have seen their research used in unexpected ways, or have been targeted by industry front groups seeking to discredit certain research findings.

The roundtable was followed by a panel titled “Natural Resource Extraction: Focus on Fracking,” which featured papers addressing the role of fracking in stimulating new forms of local or community environmental politics within zones of drilling around the world, from Ohio to Romania. This panel made it clear that anthropologists are increasingly working at the frontiers of energy development in disparate places, engaged in ethnography, for instance, in the heavily fracked communities of rural Pennsylvania, the pro-drilling coalitions of not-yet-drilled New York State, the frac sand mines of Wisconsin, the coal seam gas fields of Australia, and the unregulated “cowboy” state of Wyoming. Along the way, anthropologists are documenting grim environmental health impacts; social upheaval in once quiet rural communities; shrewd tactics employed by oil, gas, and mining companies; hope and despair triggered by boom-and-bust industries; community activism and anti-fracking social movements; and changing conceptions of place, landscape, and natural resources.

While interest in fracking served as the initial impetus for the group, the ExtrAction Topical Interest Group has a broad focus on extractive industries, maintaining a closed email listserv used for information exchange and discussion. In addition to networking and conference sessions, ExtrAction has linked researchers who have collaborated on grant proposals and other publishing endeavors, including an upcoming special issue edited by Anna Willow for the Journal of Political Ecology, and the publication of research reports in Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFÉ) under the editorship of Jeanne Simonelli and Stephanie Paladino. Perhaps more importantly, ExtrAction may also help to bring into focus the various connections that link our thematically and geographically dispersed research sites through a larger system of energy development, a system that is tremendously complex and difficult to grasp in its totality, but which encompasses diverse extractive industries operating at multiple scales and which we encounter at innumerable points of extraction, production, and consumption. Anthropology is uniquely positioned to help illuminate such a dynamic and complex system.

For more information about ExtrAction, or to be added to the email list, please contact Liz Olson ( or Thomas Pearson (

Our column welcomes all materials of interest to C&A members. Please direct inquiries and ideas to Contributing Editors Elizabeth A Olson ( and Greg de St Maurice (

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One Comment

  1. Liz Olson
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The ExtrAction TIG will meet at SfAA on Friday, March 21 from 1:30-2:30 in the Presidential Suite. Join us!!

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