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Description | Engaging Resources
New Anthropological Perspectives on Natural Resource Environments


How are natural resources implicated in social life? This project aims to develop a sophisticated anthropological approach to this question. While anthropologists have long studied natural resource environments, there has been a recent resurgence of such work as a result of various factors. These include a growing public anxiety regarding resource depletion, the rising notoriety of resource-related conflicts and disasters, and the turn to the study of materiality across the social sciences. The field, however, has continued to be characterized by fragmentation. There is a need for a synthetic approach that permits comparison between different types of resources and different modes of engagement with these resources in different places across the globe. In developing this approach we build on research in political ecology, science and technology studies, and human geography, among others, as well as a range of cutting-edge studies produced by anthropologists, some of whom will participate in this project.

We are organizing a colloquium on these issues that will take place April 12-14, 2012 in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. We aim to work towards a new “resource anthropology” not only to advance theory within the discipline, but also to enable anthropologists to engage more effectively in cross-disciplinary scholarly and public debates. This workshop will examine how and why the material world of natural resources comes to matter to farmers, consumers, rebels, activists, miners, government officials, or scientists. Resources do not just exist in nature but are being produced and transformed in manifold ways. We will ask, for instance, how oil is constituted as a highly priced and uniquely “cursed” substance from the moment of seismic research establishing its potential existence to its extraction by an oil multinational to its “bunkering” by rebel groups and final consumption by European consumers. What forms of knowledge and repertoires of meaning are invoked by the multiple actors engaging with this substance on the move?

One of the problems that has received insufficient attention among social scientists to date is posed by the properties and potentialities of natural resources as generic, indistinct substances. The colloquium aims to design a framework with which to study resources as material substances that are quite different from other kinds of commodities. There is a strong need for more work on the question of what makes a substance into a resource in the first place. Is resource-ness inherent, that is, do some substances lend themselves to being resources rather than others because of their specific properties? Or is resourceness always determined by society’s appreciation and evaluation of certain substances? In addition, we will be thinking about the agency that can be attributed to resources in constituting particular kinds of resource environments and in provoking particular kinds of actions. For example, what forms of protest and contestation does oil make possible as it is channeled through pipelines from its locus of production?

The project aims to generate ongoing discussion about an anthropology of natural resources through the Engaging Resources blog. We welcome comments and contributions, reviews of books, articles and exhibits, announcements and write-ups of conferences and workshops.