Engineering and the Politics of Commensuration in the Mining and Petroleum Industries

Jessica M. Smith, Nicole M. Smith


Engineers and applied scientists form the backbone of the mining and petroleum industries, yet rarely figure in social science accounts of natural resource extraction. This article begins to fill that gap by ethnographically exploring how community conflicts have prompted engineers and applied scientists working in these industries to reconsider the relationship between the surface and subsurface dimensions of their work. To make social concerns on the surface matter to how drilling and extraction would happen, they tried to make these two domains legible to one another. Using mapping and modeling, they created new techniques for making “social” concerns visible and actionable by field operators, even as they expressed reservations about unduly flattening the inherent complexity of human thought, action, and emotion in the process. While these practices opened space for other engineers and applied scientists to incorporate the concerns of nearby residents into their plans and practices, they also raised questions about the appropriateness of commensuration, or the process of translation through which things and values are made comparable.


mining; fracking; engineers; controversies; corporate social responsibility

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Copyright (c) 2018 Jessica M. Smith, Nicole M. Smith

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