A lot of the work that I do falls into the interdisciplinary field called ‘Science & Technology Studies’, which involves studying how technology and scientific expertise both shapes and is shaped by society and space.
Over the summer, I attended the meetings of the Society for Social Studies of Science and the European Association for the Study of Science & Technology in Barcelona. Work in Science & Technology Studies often crosscuts the concerns of human geographers, geologists, and even engineers. A good example of this kind of work at the Barcelona conference comes from Jessica Smith, an anthropologist at the Colorado School of Mines. Smith has examined how geologists and mine engineers adjust when they move away from applying their expertise to the ‘underground’ aspects of mining, and work with other experts in community relations departments that deal with ‘overground’ social and spatial issues, such as deciding where to site a mine or a drilling pad.
My own work also involves studying how geologists and engineers (and other experts like lawyers and financial analysts) shape the social world. At Barcelona, I presented on a track called ‘Turning Things into Assets’. In my paper, I tried to show how geological knowledge about a mineral deposit gets turned into something that people want to invest in, based on the belief it will produce revenue in the future. While a big part of mine valuation depends on geological information about resources and reserves, the value of a mine also depends on how confident investors feel they can be that they will receive profits from it in the future.
In calculating this confidence, a particular kind of geographical knowledge comes in to play. The ‘country risk’ or ‘political risk’ industry, ‘brandishing colour-coded maps and complex scoring systems,’ advises investors on the likely future for the mining industry in a given country, and their assessments and projects can directly affect the value placed on a mine. In effect, prices are put on places according to how national or regional politics and social organization is perceived.
As the human geographer James Sidaway and his colleagues recently observed, significant political events often trigger a ‘scramble for regional knowledge and expertise’, and have done since at least the days of British Empire. But the kind of expertise desired differs according to how area studies is pursued, who funds it, and where the research is done. In my current work, I’m interested in understanding how political risk analysts construct knowledge about different geographical areas for their private-sector clients, how their approaches to geographical knowledge differ from previous versions of ‘area studies’, and how this knowledge informs the search for new resource frontiers
– Paul Gilbert has recently joined the School of Environment and Technology as a Lecturer in Human Geography, having previously worked in anthropology and development studies departments.