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STS Underground: Images from an Emerging Subfield

Abby Kinchy and Roopali Phadke

19 February, 2016

When we suggested an open session entitled “STS Underground: Investigating the Technoscientific Worlds of Mining and Subterranean Extraction” for the 2015 4S meetings, we hoped to discover interesting new research on the science, technology, and politics of the subsurface – and we were not disappointed. We received enough abstracts to form two exciting, jam-packed panels, and had to turn several authors away for lack of space. Images from all nine presentations are gathered here to give an impression of the range of places, people, and ideas that were the focus of these thought-provoking papers. Both sessions were well attended – one was standing-room only!

These all seem like good signs that this is an important place to focus our attention. But why should STS scholars concern themselves with mining and underground extraction? Isn’t this already the domain of environmental studies and geography? What can STS contribute to the burgeoning new field of “subsoil” social theory?

“Extracting life: open pit mines on a Mars analog” by Filippo Bertoni, Aarhus University [Photo credit: Filippo Bertoni, 2011]

STS should tackle the subsurface because societies around the world today are grappling with two confounding questions: “Should we dig here?” and “How should we reclaim the surface of this land?” These problems fall into the domain of STS because, as each presentation in the STS Underground sessions demonstrated, deciding where to dig and how to reclaim the surface involves technoscientific processes that remain largely unexamined.

“Making ‘artisanal’ miners, appropriating African mineral expertise” by Robyn d'Avignon, University of Michigan [Photo credit: Robyn d'Avignon, Senegal, 2014.]

“Should we dig here?” is a question that reverberates across every region of the earth (in the Arctic, in the Gulf of Mexico, in shale formations, in aquifers, in uranium deposits, etc.) and even in space, as asteroid mining becomes a real possibility. Answers to this question have tremendous social and ecological significance, and the research presented in the STS Underground sessions demonstrated that, often, deciding where to dig involves unexpected forms of knowledge and expertise. For example, the knowledge of colonial era artisanal African coal miners was “pirated” and used by modern multinational firms operating today. Another paper illuminated how new theories and understandings of microbiology are being borne in toxic tailings ponds.

“What Lies Beneath: The Work of Mineral Reserves Reporting Standards” by Marcus Wallner, Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University [Source: Adapted from CRIRSCO (2013), International Reporting Template for the Public Reporting of Exploration Results, Mineral Resources and Mineral Reserves, p. 6, Figure 1. Available at <>, accessed December 23, 2015.]

The papers also illuminated the many kinds of invisibilities that get produced in the act of digging. In the case of coal seam gas extraction in Australia, there is significant ecological damage to wetlands and rivers that gets “unseen.” Another example from the panel, of urban development in the Bay area atop a Superfund site, explored how removing and relocating contaminated soils essentially erase toxic social relations in one place while creating new body burdens and potential exposures in the communities receiving the soil.  

“The Techno-Politics of the Possible: Horizontal Drilling, Multi-Well Pads, and Siting Conflicts in the Denver-Julesburg Basin” by Adrianne Kroepsch, University of Colorado ‐ Boulder ( [Map credit: Will Rempel]

“How should we reclaim this surface?” is equally embedded with technoscientific questions. Will it be safe to live in a housing development located on a former waste dump? What are the consequences of living in urban neighborhoods that sit atop deep horizontal shale oil and gas wells? Can the lands destroyed by gold mining be transformed back into forest? Answers to these questions are highly contested and constrained by the limits of scientific knowledge and technological design. For instance, a paper about horizontal drilling in Greeley, Colorado demonstrated how roving drill pads migrate across suburban landscapes looking for ideal sites to dig because of the lack of knowledge about the subsoil and a lack of support from local communities.

“Uranium Mining and Socioeconomic Expertise” by Charles de Souza, Virginia Tech [Source: Chmura Economics & Analytics. 2011. The Socioeconomic Impact of Uranium Mining and Milling in the Chatham Labor Shed, Virginia. Richmond, VA & Cleveland, OH.]

STS research is good at shedding light on technoscientific processes like these. But will opening up these black boxes lead to more socially just and ecologically sustainable decisions?  One common thread across the papers in this session was the interest in examining public inquiries, project controversies, and deliberative events as research sites. Authors were particularly interested in thinking about the “morality of mining” in our shared search for development alternatives and alternative voices. Several papers employed the term “technosocial possibilities” as a way of thinking about how we replace a discourse of urgency with one of social responsibility. This allowed us to consider the question of responsibility to whom?  These papers began a conversation about what extractive justice might mean in its fullest sense, a concept that includes connect consumers (of new cities, energy forms and devices) with sites of extraction around the globe.

“Coal Mining and Coal Seam Gas Controversies in Sydney's Drinking Water Catchments” by Sharyn Beverley Cullis, School of Environmental Humanities, University of NSW, Sydney, Australia [Image credit: Sharyn Cullis]


“Mercurial Soils: Shifting Ground and Toil in Peruvian Gold Mines” by Ruth Goldstein, University of California, Berkeley [Photo credit: Edwin Huaman Peña]

“Post-Natural Resource Extraction: The Ecologies and Economies of Superfund Cleanups” by Lindsey L Dillon, UC Davis ( [Photo credit: Lindsey Dillon]

“Energy and Urgency: Temporality in Views on Unconventional Fossil Fuels” by Tristan Partridge, University of California, Santa Barbara; Barbara Herr Harthorn, UC Santa Barbara; Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University; and Merryn Thomas, Cardiff University. [Pictured: UK Petroleum Exploration Development Licenses 2014: issued (yellow), proposed (pink). Map by: M. Thomas. Data sources: UK Department of Energy and Climate Change; EDINA Digimap]

Backchannels / Report-backs

Reports and commentary from meetings, workshops, and seminars of interest to the STS community, with images and other media.