Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo, and the Oil/tar Sands: Revisiting the Sociology of "Community": Introduction to the Special Issue

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo, and the Oil/tar Sands: Revisiting the Sociology of "Community": Introduction to the Special Issue

Article excerpt

Community, it seems, is a passport to both Arcadia and Utopia. (Schofield 2002)

In the first decade of the 21st century, more than one hundred billion dollars were poured into the business of extracting bitumen at increasingly higher rates from the third largest known deposit of oil and by some estimates the largest industrial mega-program in our planet's history --the Athabasca Oil Sands formation in northeast Alberta. Fort McMurray is the urban service area that sits at the heart of the Florida-sized region under which these deposits lie (for a series of maps, see http:// www.fortmcmurraychamber.ca/faqs.html). It has also become a Canadian and even global household name that conjures the whole of the oil/ tar sands, invoking larger than life scales of work, money, opportunity, destruction, development, environment, "the North." For many who live there it represents home and history, while for many others it represents work-but-not-home. For one network of transnational actors, it invokes a behemoth that must be stopped, or at least slowed down, and for yet another transnational network, it invokes a lucrative if sometimes risky investment opportunity.

It is this particular political and cultural economy that prompts us to take the oil/tar sands region and Fort McMurray (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo), Alberta as a case through which to interrogate the sociology of "community." Indeed, it was just before and during the same period in which the oil/tar sands industry rose to global prominence and infamy that sociology and a related range of social science and humanities disciplines began grappling anew with the meaning and prevalence of "community" in official, popular, and academic discourses. The term was revived for a broad range of scholarly interests, from its significance to new technologies of power, government, and affect (Rose 1999; Lamer 2000; Joseph 2002; Ahmed 2004) to its alleged demise in the face of heightened consumerism and individualism (Putnam 2000; McBride 2005); and from its intensified and restructured geospatial relations with circuits of capital, technology, and people (Gustafson 2006; Graham and Healey 1999) to its political potentialities across the differences of identity implied by these intensified relations (DeFilippis 2004; Etzioni 2007).

Whatever the locus or direction of interest in "community" --whether a nostalgia for what is lost, a suspicion of what is excluded or occluded, or a hope for what could be--one thing is sure: "community acts as a powerful code word in the organization of contemporary society" (Pandey 2006:255). It is thus essential, as Creed (2006:4) has asserted, "to look inside this seemingly transparent term and discover the associations that are, as it were, hidden in plain view." For the pivotal anthology that Creed edited, and for this special issue, discourses and practices of community must be understood alongside shifting relations of state and market, public and private, society and economy. (The original call for papers for this special issue was entitled "Community 'between' State and Market.")

There are, of course, divergent epistemological and disciplinary approaches to assaying these broad dynamics. We could, for example, ask in broad strokes about how shifting political and economic forces entail, produce, and/or take up particular concepts or discourses of community (Rose 1999; Joseph 2002; Watts 2006). From quite a different paradigmatic vantage point we could ask how those shifting forces transform, enhance, squeeze, and/or eviscerate the lived possibilities of community and community well-being (DeFilippis 2004; Putnam 2007; Turner and Brownhill 2004). We think it is important to consider these as cousin paradigms whose relationship is crucial but fraught. Making claims to community depends on some similitude between what is imagined and what is recognized in experience (Amit 2002); community requires conscious symbolic and identity work, but the idea of it can only be achieved if such a community is felt to preexist (Rose 1999:177). …

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