Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Mining

By A. Bernard Knapp; Vincent C. Pigott et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 18

Mining communities, chaînes opératoiresand sociotechnical systems

Bryan Pfaffenberger

Is the term ‘mining community’ an oxymoron? Any meaningful discussion must begin by challenging the myth of the isolated ‘mining camp,’ in which are found—putatively—the rude cabins and tents of temporary residents, exclusively male. In place of community, or so goes this myth, there is only an aggregate of adventurous, violent men, united only by greed and the pursuit of some valuable metal. Their society, if it can be so dignified by the use of that term, is controlled and shaped by its extreme dependence on resource extraction; if the resource disappears, what passes for community also disappears. To one rather unsympathetic observer, mining and its social relations more closely resemble an ‘addictive disorder’ than a normal human community (Freudenberg 1991).

I hope the chapters in this volume put this stereotype to rest, once and for all. As Lawrence (this volume, Chapter 3) convincingly argues, this pejorative view of mining communities is partly a product of the fetishized scholarly fixation on ‘technology and machines,’ to the exclusion of an interest in the social dimensions of mining communities. Lawrence instead emphasizes the community studies model, which ignores the ‘hard’ dimensions of technology and economics in favor of a sensitive exploration of what were face-to-face communities of human beings. What is emerging, thanks to the work of scholars working in this tradition, is a richer view of mining communities, in which women and complex patterns of ethnic cooperation and competition play key roles. In this commentary, which focuses on the social rather than the archaeological dimensions of mining communities, I should like to go a bit further and ask just how this very valuable contribution could be reintegrated with a renewed focus on technology, one that is enriched by some very important advances that have been made in the scholarly understanding of technology. I shall argue that just as a fixation on technology and machines obscures the human and social dimensions of mining communities, so too does a sharp distinction between technology and society obscure some of the factors that give mining communities their distinctive dynamics.

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