Tactics of Power and Empowerment in Knowledge-Making Infrastructures

By Kirk JalbertManager of Community Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance and Visiting Research Professor, Center for Science, Technology and Society, Drexel University §

Energy extraction has become a topic of contentious debate due to the use of unconventional drilling practices known as hydraulic fracturing—often referred to as “fracking”—to retrieve oil and gas from shale bed formations. Along with thousands of new wells drilled with these techniques over the past decade, comes an expanding infrastructure of pipelines, processing facilities, and other industrial components necessary to deliver hydrocarbon commodities to market. A growing body of research suggests that hydraulic fracturing poses significant environmental and public health risks. In the case of drilling near surface waters, accidents at drilling site, improper waste handling, and underground migration of drilling fluids can threaten drinking water supplies and endanger sensitive ecosystems (Entrekin et al., 2011; Llewellyn et al., 2015; Warner et al. 2013; Vidic et al. 2013). These discernible risks have led many to question the safety of hydraulic fracturing and to take action in protecting their communities.

For instance, in the Marcellus Shale, one of the most actively drilled formations located in the Northeast United States, a number of environmental nonprofits, concerned citizen groups, and academic outreach centers established networks of water monitoring programs beginning in 2010 (Jalbert, Kinchy, and Perry, 2014). In doing so, these civil society groups built different kind of infrastructures in response to that of the oil and gas industry; ones that consisted of monitoring equipment, data management tools, training programs, and hundreds of people collecting samples in their watersheds—a hydrological term defined by the US Geological Survey denoting boundaries of a particular waterway (see figure 1, generated as part of the FracTracker Knowing Our Waters project).

volunteer monitored watersheds
Figure 1: Watersheds in the Marcellus Shale monitored by civil society organizations. Darker shading symbolizes a denser number of monitoring sites in that watershed. (http://maps.fractracker.org/latest/?webmap=4ae61ecb0b4645ba9fa531e0890a2f6a)

Infrastructure studies has its roots in fields like science and technology studies (STS), which offered early insights into the construction of large-scale development projects, cooperative work environments, and the ways that people work with complex data systems (Bijker, 2007; Hughes, 1987; Star & Ruhleder, 1994). Ethnographic research has provided a window into how people and things come together to build and change these infrastructures (Anand, 2011; Barnes, 2012; Carse, 2012; Mains, 2012). Meanwhile, other novel scholarship has sought to understand the architectures of “knowledge” infrastructures, where the “internetworks of people, artifacts, and institutions which generate, share, and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds” come together (Edwards et al., 2013, p. 23).

It is from the perspective of “knowledge infrastructures” that I have studied the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community since 2011 in ethnographic engagements and participatory action research. While important aspects of water monitoring infrastructures include the artifacts of technologies, protocols, and data management systems in use, I am particularly interested in what knowledge infrastructures research has to offer in understanding the social arrangements of people and institutions. One quickly finds that these infrastructures are multiple in number and unique in character. The designs of these different infrastructures often reproduce entrenched arrangements of power. However, power relations can also shift when marginalized stakeholders such as nonprofessionals with less expertise, or organizations with fewer resources, use various tactics to reshape infrastructures to their advantage. For those experiencing the impacts of oil and gas development, these acts of resistance are, at their core, driven by a need for empowerment in dealing with real life injustices.

Figure 2: A nonprofessional volunteer monitors watersheds in New York State. Photo by author.

To illustrate these ideas, I point to two unique knowledge infrastructures that formed within the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community. The first was built by a grassroots coalition of citizen groups called the NY Water Sentinels who monitor in Southern Tier counties of New York State. The NY Water Sentinels has no paid staff or facilities and runs on an annual budget of roughly $20,000. Volunteer committees meet weekly to discuss testing methodologies, equipment maintenance, and to manage data and finances.

This governing system empowered individuals, but these same power-sharing arrangements also made their knowledge infrastructure vulnerable to internal competition for resources. In one instance, this occurred when a number of volunteers decided to veer away from baseline monitoring to also collect samples near landfills accepting waste from drilling sites in Pennsylvania (figure 3). Landfill monitoring quickly became a contentious issue when other groups felt that chasing pollution compromised carefully laid plans for conducting watershed-wide studies. Others were leery of being branded as activists rather than citizen scientists. In the end, landfill monitoring would become part of the NY Water Sentinels monitoring program. Some stakeholders were empowered in this transition, whereas others, having different ideas about how their accumulated expertise and knowledge should be used to influence environmental debates, were arguably disempowered within an infrastructure limited in resources and capacity. As one group leader noted in frustration, “Our group has a history of ‘opposing’ things. Baseline monitoring allowed us to get involved in something that was more objective and positive, to just look at possible violations. Landfill monitoring would bring us back to being a bad-boy watchdog. This is a conversation each group will have to have.”

PA-NY waste map
Figure 3: Sources and destinations of drilling waste from Pennsylvania to New York. (http://maps.fractracker.org/latest/?webmap=8bd41c4a84e446269b8e4b136aa5b633)

A second knowledge infrastructure with unique political dynamics emerged from a project called Three Rivers QUEST (3RQ), which is supported by $1.3 million in private foundation grants. Managed by West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute (WVU WRI), 3RQ consists of three “research partners” at regional universities and 30 affiliated watershed organizations spread throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. One research partner scientist stressed that the program fostered a participatory science with local watershed groups: “with this partnership, we can respond rapidly to help solve local environmental issues in a timely fashion.”

In practice, however, it was the research partners, and their beliefs about how data ought to be used for making scientific claims that dominated 3RQ’s power relations. Watershed groups questioned their commitments to a project that provided little agency to address local environmental concerns. Some withheld their data. These tactics had an interesting effect. Research partners and funders acknowledged the imbalanced politics in 3RQ and ceded some of their control. In addition to modifying their GIS tools to give added credibility to samples collected by nonprofessionals, 3RQ also hired outreach coordinators to work with local groups when using data to advocate for local watershed protections. For instance, one affiliated organization, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) Harry Enstrom Chapter, has for years fought with regulatory officials over suspected contamination events from shale gas wastewater entering abandoned coal mines in southwestern Pennsylvania. WVU WRI assisted the chapter in analyzing their monitoring data in the past. As volunteers continue to use political strategies it seems possible that 3RQ’s coordinators will bring capacity for additional local empowerment in that process.

group meeting
Figure 4: Volunteers with the IWLA review regulatory water quality reports at their monthly meeting. Photo by author.

In sum, the Marcellus Shale water monitoring community emerged in order to deal with the risks introduced by shale oil and gas extraction. Their resulting infrastructures encompass a wide spectrum of technologies, resources, expertise, and objectives. If, as Brian Larkin (2013:329) suggests, “Infrastructures are matter that enable the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things,” then what we find in studying the knowledge work that occurs in the water monitoring community is that infrastructures are subject to vibrant and dynamic social relations, even when seemingly rigid in their intended design and leadership. We also find that infrastructures can be built to give agency to marginalized stakeholders when empowerment is part of their fundamental architecture—in the cases noted above, by democratizing the technologies and currencies of knowledge creation and the ability to make scientific and political claims. Finally, while the examples provided in this blog post offer an overview of how these ideas contribute to field of infrastructure studies write large, I encourage readers to look for my article in a special issue on Knowledge Infrastructures forthcoming in the journal Science & Technology Studies this spring (Jalbert, n.d.).

Works Cited

Anand, Nikhil. (2011). Pressure: The Politechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai. Cultural Anthropology 26 (4), 542–64.
Barnes, J. E. (2012). Pumping possibility: Agricultural expansion through desert reclamation in Egypt. Social Studies of Science, 42(4), 517-538.
Bijker, W. E. (2007). Dikes and dams, thick with politics. Isis98(1), 109-123.
Carse, A. (2012). Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed. Social Studies of Science, 0306312712440166.
Edwards, P. N., Jackson, S. J., Chalmers, M. K., Bowker, G. C., Borgman, C. L., Ribes, D., Burton, M., Calvert, S. (2013). Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research Challenges. Ann Arbor, MI: Deep Blue.
Entrekin, S., Evans-White, M., Johnson, B., & Hagenbuch, E. (2011). Rapid Expansion of Natural Gas Development Poses a Threat to Surface Waters. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 9(9), 503–511.
Hughes, T. P. (1987). The evolution of large technological systems. In The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology edited by Wiebe E Bijker, TP Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, 51–82. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jalbert, K., Kinchy, A. J., & Perry, S. L. (2014). Civil society research and Marcellus Shale natural gas development: results of a survey of volunteer water monitoring organizations. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences4(1), 78-86.
Jalbert, K., (forthcoming). Grassroots Infrastructures for Civil Society Science: A Case Study of the Marcellus Shale Water Monitoring Community. In: Knowledge Infrastructures. Ed. Helena Karasti, Florence Millerand, Christine M. Hine, Geoffrey C. Bowker. Science & Technology Studies.
Larkin, B. (2013). The politics and poetics of infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology42, 327-343.
Llewellyn, G. T., Dorman, F., Westland, J. L., Yoxtheimer, D., Grieve, P., Sowers, T., Humston-Fulmer, E., Brantley, S. L. (2015). Evaluating a groundwater supply contamination incident attributed to Marcellus Shale gas development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20), 201420279.
Mains, D. (2012). Blackouts and progress: privatization, infrastructure, and a developmentalist state in Jimma, Ethiopia. Cultural Anthropology27(1), 3-27.
Star, S. L., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces. Information systems research7(1), 111-134.
Vidic, R. D., Brantley, S. L., Vandenbossche, J. M., Yoxtheimer, D., & Abad, J. D. (2013). Impact of shale gas development on regional water quality. Science340(6134), 1235009.
Warner, N. R., Christie, C. A., Jackson, R. B., & Vengosh, A. (2013). Impacts of shale gas wastewater disposal on water quality in western Pennsylvania. Environmental science & technology47(20), 11849-11857.

Kirk Jalbert obtained a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2015. He is currently the Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement with the FracTracker Alliance in addition to a Visiting Research Professor at the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Drexel University. Dr. Jalbert‘s research seeks to understand the social and political dynamics that make for effective community-based research, and how knowledge emerging from these efforts can build long-term capacity for environmental protection groups that seek to influence regulatory governance. In 2015, he was also appointed to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.