Exceptional Geologies as Models for Life in Oklahoma’s “Fracking-Scenes”

Centennial Park, Cushing, OK. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Lara Rodriguez, George Washington University §

Centennial Park, Cushing, OK. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: In Oklahoma, the most unprecedented surge in seismic activity in human history has coincided with the proliferation of “fracking,” catalyzing heated public debates and geoscientific excitement about these striking changes. This paper explores how subsurface geoscience is emerging as a site for cultural and political formation and contestation through the intertwined projects of geoscientists, activists and indigenous leaders in Oklahoma. All these projects rest on a reordering of relations that are social, symbolic, and geological—where cosmic dust, strange rocks, and hidden faults are interwoven into particular place-based representations of people and nature. Arguing against the ontological and epistemic stability of geoscientific materials, spaces, and tools, the paper shed lights on the leakages between geoscience and ways of knowing and being in place. Drawing on 24 months of ethnographic research among geoscientists, resident-activists, interviews with tribal leaders, and documentation of government administrative proceedings, I show how local cultural contexts affect the scope, imaginaries, and generative potential of geoscience by elucidating the relationship between geoscience and cultural politics of place.


Geoscientists who recast Oklahoma as a place of exceptional geological activity and themselves as agents of cultural renewal; activists who mobilize their own geoscience to confront a “frontier mentality;” and tribal leaders who try reformulating subsurface geoscience as part of renewed claims for sovereignty over their lands. These are all knowledge projects emerging amidst public debates over the altered landscapes left behind by Oklahoma’s “fracking boom,” such as the state’s transformation into one of the most seismically active places in the US despite its negligible seismic history. These projects are inherently “unfinished” (Biehl and Locke 2017). They represent instances where groups encounter Earth’s materials and processes in new ways, through new demands, and through particular representations of people and nature.

Strung together, these snapshots tell a story of how emerging ways of knowing and relating at the intersections of geoscience, geological matter, and cultural politics of place are challenging longstanding distinctions between the objects of concern in geological science and those in everyday political struggles.

In this paper, I argue that subsurface geoscience is newly emerging as a site of cultural and political formation and contestation, where “expert” and “lay” groups alike grapple with and even redefine how they understand themselves and the places they dwell in.

Geoscientists have largely flown under the radar of ethnographic attention. In recent years, however, some scholars have been reexamining the role of Geoscience—the field—in the making of social differences and political power. Most have tracked the lasting, often pernicious impacts of geological expertise in the Global South or among subaltern groups that practice non-Western forms of geological knowledge. Still, in the “Wealthy North” the field of geoscience has appeared as a basis for political rationality, constructions of nature, and as an ally of liberal progressive politics. But in much work geoscientific knowledge production has often appeared as monolithic, exogenous to local non-scientific cultures, and even frictionless.

Geoscientists explore and collect materials in a potential scientific-drilling site. Photo by author.

As I followed the making of geological knowledge and social relations with these contested landscapes in Oklahoma, a different picture emerged. Here, geoscientific claims bled into public ones, generating “facts” without a clear origin. In other instances, the political nature of rocks and other geological matter came into view, suddenly threatening both scientists’ plans and activists’ faith in geoscientific facts as a source of liberation. All the while, indigenous environmental leaders reconciled intimate ways of relating to Earth with political demands to speak geoscience’s idiom by building their own Native geoscience. In the process, I became attentive to how ideas of Oklahoma, as a physical, imagined, and experienced place, became newly salient and challenged through these projects. At times, Oklahoma seemed to be an endless scientific frontier, but at others it was too steeped in a culture that hindered the advance of geoscience.

By underscoring the instability and friction shaping geoscientific production and how disparate actors have redefined the objects and mission of geoscience, I refocus attention on the leakages between geoscience and cultural politics of place. Instead of assuming the ontological and epistemic stability of geoscientific materials, spaces, processes, and tools, I seek to shed light on the moving, contingent nature of social knowledge making in and through geoscience. This perspective is also helpful for avoiding normative or over-deterministic framings of particular forms of practice.

Oklahoma’s “iconic” red soil in the Anadarko Basin, western Oklahoma. Photo by author.

Drawing on 24 months of ethnographic research among geoscientists, resident-activists, interviews with tribal leaders, and documentation of government administrative proceedings, I show how local cultural contexts affect the scope, imaginaries, and generative potential of geoscience by elucidating the relationship between geoscience and cultural politics of place.

This essay forms parts of a larger project underway. Chronicling how forms of environmental action have taken shape in reaction to the increase in seismicity related to fracking in Oklahoma in tandem with the emergence of a new field of expertise in subsurface geoscience—“induced seismology”—my dissertation examines the social construction of subsurface environments. In relation to the dissertation, this paper aims at defining a moment when the Earth’s subsurface is emerging as a liminal space through the interconnected practices of geoscientists, activists and indigenous leaders as they make and remake subsurface geoscience to propose alternative models of human-Earth relations.


Works Cited

Biehl, João, and Peter Locke. 2017. Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lara Rodriguez is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the George Washington University. Her current research focuses on public-technical debates over the socioenvironmental impacts of fracking in Oklahoma, where she explores the role of subsurface geoscience in social struggles to redefine the legacies and futures of energy extraction. Her research has been supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the U.S. Geological Survey, and The George Washington University. In the past, she has examined the politics of ‘undocumented’ labor activism in the New York City’s restaurant industry, and “post-neoliberal” science and technology reforms in the Ecuadorian Andes.


This post is part of our series, 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.