Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Author: Jonathan Tanis (Page 1 of 4)

SfAA Annual Meeting

Please join Culture & Agriculture at the Applied Meetings in always sunny Philadelphia!

Again we are an official co-Sponsor. The deadline for submissions has been extended to October 31. When you submit, you will be able to direct your abstract for review by C&A. Questions?

Please contact Lisa Markowitz, this year’s section program chair. [email protected]

Interview with Thomas Pearson: Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin

This interview is part of CAFE’s new series of interviews with authors of past CAFE articles. By conversing with authors about the ways their article came about, the challenges they faced in the research and/or writing process, and the ways the issue the article addresses has changed or shifted since publication we aim to provide a space for more informal discussion of the issues human/environment scholars face in research and writing while learning about how specific issues have changes in recent years. These first interviews are with authors from our June 2013 special issue on the anthropology of energy, titled Hazards So Grave: Anthropology and Energy.”

This first interview is with Thomas Pearson, an Associate Professor in the Social Sciences Department at University of Wisconsin-Stout, who wrote Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin: Understanding Emerging Conflicts and Community Organizing.”


  1. Can you briefly share your research interests and how this article fits into your broader research agenda as it stands today?

For the past decade, I have been drawn to questions about environmental conflicts and their relationship to shifting meanings of place and democracy, themes I first explored through my doctoral research in Costa Rica, which focused on environmental activism around genetically modified seeds, intellectual property rights, and free trade agreements. When I began researching frac sand mining in Wisconsin, I initially sought to document grassroots organizing in response to a new extractive industry. At the time, it felt tremendously different from my experiences in Costa Rica. Looking back, I’m struck by how themes of activism, place, and democracy have been prominent in both projects.

  1. How did you get interested in this topic?

In 2009 I began teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, located in rural western Wisconsin. During my first couple years I periodically heard about sand mining, but I knew nothing of its connection to hydraulic fracturing. In May 2011, a good friend of mine who lives in Morgantown, WV, sent me a picture of himself and his daughter at a demonstration against fracking. Then that fall, Gasland was screened at my university. I attended out of curiosity and afterwards several community members spoke passionately about frac sand mining and a proposed mining operation in my community. I began attending town meetings, initially as a concerned citizen, and it quickly evolved into a research project lasting nearly five years.

  1. Are you currently working on anything that updates your 2013 article or have you worked on anything since that builds upon this work?

Yes, definitely. In 2013, I was trying mostly to wrap my mind around an unprecedented and explosive issue and contribute an anthropological perspective to the ongoing public discussion. As activism in my community evolved and declined, my ethnographic research broadened to look at how people cope with industrial mining activity near their home, which I talk about in “Frac Sand Mining and the Disruption of Place, Landscape, and Community in Wisconsin,” published in Human Organization. I have also written a book titled When the Hills Are Gone: Frac Sand Mining and the Struggle for Community, due out this November with the University of Minnesota Press.

  1. Your article examines the emergent conflicts surrounding frac sand mining in western Wisconsin. Since the publication of your CAFE article in 2013, have there been any major developments or shifts in frac sand politics in the region or more broadly?

The industry continued to expand rapidly until about 2015. Many towns adopted ordinances asserting local regulatory control and in response the industry has pushed for state preemption of local authority, a phenomenon that has occurred in many states in relation to hydraulic fracturing and other issues. In 2016, the continued decline of oil prices erased demand for Wisconsin frac sand, sending the industry into a tailspin. Many operations stalled or went under. Things are beginning to come back this year, however, as oil prices tic upward and demand grows. After one boom and bust cycle, we appear to be on the cusp of another phase of frac sand mining development.

  1. You explain that one of your central concerns is that “the pace, scale, and powerful interests behind frac sand mining have created a structural imbalance that favors private companies involved in energy and resource extraction at the expense of local communities.” Has the power balance between local communities and private companies shifted at all? If so, how has this affected the negotiations between landowners, corporations, and government officials – and with what result?

In my forthcoming book, I try to show that very complex struggles play out at the local level. In general, towns where residents are organized have been more successful in stopping mining, or at least asserting regulatory control. I also examine, however, how the industry has cultivated sometimes problematic ties with town officials and community leaders, as well as engineering firms, university centers, and law offices. To circumvent local opposition, mining companies have pursued strategies that include everything from lobbying and financial donations to lawsuits and annexation. Changes at the state level are also having a significant impact. Governor Scott Walker has consistently eroded the regulatory capacity of the DNR and the Republican-dominated legislature has moved to reduce local control over land use decisions, though state preemption has been controversial and piecemeal.

  1. In the article conclusion, you make suggestions for future activist efforts around frac sand mining activism in Wisconsin. Have any of these prescriptions been taken up by activists? 

They were not so much “prescriptions” as observations of promising trends. Concerned citizens have definitely rallied around the defense of local control, largely in response to industry lobbying for state preemption. Several groups have also developed ties to the community rights movement, which seeks to move beyond reactionary, single-issue organizing and frames activities such as frac sand mining within a larger critique of corporate power. Local groups such as the Save the Hills Alliance have also broadened their focus, and connections with national anti-fracking, alternative energy, and democracy movements are being made through organizations such as FracTracker Alliance and activities such as the Democracy Convention.

  1. If you could rewrite the article today, is there anything you would change?

The article became a jumping off point for my forthcoming book, which allowed me to delve more deeply into stories about grassroots organizing, conflicts over place identity, the experiences of people whose lives have been upended, the tactics used by mining companies to overcome local opposition, and the frustrations of concerned citizens who try to confront corporate power within local democratic decision-making bodies. I think other stories could be told about this issue, especially stories about the experiences of people who work in the industry and benefit from mining. Their voices and perspectives do appear in the book, but they are not a central focus.


I would like to add some backstory to this article’s appearance in CAFE. The article originated with a 2012 AAA panel organized by Anna Willow and chaired by Jeanne Simonelli, who along with Stephane Paladino encouraged panelists to submit papers to CAFE to be published as editor-reviewed research reports: short pieces that comment on ongoing research and current issues. The idea was to get anthropological analysis, backed by the status of an academic journal, out into the public domain in a timely fashion. I wrote this article with a general audience in mind and sought to minimize the theory sloganeering and nonsensical scholarly dribble that spoils so much of academic anthropology today. According to various metrics, this article is the most impactful academic piece I’ve ever written, circulating widely in western Wisconsin. Despite also being freely available on other websites, it has garnered nearly 2,000 views on, largely from non-academics. (By contrast, an article I published in American Anthropologist in 2013 on my Costa Rica research has achieved a measly 46 views.) That’s not to say academics have ignored my work. According to Google Scholar, it is also my most cited piece, and AnthroSource indicates it is the most cited article in CAFE over the past five years.


Thomas Pearson’s website is Contested Landscapes

Notes from the Field: On the Mentor-Mentee Relationship as Critical Anthropological Praxis

James H. McDonald
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, University of Montevallo, Alabama, United States
[email protected]

As C&A continues to evolve dynamically as an organization within the AAA, we are incredibly privileged as applied anthropologists, educators, and agents of change to be able to help steward future generations as they grow as scholar-practitioners. Indeed, this may be the most critical thing we can do to produce and reproduce the organization with highly talented, innovative, and vibrant new members.

Kathryn Kozaitis (2013, 2000) argues that a critical dimension of an applied anthropology occurs within our roles in the teaching-learning process. She identifies two important dimensions of praxis that occur. First, she notes that the act of teaching and learning in the classroom leads to new form of knowledge as students creatively combine and recombine classroom-based knowledge with their own knowledge and experience. In terms of sheer scale and ability to help students shape and animate their intellectual firepower, our work in classrooms (and beyond) may arguably be our greatest contribution to the field and society in general (Kozaitis 2000). Second, she argues that, all neoliberal effects and implications aside, that deep community engagement forms another dimension of praxis through research, instruction, and service as we partner to promote social justice-oriented initiatives (Kozaitis 2013). Both these dimensions of praxis frame the teaching-learning dynamic as a form of social activism (Koziatis 2000:51).

Read More

Margaret’s Mead – a zine by Culture & Agriculture & friends

Check out our new zine!  Inspired by ethnographic work on mead circle gatherings in Southern Appalachia, the contributing artists and authors explore the intersection of fermentation practices, landscape engagement and political activism.

Feel free to print, photocopy or e-mail it widely and excessively!

Download Links

For electronic viewing

For printing – with pages re-ordered to print as a booklet – make sure to use “duplex” (printing on both front and back) printer settings, with two pages on each side (four pages total on each sheet of paper)

For more information, check out the mead zine page.

Notes from the Field

For the 2017-2018 academic year, C&A are proud to be revamping and relaunching the “Notes from the Field” section. The series of articles will be published on the C&A website and in our Section News for the AAA online AnthroNews column and it will be included in the AAA News weekly emails sent out by the Association. The column is a great forum for C&A members to share thoughts and test drive ideas on fieldwork-related topics through more accessible writing aimed at a wider audience. Contributions are welcome from all C&A members and should be 800-1,200 words long. We encourage accessible reflections on one of the following themes:

– The joys of fieldwork
– New (or old) methods that may be particularly relevant to research that is at times literally in a field
– The non-visual sensorium of fieldwork–i.e., the sounds, smells, and tastes of research
– Ethnography as a unique mode of knowledge production
– Ethical dilemmas and how you navigated them in or after the field
– Please also feel free to suggest your own theme–and perhaps some other contributors!

If you are interested in submitting a contribution, please email [email protected] with “Notes from the Field” in the subject line and our editors will be in touch with more details.

Read the latest issue for free!

Following up on the release of our latest issue of the CAFE journal, Culture & Agriculture is happy to announce that it will be available free to all for the next 2-3 months.

Tell your friends!

We are thrilled to share with you the newest issue of Culture, Agriculture, Food, & Environment (CAFE) (vol. 39, no. 1).
This issue features five original research articles, two research reports, and two book reviews:

Actor Networks, Celebrity Farmers, Identity Performance, and Super Star Crops
// Brandi Janssen and Stephanie Paladino

Anthropologists are well aware of the blurred boundaries between what is local and global and the complex ways that identity, performance, knowledge, and practice intersect to inform both angles of view. These relationships are particularly evident in networks and systems of agriculture and food production. This issue of CAFE considers how locals respond to, are affected by, and empower themselves in relation to global markets and international development initiatives through their identities, relationships with the plants they cultivate, and the realities of climate change, labor needs, and social and economic inequality.

The Journey of an Ancestral Seed: The Case of the Lupino Paisano Food Network in Cotopaxi, Ecuador
//Alexandra Martínez‐Flores, Guido Ruivenkamp and Joost Jongerden

Race, Status, and Biodiversity: The Social Climbing of Quinoa
// Deborah Andrews

“Show Farmers”: Transformation and Performance in Telangana, India
// Andrew Flachs

Losing Labor: Coffee, Migration, and Economic Change in Veracruz, Mexico
// David Griffith, Patricia Zamudio Grave, Rosalba Cortés Viveros, Jerónimo Cabrera Cabrera

The Fate of an Old Water System in the New Era of Climate Change and Market Imperatives in Southwest China
// Ann Maxwell Hill and Kelin Zhuang

Research Reports
A Typology for Investigating the Effects of Sturgeon Aquaculture on Conservation Goals
// Richard Apostle

The Story of Tapyo: The Alkaline Salt Substitute of the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, India
// Rashmirekha Sarma

Book Reviews
Aesop’s Anthropology: A Multispecies Approach
// Reviewed by Deborah Andrews

Cultural Heritage and the Challenge of Sustainability
// Reviewed by Murray J. Leaf

Weekly Gleaning 6/2: Rational Agriculture

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture.

In 1998 Alfred Gell gave his opinion on what anthropology does best:

Anthropology is, to put it bluntly, considered good at provided close-grained analysis of apparently irrational behavior, performances, utterances, etc

Some have questioned farmer support for Donald Trump as such “apparently irrational” behavior, particularly in light of proposed budget cuts to the USDA, potential loss of agricultural labor and antagonism towards climate change measures. There is a certain smugness here, that these irrational people are getting what they deserve for making such an obviously wrong decision, against their own self-interest. Perhaps we need more close-grained analysis from anthropologists doing what they “do best”.

Since almost all behavior is, from somebody’s point of view, ‘apparently irrational’ anthropology has, possibly, a secure future

Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue defends the re-organization (read: demotion?) of rural development within the USDA and the budget proposal

The National Sustainable Agriculture weighs in on the budget and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

A new documentary film from FarmAid unravels the 80s farm crisis

Remembering Sydney Mintz

Cacao ceremonies in San Francisco

Exploring the Plantationocene in Malaysia and Indonesia

Weekly Gleaning 5/19: Rural America is a colony

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week – Wendell Berry, autonomous barley and shifts in the USDA.

“Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy,” Wendell Berry writes in his response to an essay that forwards Joan Didion’s new South and West. Berry defends Rural America against those who have been explaining rural political inclinations as primarily a product of nostalgia.

The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price.

Maybe the colonial narrative is as guilty of reductionism as the nostalgia narrative – but at least it moves the conversation away from a weakness of rural character to the demonstrable effects of economic policies and practices.

“My goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world.” New secretary of ag Sonny Perdue creates a new undersecretary position for agricultural trade, in effect displacing rural development to a lower priority.

Autonomous barley planting, cultivation and harvesting.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture safe, for now, by virtue of a governor’s veto.

Colony collapse of honeybees is all over the news, but even more worrying are indications that total insect biomass has also been falling at alarming rates.

New research on the role of unconscious selection in the first human crop domestications.

The world’s largest indoor farm under construction in Camden, New Jersey.

Listen to a podcast on ginkgo-human entanglement throughout history.

Weekly Gleaning 5/4: The meaning of work

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. 

Food workers rally on May Day

The latest episode of the Our Land short films features farms of the Catholic Workers Alliance

The Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog makes a good point about word choice

UK food systems post-Brexit

New article about wild rice and Ojibwe food sovereignty

Trailer for Golden Genes: The Movie, about gene and seed banks – “What does it mean to be part of nature in the age of the genome?”

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