Peter Phillimore, Newcastle University.
What led us nearly twenty years ago (in 2001) to undertake comparative ethnographic fieldwork in two centres renowned as hubs of the European chemical and petrochemical industry – Ludwigshafen in Germany, and Grangemouth in Scotland? What were the conversations and questions which led to this project? Our primary aim was to understand what might be called the ‘risk cultures’ of two places where, on account of the scale and nature of the local industry, risk could be assumed to be at the forefront of people’s consciousness – whether as residents or employees or both.
The work of two theorists of risk provided one impetus for our work: Mary Douglas, and even more importantly Ulrich Beck. Their very different – in key respects antithetical – perspectives on risk shared one crucial insight: that risk was at the time under-appreciated as a defining preoccupation of modernity. Beck had the more emphatic focus on industrial risk and pollution. As is well known, his critics suggested that he overstated both the industrial risks of modernity and the extent of public anxiety about such risks; by contrast, Douglas’s critics argued that she underestimated their importance, and evaded awkward issues of power in relation to governments and the activities of major corporations. Their sweeping claims invited efforts to anchor them in empirical case studies, and ethnography offered the possibility of bringing general arguments down to the level of individual towns or cities, allowing exploration of the complexity of local risk cultures and risk politics. But why choose Ludwigshafen and Grangemouth for such an exploration?
In answer, I digress slightly. Since 1993, some of our team had been researching in Teesside, in northeast England, home to major petrochemical and steel industries. That research had started as an epidemiological investigation of the possible health impacts of industrial air pollution. To put that in a wider context, our work in the 1990s fell between the enormous public concern about the damage to health of the urban smog of mid-century and the much more recent confirmation of air pollution’s considerable effects on health today. In suggesting that there was indeed cause for concern about the health impact of air pollution from Teesside’s industries (Pless-Mulloli et al. 1998), we were not only going against the grain of conventional thinking at that time; we also discovered what a politically sensitive issue that was in Teesside. We were not the first to touch that raw nerve, and following that lead the Teesside research expanded in scope to encompass examination of the politics of pollution (Phillimore & Moffatt 2004) – a move made possible as we were an unusually multi-disciplinary team (for that period) spanning public health, epidemiology and statistics, anthropology, sociology, and geography. The experience of exploring the politics of pollution encouraged some of us to look further afield.
Informed by the literature emerging in response to Beck and Douglas, we got excited at the possibilities offered by a comparative study in Germany and the UK, to examine the scope of conversations going on in two chemical or petrochemical hubs around industrial pollution, risk and safety, especially with Germany then having the strongest popular green movement in Europe. What would be the conversations around pollution, its control, safety and regulatory oversight? And how animated and anxious would these be? We sought centres built around a single industry and a single dominant corporation, and ended up opting for Ludwigshafen, the global HQ of BASF on the River Rhine, and Grangemouth, on the Firth of Forth, dominated at the time by the BP site.
Our plan for a UK researcher to do the fieldwork in Germany and vice versa was a simple shorthand to try and unsettle cultural preconceptions of the kind that Beck was himself assumed by his critics to reflect. As a choice, it was open to criticism, not least as an essentialist ‘solution’ to the very cultural essentialism it sought to escape (that is, a German researcher supposedly representative of a ‘German culture’, and vice versa). But it was intended (and presumably accepted by our funders, who seemed to like the idea) as a signal of our intent to embed a reflexive awareness of potentially differing assumptions in both countries, whether at a regulatory and policy level or the level of everyday popular concerns. Patricia Bell and Achim Schlüter were the researchers appointed. Neither, in the event, was an anthropologist or had a background in ethnography: Patricia was a sociologist, with experience as an interviewer; and Achim came from a background in political economy. Both were to find the experience of fieldwork absorbing and exasperating, as they discovered which doors were easy to push open and which remained hard or impossible. Six papers were published from the two parallel studies.
If, after Beck, prior expectations at least predisposed us to be ready to find evidence of heightened risk awareness in Ludwigshafen, we met instead an unexpectedly confident attitude to risk there, rooted in popular confidence in BASF technology (Phillimore & Bell 2005). BASFlers (the name for BASF employees, current and former, and their families) infused the town with that confidence. And, as we were sometimes reminded, those who were uneasy about the risks of living alongside such a massive chemical complex moved away. One consequence was that BASF faced only a small (though redoubtable) group of local environmental activists, mostly green leftists associated with an almost samizdat publication, Die Nase. Yet it hadn’t been immediately apparent that this would be the direction the findings would point. Patricia Bell had started her fieldwork in the same month as 9/11, and she arrived to find an undercurrent of anxiety as to whether Ludwigshafen could conceivably be an Al-Qaeda target. The knowledge that several of those involved had been living in Germany, and awareness of the consequences for the town of any explosion at BASF, made for a period of acute risk sensitivity. But as that mood dissipated, the old confidence reasserted itself. As if to reinforce such confidence, Patricia Bell often heard a contrast made between the enormous pollution of the past and the relative cleanliness of the present (along the lines of ‘you should have come here years back’) – an almost nostalgic refrain (Phillimore & Bell 2013).
Another thread of the research is worth highlighting also. We were intrigued to examine how Germany’s strong history of environmental regulation worked in Ludwigshafen. How would a corporate giant like BASF get regulated, and what were the challenges the regulatory authorities faced? What emerged was a picture that unsettled those initial ideas about environmental regulation in Germany, for as regulators told Patricia discreetly but repeatedly, regulatory authorities had nowhere near the resources or the specialist expertise to exercise adequate oversight over BASF. In reality, so we were told, there was no effective alternative but to rely on BASF virtually to regulate itself, and indeed the smaller chemical companies in the town also, where BASF had an interest in managing the reputational risk to the town’s emblematic industry of any accidents or disasters (Phillimore et al. 2007).
How deeply ingrained was this confidence in BASF and its technology? The short answer is that it seemed to us it went very deep, even if a pliant local media was unlikely to rock the boat (echoes here of our Teesside experience). Patricia often spoke privately of her frustration at how hard it was to get beyond ubiquitous expressions of confidence and trust, as if there was an unspoken civic hesitancy about admitting to doubts about safety. Even Ludwigshafeners recognised the unusual extent to which they identified with the town’s chemical industry and its major company. Some older residents attributed that to the post-1945 reconstruction of BASF, and Patricia periodically met older interviewees who claimed that BASF owed its modern existence to its workforce (and not, by implication, to its management), epitomised in a crucial moment in 1947 when the workforce (in what was still at that point part of the Nazi-era IG Farben rather than the reconstituted BASF) came out on strike in support of the works director facing trial at Nuremberg for war crimes (Phillimore & Bell 2013). Yet plenty of interviewees also noted that the old consensual identification with BASF as an employer was weakening, and was no longer as strong as it had been. Nonetheless, the very fact that Ludwigshafen remained the global HQ of BASF, and the site remained the largest single-site chemical production facility in the world employing close to 40,000, counted for a lot.
From the outset, Grangemouth presented a very different picture to that of Ludwigshafen. We found a town and a workforce growing increasingly anxious about safety, unsettled by BP’s approach to risk management. A new environmental activism was emerging locally, and the general mood in the town was wary and suspicious, as Achim Schlüter soon found (Schlüter 2004; Schlüter et al. 2004). Luckily for us, he also found that many were willing to speak freely about their concerns. Where once the BP site at Grangemouth had been spoken of as Scotland’s Rotterdam or Kuwait, such hyperbole had long disappeared, summed up in the alliterative phrase ‘from boom town to doom town’. BP’s commitment to the Grangemouth facility was in doubt and cost cutting was seen as jeopardising safety. Both fears were to prove justified in the eyes of many residents and the workforce. Indeed Achim started his fieldwork shortly after a series of major incidents, including a major fire and an explosion on the site. Whereas Patricia found herself delving into the scope and strength of a public discourse of trust in BASF in Ludwigshafen, Achim’s work proved to be an exploration of public distrust (Schlüter & Phillimore 2005). Management and unions were repeatedly at loggerheads. Criticism of BP’s safety culture ran deep, and the then local MP, Michael Connarty, was not afraid to add his voice to these concerns. As local activism around the site emerged for the first time, regulatory authorities found themselves caught between a corporation assuming ‘understanding’ from regulators and a public with a new concern that BP should be held to account. ‘Politically we just cannot roll over and get our tummy tickled by the chemical companies any more’, was the rueful admission of one regulator, acknowledging the cosy connections that were perceived to have gone before.
Whereas in Teesside we encountered a kind of research-fatigue and suspicion that we as researchers were a disruptive presence, we faced no such difficulties in either Grangemouth or Ludwigshafen. Patricia faced some questioning as to whether the research could really be funded by a UK research council: why would they fund a study in Ludwigshafen, and was that a convenient device to disguise industry funding? But that question was posed out of curiosity more than suspicion and disappeared with time. In both places, the two researchers were able to convince key actors that it was crucial to the research to meet and interview as wide a range of people as possible, and that our aim was not only to interview those in positions of responsibility. At the end of the project in 2003, we presented our findings in public meetings in both towns, to extremely knowledgeable audiences curious – and understandably sceptical – as to how effectively we had got under the skin of each place. Could we convince audiences with diverse and divergent standpoints that we had done justice to local complexity, and not misrepresented or caricatured the situation in either town? But in Ludwigshafen we faced a further and equally challenging question: what made us think that Grangemouth, a relatively small facility alongside BASF, might be usefully compared with Ludwigshafen? In an audience that contained managers and union representatives, regulators, local journalists, and some of the town’s environmental activists, there was unanimity that Ludwigshafen could not usefully be compared, and certainly not with Grangemouth. It was essentially incomparable.
Revealing as that insight is, in hindsight I have sometimes reflected that the question struck home in a way that it was hard to anticipate at the time. Of our six subsequent papers, only one in the end was comparative, the one focusing primarily on regulators (Phillimore et al. 2007). Whatever our ambitions, it proved easier to write about the two places separately than to frame fruitful comparative analysis, something that I regret.
Looking back has been revealing in other ways also, especially in relation to the subsequent histories of the two major corporations in these towns. The mood of unease and anger towards BP that Achim found from the start of his research in Grangemouth proved no flash in the pan. BP was shortly to sell off its long-held operation, and within a few years it wasn’t Grangemouth residents and workforce alone who had fundamental questions about BP’s risk procedures and safety track record. BP faced unprecedented political and regulatory scrutiny in the USA, as well as public anger, after two devastating incidents: first at its Texas City refinery after an explosion in 2005; and second in the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. Subsequent official investigations after the Texas City explosion pointed to Grangemouth, and did not mince words in stating that lessons of safety failures there had not been acted upon. If there was a sense of ‘we warned you’ in Grangemouth itself, it seems to have been overtaken by new preoccupations and concerns centred on BP’s successor, Ineos. BASF in Ludwigshafen, by contrast, has not seen its reputation jeopardised in any comparable way: despite fatal explosions on the Ludwigshafen site in recent years (2014 and 2016) it would appear to have retained the prominence, stability and security of reputation that we found nearly twenty years ago.
 My thanks to my former colleagues for their helpful comments on and support of this piece: Patricia Bell, Suzanne Moffatt, Tanja Pless-Mulloli, and Achim Schlüter. Picture by David Brown (Grangemouth, October 2019).
 The research was funded by the UK ESRC and the Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society.
Phillimore P. & Moffatt S. 2004 ‘If We Have Wrong Perceptions of Our Area, We Cannot Be Surprised if Others Do as Well: Representing Risk in Teesside’s Environmental Politics.’ Journal of Risk Research 7: 171-184.
Phillimore P. & Bell P. 2005 ‘Trust and Risk in a German Chemical Town.’ Ethnos 70: 311-334.
Phillimore P., Schlüter A., Pless-Mulloli T. & Bell P. 2007 ‘Residents, Regulators and Risk in Two Industrial Towns’. Environment & Planning C. 25: 73-89.
Phillimore P. & Bell P. 2013 ‘Manufacturing Loss: Nostalgia and Risk in Ludwigshafen’. Focaal 67: 107-120.
Pless-Mulloli T., Phillimore P., Moffatt S., et al. 1998 ‘Lung Cancer, Proximity to Industry and Poverty in North-East England’. Environmental Health Perspectives 106: 189-196.
Schlüter A., Phillimore P. & Moffatt S. 2004 ‘Enough is Enough: Emerging ‘Self-Help’ Environmentalism in a Petrochemical Town.’ Environmental Politics 13: 715-733.
Schlüter A. 2004 ‘Views from a Producer Town’. In Future as Fairness: Ecological Justice and Global Citizenship. A. Haugestad & J. Wulfhorst (eds). Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Schlüter A. & Phillimore P. 2005 ‘Rationalising Risk: Arguing over Safety on the Firth of Forth’. Focaal 46: 79-90.