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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
Veins: Of Copper, Culture and Community from Butte to Chuquicamata.
by Janet L. Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press (1998) 327
Reviewed by Judy Root Aulette, Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
the tale of those other two cities, Janet Finn's book about Butte, Montana
and Chuquicamata, Chile is a complex story with surprising twists in a
long history of wars, revolutions, betrayal and the human spirit. Unlike
Dickens, Finn does not tie up all the loose ends at the conclusion. An
account of real life rather than a novel, the story that unfolds is still
unfinished and has opened up as many questions as it has answered.
started her work with a relatively direct question about how a strike
in the l960s had been experienced by the copper mining community in Butte. The
people she began to interview, however, had difficulty explaining that
event in the l960s without putting it into the historical context of the
Twentieth Century. As Finn began to do documentary research on this
history, she discovered that the story of Butte could not be told without
exploring the 'sister city' of Chuquicamata, Chile. She then traveled
to Chile to investigate the history of that mining town and embarked on
a three-year journey, traveling back and forth between the two sites.
provides an intricate ethnographic description that includes field notes,
interviews, and documents; spans two languages, two nations, and one hundred
years of history; and reports a myriad of voices from dictators to
media people, union leaders, men miners and community women.
to a detailed recounting, Finn has developed a "practice framework"
to encompass these data. This framework, I believe, comes close to
the classic statement by Marx that people make history but they make it
within the confines of the social context in which they find themselves. Finn
takes this idea and shifts it to emphasize human agency. The central
insight of her work is that people make history despite enormous forces
to constrain them. Social institutions like the government and the
economic system, as well as the efforts of their adversaries within systems
of class and gender inequality push to shape and limit the people in her
research. The people, however, also push back.
of Finn's work is organized around the themes of community, class, and
gender. She writes about the construction of community by the conscious
efforts of the Anaconda Company, which was trying to build an "ideal"
settlement (from the point of view of control and profits). The companyâs
efforts, however, exist alongside the construction of community by the
tensions, solidarity and resistance among its inhabitants. In the
case of Chuquicamata, business interests wanted to create a community
divided into two living spaces, one for local workers and one for Yanqui
supervisors. The company also wanted to establish a distinction between
Anaconda workers and other workers in Chile with the appearance that 'their'
miners were a privileged group and that they were more rapidly advancing
toward the goal of the American dream model. In Butte, the company
promoted the idea of a mining community in which "we are all in this
together" the great all-encompassing American middle class with
miners as true patriots in preserving the ideal business/social environment.
In both cases, this community building from the top down was not met with
uniform acceptance. Chilean and American miners and their families
continued to uncover the reality of the "model" communities;
counter their promotion; and seek to build their own community by conscious
resistance and just trying to make a life for themselves.
also focuses on the construction of gender and social class and the connections
between them. Both play important roles in people's lives, sometimes
operating in synchrony and sometimes in contradiction. She writes
about the converging and conflicting relationships between working class
women and men around family issues, work, strikes and the miners' disease,
consumption (silicosis). And she writes about how these relationships
compare and contrast between people in the two communities and over time.
In this discussion, I found the observation Finn makes about the connection
between gender and class being experienced differently for women and men
especially interesting. She argues that for men, gender identity
is closely tied to their class position: to be a miner is to be a man
and to be a miner is to be working class. For women, the connection
is not so clear. Dominant images of womanhood are not tied to social
class: to be a good wife and mother is to be a woman. But this image
crosses class lines and being working class sometimes interferes with
being able to be a good wife and mother and therefore to be a good woman.
to the contribution the book makes empirically and theoretically to our
understanding of a range of topics that include among others, gender,
class, work, imperialism, unions, repression, social structure, and human
agency, it also contributes to the literature on research methods. Finn
explains how she grew up in Butte and the story she relates is personal
journey as well as a scholarly one. She also notes at one point that
she was immersed in a study not of social change but for social change. Her
reflections on how her particular point of view affected the research
and how the research in turn shaped her disclose a number of methodological
insights that are interesting to read about and helpful to those who wish
to undertake ethnographic studies. This book would make an excellent reading
in a course on qualitative methods because Finn is so conscious of methodological
issues and writes so clearly about her insights.
book also makes a special contribution to research methods because it
successfully ties together micro level data with a macro level analysis. Most
ethnographies present micro level analysis. Scholars and students
who are trying in particular to understand the connection between data
about human agency and the large social institutions that encompass that
activity will find her work a useful model.
Finn concludes the book by reflecting on a question often posed to her about her research, "But what were the major differences you found between Butte and Chuquicamata?" While there were differences, equally important were the commonalties. But most important, these two communities represent two sides of the same coin of multi-national capitalism. Our boundaries are permeable and our fates intertwined.