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Turning oil into stone: Oil legacies in the narratives of urban continuity and change in Baku, Azerbaijan

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BAKOIL (Turning oil into stone: Oil legacies in the narratives of urban continuity and change in Baku, Azerbaijan)

Berichtszeitraum: 2020-09-14 bis 2022-09-13

The Project “Turning Oil into Stone” explores the continuous reproduction of ‘oil city’ narratives in Baku, Azerbaijan. Baku is one of the world’s oldest sites of continuous production of oil, which now spans more than 150 years. As such, it is a paradigmatic oil city, whose history has been closely intertwined with oil industry. The strong link between oil and gas industry and urban development in Baku can become a problem for energy transition away from fossil fuels. Research on the intertwining of urban forms and oil and gas industry in this city is important for the broader understanding of oil urbanism and its potential transformation in the course of post- oil development and energy transition. This study asks: what is the role of oil in the discourses on Baku’s urban past and future? And how can a post-oil future be imagined in a place which has been so strongly connected to oil industry? Drawing on ethnographic methods, this project aims to examine the construction of Baku’s ‘oil city’ identity in the discourses of professionals involved in memory-making. The findings of the project will be relevant beyond Baku for other sites whose economic and spatial organization are intertwined with the oil industry.

The findings of the project suggest that more attention should be paid to the cultural importance of extractive industries in places where they have been culturally and historically entrenched. In Baku, oil industry is so closely intertwined with positively valued aspects of modernization, such as education, healthcare, provision of public services, urban development, that even just criticism of oil industry is often met with resistance. Working towards public acceptance of energy transition requires careful and nuanced engagement with the cultural impacts of fossil fuels in the places of their extraction. Devising strategies for post-oil development should take into account local meanings of oil industry. Industrial heritage and incorporation of the legacies of oil industry into tourism, recreation, and creative industries can contribute to successful energy transition.

The objectives of this Marie Skłodowska Curie Action (MSCA) have been 1) to examine the official and unofficial narratives of urban continuity based on oil production in their socio-cultural context; 2) to explore the practices of collective remembering and forgetting in constructing the narratives of Baku as a historical center of oil production; and 3) to explore how an urban identity based on oil affects the imagination of a post-oil future.
The project included 5 work packages (WPs). WP1 focused on project planning, training and career development of the researcher. The action provided multiple opportunities career development, including co-teaching modules on Anthropology of Energy and Environmental Ethics, student supervision, organization of workshops and events, and part-time engagement in project management and a contribution to an AHRC project on a closely related theme. WP2 comprised field research in Baku, including participant observation in public spaces, semi-structured interviews, and collection of printed and visual materials for further analysis under WP3. WP 3 included analysis of official and media publications and social media research on the key questions of the project. Because of the COVID pandemic which unfolded during the Action, Work Packages 2 and 3 had to be significantly adjusted. WP4 – writing and publication were also affected by the changing timeline. Currently, two manuscripts - a peer reviewed article and a chapter for an edited volume are close to completion. Work on the monograph manuscript is in progress as well. WP5 included various dissemination activities. In this work package, the researcher gave 5 invited talks (2 online, 3 in person) in Azerbaijan, Germany, and the UK and 4 conference presentations. A blog post based on the visual analysis of oil in urban landscape in Baku was published in Centre for Energy Ethics blog (hosted by the host institution); and a short popular article on the touristic potential of oil industry heritage in Baku is accepted for publication in a reputable outlet in Azerbaijan.
Results of this MSCA are reported in a blog post, two academic papers (close to completion), a forthcoming popular article, and a monograph which is currently in preparation. The findings of the project inform applications for collaborative projects on Eurasian energy with colleagues from the networks established during the Action.
The MSCA has pushed the frontiers of the research on energy in Eurasia by drawing on the leading frameworks in ethnographic energy research that are being developed at the Centre for Energy Ethics. The fellow’s engagement with scholarship on industrial heritage is a basis for ongoing collaboration with colleagues working on energy in other parts of Eurasia, particularly Ukraine. This work also has potential for impact beyond academia, as the fellow is developing proposals for industrial heritage projects in Azerbaijan.
Fire temple in Surakhanı suburb, with oil derrick
Everlasting fire in Yanardaq