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PhD research update: Oil and gas industry employees' construction as ethical subjects

As I reach what, I hope, represents the half-way mark of my PhD, and get ready for my second year progression review - also called "confirmation" review, which gives it a quasi-religious undertone, I have also just completed an important milestone, having collected all the data I planned to for this research. By collecting data, I mean conducting interviews, running online workshops, and gathering other documents for analysis, as part of the three studies making up my research project. There is still a long way to go, yet now feels like a good time to pause and share progress and initial reflections.

Snippets from comments captured during study 3's workshops. Artist: Amber Anderson / Think Artfully

First, a quick recap. The aim of my research is to investigate the moral and ethical positions relating to climate change, developed by people working in the oil and gas industry, and what actions it could lead them to take. It starts from a widely recognised public challenge to the fossil fuel industry, about its contribution to greenhouse gases emissions, therefore to climate change, and lack of genuine radical change, alongside concerns over profits coming before general societal and environmental interests. I balance this challenge with the recognition that the oil and gas industry is made up of hundreds of thousands of people like you and me (in fact I was one of them a decade ago), working in this industry for various reasons, while being community members, parents, life partners, etc. How much does their organisation's impact affect their views on climate change, and how? And how do their views on climate change impact their feelings about the industry they work in? I conducted three consecutive and related studies to find answers to these questions.

Study 1: Oil and gas industry employees' perspectives on climate change

A sculpture from a BP signage where the top of the sign has been carved to look like plants with leaves
Artist: Dan Rawlings

The aim of my first study was to hear directly from people working in the oil and gas industry about their experiences, motivations, and more specifically what their views were on climate change, and the oil and gas industry's role. To do that, I interviewed 30 people currently working in the industry, most of them for one of the "big majors", but also some for contractors, consultants and service providers to the industry. I asked them about their motivations to enter the industry, their personal perspective on climate change, how they see their organisation's role and responsibility in it, and what they can picture as a positive way forward for the industry and themselves in relation to climate change.

I was struck quite quickly by the wide range of positions and experiences, coming from people seemingly in similar situations, which went beyond what I was expecting. On one end of this spectrum, some participants talked about being "the good guys", people helping to provide the energy the world needs to develop, and seeing their organisation as pragmatically approaching the energy transition, while responding to consumers' high demand for fossil fuel products. On the other end, some people were brought to tears by the thought of being on the "wrong side of history", especially when thinking about their children's future, and the prospect of being asked "what did you do to prevent climate change?". In-between, there was a wide range of mixed, sometimes conflicted, and even paradoxical views, such as people putting an emphasis on their own personal responsibility towards climate change rather than their organisation's.

These interviews took place in early 2023, and were followed by an analysis period during which I rewatched the interview recordings, and reviewed the transcripts in depth, applying two theories to the content: the theory of moral disengagement from Albert Bandura, and practices of the self by Michel Foucault. In parallel, I also analysed corporate documents such as annual reports and speeches from the big 5 oil majors, to identify their key discourses related to climate change, and assess how these might influence their employees' positions. This resulted in a research paper which I finalised with my supervisors and submitted to a research journal after the summer. Just after Christmas 2023, I was advised by the research journal that I was invited to review and resubmit the paper, alongside with feedback and recommendations for quite significant updates.

I have since been working on reframing the paper, reviewing its position in the current research literature, and pushing the analysis further. I am now ready to finalise this revision with my supervisors, and re-submit it within the next couple of months. In parallel, I am delighted that the initial version of the paper was accepted for presentation at two upcoming conferences, the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS), and the European Academy of Management (EURAM).

Study 2: Seeking meaning through radical change

Having gathered the perspectives from existing oil and gas industry employees, including those feeling conflicted about their involvement, I went one step further for my second study. Still fresh from my own decision of leaving the industry I worked in due to a significant case of moral dissonance, and encouraged by stories I came across on social media of people doing the same, this time out of the oil and gas industry, I decided to delve deeper into these experiences. I focused on a small number of individuals, six, who shared a similar path in which they worked for large oil and gas companies for a number of years (decades for some), before deciding to leave the industry, because of their overwhelming concerns over the industry's contribution and lack of sufficient action regarding climate change. All of them subsequently engaged in a form of climate action, be it activism, lobbying or advocacy for paths away from fossil fuels.

I decided to proceed with a small number of individuals for a few reasons. One honest one was the access to people with such niche experiences, which, even for such a small number, took a significant amount of research, referrals, and what felt like detective work at times. That aside, I only aimed for a small sample from the start because I wanted to study these stories in a good degree of depth. I decided to use a method called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, which considers various layers of interpretation of specific experiences, and each participant in its own merit before trying to draw similarities and differences between cases.

For each participant, I conducted an in-depth interview, which lasted on average two hours, and gathered further data relating to their experiences, such as relevant social media posts, blog articles, and other published material such as articles and even books for some. On this occasion again, perhaps even more so, I was struck by people's generosity, with their time, their support in helping my research, and also their openness and vulnerability during our discussions. These six stories were extremely rich, personal, emotional at times and involved periods of deep self-reflection, fed by very individual circumstances, as well as a common realisation of the urgent need for a radical move away from fossil fuels, which could no longer be reconciled with the industry's activities. This dissonance was heavily felt by most through critically contrasting their organisation's declared ambitions with some of the activities they could witness on the ground, often exacerbated by the recent rolling back of some of the big oil majors' green ambitions in their formal strategies, including scaling down earlier commitments to reduce fossil fuel exploration and production. Interestingly , despite a common perspective on the current situation, the research participants maintained quite different views on their time with the industry. While some openly talked about guilt and shame, others remained confident in their belief that they acted appropriately, with the correct interests in mind, at various times of their careers based on the knowledge they held at the time, but also focus on fond memories they have built with colleagues, and the personal growth the experienced during that period.

The analysis work for this study is currently in progress, and I was able to produce a short article from early observations, which will allow me to present this work at the EGOS conference as well.

Study 3: Co-creating visions for a sustainable future beyond individual differences

Example of individual story as captured by artist Amber Anderson (Think Artfully)

The third and final part of my research project was always intended to explore a more creative and innovative way to generate insights. Quite early on, I had decided that, after unearthing a variety of perspectives in my first two studies, I wished to bring some of these together through acts of co-creation, to explore the possibilities created by encouraging people from within the industry to come together with those now advocating against it, and whether such encounter could foster positive joint outcomes.

After much thinking, reading, exchanging ideas with others, and changing my own mind a few times, I settled on an approach. This led me to design and organise three two-hour online workshops, which would combine dialogical storytelling with a visual output. What that means in practice is that participants were encouraged to think and interact through stories, first by sharing their individual story involving the oil and gas industry, and then by working together to develop a joint story of a positive sustainable future. For the visual aspect, after initially envisaging to ask people to draw parts of their stories, the reality and feasibility of conducting these workshops online caught up with me, and I went down a different route. Rather than asking people to draw, I brought someone in to do the drawing live, while capturing all key points of the discussion. This artist, also called a "live scribe", joined us online and captured the essence of people's individual stories (see an example above), and then picked up the key areas discussed in the collective storytelling exercise to put this down on a board, through a mixture of drawings and words. This was meant to not only provide a visual output from the sessions, but also to serve as an additional way for people to reflect, as the workshops paused for the artist to share her drawings with the participants.

Each session included four participants, from either my first or second study, who kindly agreed to continue their involvement with my research. They were very small groups, deliberately, to give enough space for each to share their story and get their voice heard. Following advice from other scholars, I engaged a professional facilitator to run the session, and, bar a brief welcome at the start, and thank you at the end, remained off camera as a silent observer. This ended up being a great move, seeing as I had gathered much knowledge about each participant, and would have found it hard to resist the temptation to intervene and steer the discussion in a potentially counter-productive way.

That said, I might have been silent and off-camera, I was still full of nerves, and anxious to see how bringing together people with potentially very different views would work out. In the end, the three workshops each proved to be very different experiences. One where a degree of personal alignment was reached quite early on, with a sense of people talking together to envisage together what a positive path could look like; another one where differences of opinions were much more visible, yet where people managed to see past them to consider others' perspectives and co-create a vision they could all stand behind; and a final one where this connection failed to happen, and despite an acknowledgement of similar ambitions for the planet, strong individual beliefs prevented the group to truly work together.

From a research perspective, these workshops have given me a lot to work with in the upcoming analysis step, and much to untangle in terms of dynamics, contrast between self and group, and what possibilities this may all open. My immediate reflection however concerns the participants, as I know that for many, this was a challenging exercise, and I remain blown away by their generosity in not only giving up their time, but also much more than this, opening up on a very sensitive topic, one which connects with very personal aspects of their lives, and exposing themselves to potentially very different opinions, while fully engaging with the exercise and the other participants. I still have much work to do on this study, but it already gives me hope in people's ability to constructively engage with others, at least give it a go, if given an opportunity, and the potential to emphasise the human side of what can otherwise be polarising issues.

So, where do I go from here? Well much work remains to be done. Following through the first article towards publication, completing the analysis and writing up of the second study, and tackling the analysis of the third, all the while preparing to share my research in upcoming conferences, and completing my second year progression review. I am also fortunate to have been given opportunities to support other research projects, and do some teaching, and so can look forward to another very busy year ahead.

I realise that I was only able to merely scratch the surface in terms of my findings in this article, partly because I need to hold on to those for my research papers for now, and also because much of the work remains to be done for others. If you are interested, please keep an eye out as I will be in a position to share more on this site as the months go by, and if my research has peaked your interest, feel free to get in touch, as I always love opportunities to discuss and exchange.


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