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Tarballs and Golf balls and Top Hats, Oh My – or – the Sociology of an Oil Spill (part 1)

May 14, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

NASA Satellite image of the oil slick

May 9th satellite image of the oil slick. (Photo from Nasa Goddard Photo and Video - http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/4593725964)

The continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico offers us the opportunity to look at a wide variety of sociological questions ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to organizational sociology to the connections between types of work and socioeconomic statuses.  The first issue I’d like to explore related to the oil spill, however, is how it relates to the global economy.

BP & TransOcean LogosThe Deepwater Horizon rig is owned by BP – British Petroleum; the rig was being operated by TransOcean.  The blowout preventer – the piece of equipment that failed when the rig exploded – was installed by Halliburton and owned by TransOcean.  Here already we see the global economy at work.  Just sorting out which multinational corporation is responsible for which parts of the equipment is practically a Herculean task.  The spill’s economic impacts, however, are much bigger than just the losses that will be incurred by those three corporations.  Most immediately, the spill is hurting the fishing and shrimping industries along the gulf coast.  Tourism, which is also a major industry, is another immediate victim.  It remains to be seen how much of the rest of the national and world economy will be affected.

What can the sociologist  learn from this?  First and foremost,  that we live in a world economy that relies on multinational corporations.  This makes it hard to pin any one entity down as responsible when an accident happens (as this week’s Congressional hearings showed).  It does, however, raise more questions than it answers… which is why next time we’ll look at what the Deepwater Horizon spill tells us about global demand for oil.

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