The scholarship on oil in the social sciences is undergoing a marked shift. Earlier approaches tended to analyze oil as a stand-in for something else—revenue, geopolitics, or modernity, for instance—and consequently paid little attention to the material structures and organization of the oil industry itself. In contrast, contemporary scholars are increasingly thinking about oil in material terms as an “oil assemblage” or “oil complex” that brings together diverse actors, governance structures, geographies, institutions, and modes of labor. Katayoun Shafiee’s history of the Anglo-Iranian oil industry in the first half of the twentieth century places her at the forefront of these new approaches and makes an important contribution to our understanding of the sociotechnical worlds of oil.
Machineries of Oil examines the social and technical arrangements, devices and infrastructures that enabled the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC—later, BP) to produce oil in southwestern Iran and transform it into revenues. Beginning with discussion of the means by which the company obtained its concession and established property and mineral rights in Khuzestan, the book goes on to consider how the company was able to maintain concessionary control of oil in the first half of the twentieth century through the use of technoscientific knowledge, racialized labor regimes, and mechanisms of international legal arbitration. The final two chapters consider the Iranian oil nationalization crisis of 1951–52 and its resolution in the form of the 1954 consortium agreement.
While the book’s narrative is arranged chronologically, Machineries of Oil sets out to “reconfigure historical analysis as a sociotechnical process” (240) by paying attention to petroleum-based sociotechnical assemblages and how they shaped political outcomes. This approach draws heavily on scholarship in the field of STS (Science and Technology Studies), making extensive use of its methodologies and conceptual approaches. In particular, Machineries of Oil draws on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as well as theories such as the performativity of economics and the social shaping of technology. While these kinds of “interdisciplinary thinking” are not discussed at great length, they nonetheless underpin the book’s analytical approach and its use of a specific terminology and language throughout.
Treating history as a sociotechnical process results in the organization of each chapter around a series of disputes that arose over property rights, petroleum knowledge, profits, labor, and production levels. Where STS scholars have highlighted moments of “breakdown” of a technology or infrastructure as revelatory of the workings of the system as a whole, Machineries of Oil applies the same logic to the history of BP in Iran: focusing on moments of controversy and dispute reveals the strategies and mechanisms by which BP was able to maintain its control of Iran’s oil and the terms on which it would be produced.
One such tactic the company repeatedly used was the transformation of political questions, including demands for nationalization and labor disputes, into technical and commercial issues. In particular, Shafiee highlights the company’s use of calculative devices and formulas as a technique of political management. The history of the 1932–33 concessionary crisis, when a dispute over royalties resulted in the Iranian government’s unilateral cancellation of AIOC’s oil concession, is rewritten as a history of the “working possibilities” of a formula for calculating royalties. Faced with the Iranian government’s demands for increased production and profits, AIOC accountants built limiting variables and proportions into the royalty formula in order to place limits on the possibilities for greater Iranian government control. Formulas recur throughout the text, offering a means of managing the rate of “Persianization” of the labor force and legitimizing a racially organized and hierarchical labor regime, as well as re-engineering Iran’s oil nationalization to make it compatible with the post-World War II monopoly arrangements of the multinational oil corporations.
Formulas are just one example of a number of “unexpected and unusual actors” (199) which form part of the sociotechnical networks that Machineries of Oil seeks to reassemble and that include concession contract terms, international law, technoscientific expertise, and U.S. national security. Varying degrees of agency are attributed to these nonhuman actors. For example, AIOC’s formulas do not simply describe the world, but play an active role in shaping political and social outcomes. Similarly, Shafiee shows how AIOC and the British government, acting on behalf of the company in which it had a controlling stake, invoked mechanisms of international law as a means of protecting the company’s concessionary rights. In her analysis, Shafiee understands international law not simply as an instrument of British policy, but as an actor that was able to rearrange the social world by attaching to people and events.
Such an approach adheres closely to Actor-Network Theory by presenting agency as multi-centered and distributed across human and non-human actors in networks and assemblages. The agency attributed to non-human actors in ANT has attracted a fair amount of controversy and Shafiee does not directly address the stakes of thinking about agency in these terms for historical analysis. Without discussing the broader merits or limitations here, one advantage of the application of ANT to histories of oil is to break down the binary between oil companies and states which has characterized so much of the scholarship. Scholars have spent much time trying to establish whether the corporate tail was wagging the government dog or whether companies were instruments of Western states’ energy and foreign policies. Shafiee instead shows how the power of governments and corporations was co-constructed through connections and alliance-building. Rather than taking AIOC and the British government as preexisting entities and then trying to establish the relationship between them, Machineries of Oil leaves this question open and focuses on tracing how mutual interests came to be constructed and were enrolled and enlisted in disputes.
Machineries of Oil also makes an important contribution in demonstrating how the transnational oil corporation functioned as a “long-distance machinery for maintaining limits on the supply of oil” (228). Contrary to much of the scholarship, which has repeated arguments about the strategic importance of securing continued oil flows from the Middle East, Shafiee shows how AIOC policy pursued the production of scarcity and sought to limit Iranian production levels in relation to world oil production to protect its own profits. Oil policy in Iran was for AIOC officials just “one geological unit” (148) in a set of global production and pricing arrangements AIOC had entered into with other major international firms. For this reason, Shafiee finds the 1954 consortium to have been such a successful outcome to the nationalization crisis for AIOC; as a means by which the Seven Sisters, the seven largest international oil companies, retained exclusive control of Iranian oil production levels, it prevented Iranian oil nationalization from rearranging preexisting forms of monopoly control and foreclosed the possibility of alternative, and Shafiee suggests perhaps more democratic, forms of oil production from emerging in Iran.
Machineries of Oil draws primarily on research carried out in the BP company archives and in the government archives of Britain, Iran, and the United States. While the actions and interests of oil workers, Communist Party members, and Iranian politicians do feature prominently in Shafiee’s account, they tend to be discussed in more general terms than the decision-making of AIOC managers and British and American officials. Unlike many oil company histories, Machineries of Oil does not celebrate Western oil executives and managers or place them at the center of the story. But neither does it offer a social history of oil from below. Instead, these different actors are reassembled into the broader energy networks that enabled BP to build its sociotechnical world and redirect political outcomes in its favor. More sustained engagement with a growing literature which seeks to theorize the corporation might have strengthened the explanatory value of discussions of the tactics and strategies that the company employed, but Machineries of Oil nonetheless provides novel insights into the operation of corporate oil power. In doing so, this work not only makes an important contribution to the history of oil in Iran, but will also be of use to scholars seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the power of the international oil companies in the twentieth century, and provides a model for those seeking to apply STS approaches to historical analysis.