As explained in the About page, I have recently commenced a PhD. Barely eight weeks in, I am still enjoying what I’ve heard described as the honeymoon phase, where all I need to do — indeed all I really can do — is immerse myself in new ideas, literature, software, and on-campus drinking outlets. You could also call it the pig-in-mud phase, since that is essentially what such activities equate to for someone like me. Milestones and progress indicators will come later (though soon enough I am sure!); right now my concern is to arm myself with knowledge and tools for the long road ahead, wherever that road may end up leading.
In broad terms, the task I have set myself is to use digital methods to explore and make sense of some social phenomenon, such as the discourse around a contentious issue. The case study that I have chosen to get me started is the recent expansion of the coal seam gas (CSG) industry in Australia. Coal seam gas (known as coal bed methane in the United States) has been used in Queensland to generate electricity for more than 20 years, but the industry has boomed since about 2008 as local gas companies race to get their gas into the global export market. This ‘gas rush’ has brought the industry into previously uncharted territories — first the prime agricultural areas of the Darling Downs in southern Queensland, and now several agricultural and pastoral regions of New South Wales.
To cut a long story short, a lot of people have become very concerned about coal seam gas. And while many of these concerns have been expressed through traditional, on-the-ground methods like marches and blockades, much of the debate around coal seam gas has unfolded, or at least been documented, on the web. A wide range of voices can be found, including those of individual citizens, grassroots action groups, seasoned lobbyists, government agencies, industry groups, research institutions, and of course, the news media. All of which makes the issue a perfect case study for my present purposes.
I should make clear, however, that I do have a personal interest in the topic. As a State Government employee, I worked for several years on a project about coal seam gas water management. I have also worked for about a year in a research centre at the University of Queensland that is concerned with both the impacts and the opportunities presented by coal seam gas. So I’ve become acquainted with a few small corners of the industry and how it is managed, and I have watched the debate around the industry unfold over a number of years. And while I have my own thoughts about the merits or otherwise of industry, I am not going to discuss them here. I am not concerned with who is right or wrong, but with how the debate around coal seam gas has developed. Who are the participants? How do they and their discourses interact? Which ideas and beliefs have shaped the debate, and how? Continue reading