Action Research Cases of Stongfjorden: Village Development in Western Norway

Sailing south along the Norwegian coast and passing the westernmost reach of the mainland, one sees a narrow, short fjord reaching 3 miles inland. Stongfjorden is surrounded by low mountains cascading straight down to the water. At the shoreline, some scattered houses can be seen, along with an indus­trial building, a small school, a grocery store, a tennis court, and a waterfall, partly dried up by the hydropower plant that channels the water into turbines. Small farms encircle the fjord. In all, 217 people inhabit this village, most of them over the age of 40.

The village was isolated from inland Norway until the early I 960s. Although a road linked residents to a community center, besides that, going on the main road required the use of various ferries. Sea-based communication was dominant, but in the mid-1960s the inhabitants decided to improve their road links, and through collective action they built several miles of road over difficult mountain terrain, linking the village to the mainland highway system. The “people’s road,” as it was named, illustrates the community’s solidarity and ability to solve problems of common interest. This activity caught national attention as an illustration of how a small community could reverse public decisions simply by making things happen on its own.

Stongfjorden was “discovered” by an aristocratic Englishman who was salmon fishing there in the late 19th century. One day in early summer, this man, who also was the chairman of the board of British Aluminum, was impressed by the sight of the local waterfall found at the base of the fjord. As an industrial entrepreneur, he immediately saw an energy potential, and the process leading to the creation of the first aluminum smelter in Norway began. He bought the rights to use the waterfall, built a hydroelectric power station, and started on the construction of the aluminum smelter. The power station was finished in 1908, and the smelter was completed in 1913. A company town was created, on the model of English industrial communities. A tennis court nicely completed the picture of a class-divided town. Management built their houses on the sunny side of the fjord, whereas the workers’ quarters rested in the shadows. Infrastructure, such as schools, doctors, and technical support, was created by the company, and soon the village had one of the best public schools and health care systems in the whole of western Norway.

The industrialization of Stongfjorden met with several obstacles. The first challenge came during the first winter the smelter was in operation. The waterfall did not deliver enough power to keep the smelter going. Con­sequently, the first high-voltage transport line was constructed to link the community to the mainland power distribution system. The smelter produced aluminum until the end of World War II. The end of the war also meant the closing of the aluminum smelter, and the workers were offered jobs in a smelter some 300 miles north of Stongfjorden. There is a very mov­ing and powerful story of how families left the village on the same boat to settle and work at this new aluminum smelter. Some years later, even after a local knife producer took over the facilities and started production of knives and cutlery for home use and the food processing industry, the downturn of the fortunes of Stongfjorden had already begun. Great numbers of industrial jobs were lost, and houses and public facilities in the village deteriorated. In many ways, the village seemed to be preparing for its own funeral as the social structure dissolved.

In late 1970s, the Norwegian Ministry for Environmental Protection and Land Use launched a program to support municipal activities aimed at increas­ing local participation in and control over community affairs. Towns, neigh­borhoods, or municipalities could apply to the program. A group of “burning souls” (Philips, 1988), under the leadership of a very capable woman, applied for money through this program. This local task force sent in the application without following the formal procedure of sending it through the municipal government. Even so, Stongfjorden was accepted as one of 60 sites that partic­ipated in this revitalization program.

As outside consultants, Morten Levin and a group of collaborators from Trondheim were linked up with this task force in Stongfjorden through the administrator of the national program. Sociologists Levin and Tore Nilssen made up the AR team leaders and worked with Ivar Brokhaug as the research professionals. In addition, two students were engaged the first year. The project involved the Department of Organization and Work Life Science and the Institute for Social Research in Industry at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Getting to Stongfjorden from the office location in Trondheim was com­plicated. Flying there required the use of at least three different planes and the rental of a car. The time spent in air transport matched the 12 hours spent dri­ving the whole distance, but the driving also involved crossing three mountain passes and driving on roads cut in the steep slopes that drop straight into the fjords. At first the team flew in, but later they turned to cars as the major form of transportation.

The first meeting with the task force was productive. Task force members presented their view of the situation and articulated their interest in preserv­ing their home vilage. The team suggested running a search conference (see Chapter 9, “Pragmatic Action Research”) to initiate the development process. The team had several reasons for suggesting the search conference as the first move. At that time, the team was ideologically committed to this kind of con­sensus model for local community development. The team also saw a need to mobilize the village as broadly as possible, and believed that a development effort would never succeed if only a handful of people became involved. It was easy to convince the task force that a search conference was a good idea.

Planning the conference brought us back to the community a couple of times over the next 1 1/2 months. In planning the conference, the team wanted to get acquainted with as many of the potential participants as possible, and, at the same time, we wanted to convey what a search conference was. A new task force was established, incorporating more people than the original applicants for the grant. The search conference staff consisted of three researchers from Morten Levin’s home institution and one from the National Institute for City and Regional Planning, an overstaffed situation that inadvertently led to inter­nal staff conflicts. The person running the conference refused to cooperate with other staff members. Still, the search conference worked out very well, which tells us a lot about the robustness of the design itself.

Several new task groups were formed. One took on the responsibility of building new road lights, another focused attention on constructing a new sheltered harbor for small craft. The third group planned the reconstruction of houses and roads. One of the old houses, formerly inhabited by several work­ing-class families, was given to the local activists, and the task force organized the work to restore it and then used it for community purposes. A kindergarten was established, and a workshop for textile production was created.

In the first year after the search conference, we organized two follow-up conferences. The goal was for the participants in the different task forces to present their work and thereby share possibilities, successes, and problems with the other participants. Thus, the follow-up meetings functioned as tools for sustaining the group elements of the developmental effort, encouraged collective reflection, and supported mutual learning between researchers and activists. In addition, the follow-up meetings forced the task forces to make clear commitments to their own aims and to revise their plans for further activities. These follow-up meetings were invaluable in creating feedback loops. It was advantageous to start a reflection process on the previously stated goals and to identify what had been achieved and what remained to be done.

The task forces generally were quite successful in achieving their goals. The group aiming at rebuilding the road lighting made a series of smart moves in applying for municipal, county, and power company money. Most of the expenses for the lighting hardware were covered by these funds, whereas the work itself was done collectively. This built on a strong tradition of collective work in Stongfjorden that relates to the Norwegian concept of dugnad, which is inherited from early farming and fishing cultures where people had to coop­erate to resolve issues of mutual interest that could not be dealt with in house­holds alone. In the beginning, the work was done fast and effectively, with good support from many people. The task turned out to be quite demanding, involving a lot of individual commitment, and, as time passed, the group was gradually reduced to just a few of the original “burning souls.”

Other tasks were dealt with quickly. The tennis court, a symbol of former wealth, was soon fixed up. A few people played tennis there, but mostly it was used as a children’s play area. The clean-up activities were generally very successful. Roads and houses were restored, and the general look of the village was improved.

One task that did not turn out to be so successful was the construction of a harbor for small craft. To be able to finance it, the task force had to establish a nonprofit company. Everyone who wanted a slip for a boat had to pay the money up front. The task force then signed a contract with an entrepreneur, but this person was unable to deliver the harbor. His machines were not suit­able for the work, and he could not finish the job without buying new equip­ment. Because he was living in the village, this created tension. Some thought the entrepreneur had cheated the boat owners, but others saw and understood his miscalculations. The task force wanted to take the matter to court, but the problem was settled before it came to that.

The team continued our work in the community until 1986. In the later stages of the process, activity focused more on entrepreneurial efforts and on relationships with political and administrative bodies of the municipalities. The central local woman who had moved the project along over the years grad­ually burned out. She had devoted enormous time and energy to it, but because she felt her energy was no longer sufficient, leadership was handed over to a very creative local entrepreneur. He initiated a fishing venture centering on marine crawfish, developing the technology and a fishing strategy and creating a market. He started building high-tech wooden boats using state-of-the-art gluing and mantling techniques. He started farming black grouse. In addition, he successfully created a tourism business, running his own campground and renting out several cabins.

Every activity was high risk, but always with the promise of making a lot of money. Through the project, the local entrepreneur developed the market­ing ability and initiated cooperation with other campgrounds in the neighbor­hood to enable the development of a foothold in the German market. To a high degree, this turned out to be a successful activity. Over the later years of the project, we cooperated closely with him, and we were kept informed about his entrepreneurial work, but we did not become directly involved in it.

Another major issue we were involved in over the last year of the project was an effort by the village to convince the municipal government to support the reconstruction of roads and the public quay in Stongfjorden. The local activists had long been interested in rebuilding the public quay (a long, large platform along which many boats tie up) in the fjord because the old quay had almost fallen down, and there was no money available for building a new one.

The municipal government resisted spending money on this refurbishing project, arguing that there would not be enough traffic over the quay to make it profitable. Ship berthing had been reduced drastically over those years, a process that the municipal administration felt was caused by a structural trans­portation change from ships to trucks. The Strongfjorden people argued that a reduction of transportation volume at the quay came about because the quay itself was in such bad shape. Thus, they were stalemated.

Local people had contacted the Ministry of Environment for help and had received all kinds of support. Through the contact person in the ministry, the team was asked to help the local group negotiate a solution with the municipal authorities. The team traveled to the community, set up meetings with the municipal administration, and ran roughshod over them because we had the requisite skills in framing arguments and the explicit support of the ministry. The money was granted, and the quay was refurbished. After this, our rela­tionship with the local community slowly wound down. The grants from the ministry ceased, and we pulled out after 3 12 years in Strongfjorden.

Over time, the researchers’ roles had shifted a great deal. The researchers started as facilitators for the fairly narrow task of running a search conference, and we worked on that for some months. As the project shifted, the roles changed to supporting particular efforts and to encouraging collective reflec­tion on the ongoing activity. During this period, the team also brought in two students both to support the activity and to give them an opportunity to learn about AR. Through their work, the researchers were able to describe and ana­lyze the social structure of the village, learning about the 13 different local mis­sionary groups consisting of women knitting for a Christmas auction, thereby making money for missionary work domestically and abroad. The team also learned about family structures, kin relationships, and how the inhabitants were linked through other kinds of networks. This middle phase involved a lot of analytical work, though that was coupled with facilitating the ongoing change activity. During this period, the researchers also took on the task of running a search conference for the local knife factory. This company was clearly the dominant employer in the municipality, and the search aimed to develop new markets for knife-related products. This was a reasonably suc­cessful activity, even though no great economic market breakthrough emerged for the company.

In the later part of our work, the researchers took on a much more direct and active role. We played the activist role and nearly dominated local activity in handling external interest groups. This was an unpleasant role, and involved many serious ethical questions. In retrospect, the researchers should never have taken on the power role in the negotiations with the municipal government. The team entered the scene as resourceful “friendly outsiders” (see Chapter 8) able to mobilize our professional networks to support the Strongfjorden activists. The researchers should have taken on a conflict-handling role in at least an initial effort to make the conflicting parties find solutions by themselves.

In Stongfjorden, the researchers had a very powerful partner in the “burn­ing souls.” Some of these individuals burned out in the process, but mostly they stayed through the whole project. These people, four men and one woman, had the inner strength and ability to perform concentrated work on important goals. This group operated as a fairly closed unit. Only the campground entre­preneur and the local knife factory manager later entered that group. The man­ager was active for a couple of years, but when his company demanded greater attention, he dropped out. The entrepreneur became the lead person during the later phase of our engagement. Although we occasionally had contact with other members of the local community, these persons never became central and key activists. Still, it seems reasonable to believe that the core group had the backing of a large proportion of the village population. ^then dugnad was caUed for, people showed up.

Over the course of the project, several different arenas for communication were constructed. The researchers started with the search conference. This activity was followed up by a series of meetings in which stock taking and col­lective reflections on the process development were central. These meetings created knowledge both for the local people on reengineering their activity to reach desired goals better and for the outside researchers on understanding more about the challenges in local community development.

Two issues became cornerstones in our intellectual research efforts. The first major question was related to understanding the complex social structure. The team was struck by how fast information spread in the community. Basically, the whole village knew everything, even though they were sure that they had communicated with only a few people. The initial research question then focused on the integrating factors in the social structure. Through the students’ work, the researchers eventually spotted the effect of the 13 mission­ary clubs, the choir, the boat harbor, and all kitchen table coffee-drinking groups. These closely nested networks created the possibility for the very efficient distribution of information. These findings were reported in the students’ work.

The most important published research resulting from this work focused on understanding why certain inhabitants become “burning souls.” How could it be explained that a person gets up from in front of the TV set and takes on the workload and the responsibility for leading local development activity? The initial framing of this question was done during the work in Stongfjorden. Several discussions with local activists created some preliminary understand­ing of the mobilization question. This preliminary insight shaped the research question for a master’s thesis (by one of the students) focusing on the early phases of local community development. Eventually this work was published by Morten Levin ( 1988) under the title Local Mobilization.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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