Professor Andrew Barry and Dr Gisa Weszkalnys undertook a pilot study for a comparative empirical investigation of oil operations in West Africa, Europe and the Caucasus. Dr Gisa Weszkalnys carried out a ten-week period of fieldwork in São Tomé e Príncipe (STP), a small island state just off the West African coast, and focused on the efforts to manage the prospect of oil wealth in STP. The discovery of offshore oil resources in STP spurred intense international interest, notably among US oil corporations. Journalists, political advisors and international experts alike now speculate about the future of STP, typically portrayed as a country which has the hope - unlike elsewhere in Africa - of becoming prosperous whilst remaining democratic. A team of experts has been dispatched to the island to develop a framework for transparency in public expenditure; and STP's government has endorsed the UK-led Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). STP is to set an example.

Despite its indisputable global importance 'oil' has remained surprisingly understudied by social scientists, other than by specialists in energy economics and Middle East politics. The few existing studies by human geographers and anthropologists have discussed the impact of the oil economy on indigenous populations in the context of neo-liberalism; and the blurring of public and private sectors and the (in)ability of governments to direct flows of profit. This ethnographic study of oil operations in STP builds on Professor Andrew Barry's previous study of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

The fieldwork in STP had three central themes:

  1. The emergent oil-related political economy and forms of wealth creation, and the associated moral discourses, forms of sociability and shifting property relations. Significantly, this study was sensitive to local understandings of oil in relation to other resources (cocoa, sugar, slave trade) that historically have determined STP's economy;
  2. The modes of governance and ethical conduct shaped by experts and regulatory bodies. The focus was the apparently successful attempts to construct an exemplary deliberative democracy, and the specific 'regimes of living' - of government officials, representatives of oil companies, and citizens - that are in the making;
  3. The discourses of 'hope' and 'the future' circulating around STP's oil resources. In particular, the study examined how the consequences of sudden wealth and the predicament of 'the African postcolony' are imagined and made persuasive in the context of STP, and the way these imaginations are affected through people's actions.