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People have played a central role in the development of the hydrocarbon industry. Human capital, represented by the men and women who work in this sector, even more than the financial capital, has been a key element in the growth of business and technological innovation. Concentrated within large industrial installations, such as refineries, drilling sites or production platforms, the people who work in this sector are a social group characterised by their mastery of technical processes and the spirit of belonging to a professional body. The hydrocarbon industry, although it is often portrayed as a control system for energy and financial flows, produces and markets fuels, lubricants and chemicals destined for the consumer market. Whether as producers or consumers, people are always, therefore, at the centre of the industrial process and are, at the same time, those most affected by this activity in the context of their life and work.

In line with the Business History structure, historical research into hydrocarbons first focused on the organisation and industrial strategies of oil companies. Researchers therefore favoured financial analysis of oil – with a particular interest in price fluctuations and their influence on the global economy. In the same vein, hydrocarbons have been studied as strategic resources, adopting the point of view of states and political groups concerned with guaranteeing their energy independence. By adopting a resource diplomacy approach, several works in the field of social sciences have therefore focused on conflicts to control deposits in oil-producing regions. The role of individuals in these studies is extremely limited. With the exception of certain biographical works on the founding fathers, entrepreneurs and technocrats, historical studies into the hydrocarbon industry remain highly dehumanised even today.


The emergence of the debate on ecological transition and on the post-carbon society makes it necessary to question the emergence of petrocultures and the influence of hydrocarbons on the mentalities and identities that characterise contemporary society. To this end, business archives provide insight into understanding how the myth of 'Black Gold', the legend of 'oil pioneers' and the fantasy of 'fuel shortages' have shaped our consumption and given meaning to the concepts of 'modernity' and 'progress'. In the same way as the opening of corporate archives in the 1980s supported the emergence of the first works on the history of energy, the significant increase in available sources has made it possible to address new issues today. Access to visual and audiovisual collections has provided new material for historical research. At the same time, the desire for organisations in the sector to promote their past through commemorative projects has helped to reawaken the memory of the protagonists. In this way, the variety of sources and collections has made it possible to adopt comparative approaches and has contributed, at the same time, to the transnationalisation of this field of study.

The aim of this study day is to address the history of hydrocarbons in the 19th and 20th centuries by putting the human element at the heart of the analysis. Adopting a social and cultural history approach makes it possible to analyse the emergence of oil-related trades and the emergence of professional identities in the different sectors of this industry. How did hydrocarbon industry jobs become professionalised and diversified? Who are the men and women who worked in this sector? How have they contributed to the development of techniques and technologies in the field of hydrocarbons? Research into the human element can be extended to include knowledge flows, the structuring of scientific and professional networks and the interaction between the industry and the environment. We also suggest analysing elements of dispute in the context of the decolonisation of the oil-producing countries, the emergence of social demands, as well as the assertion of environmental awareness in the second half of the 20th century. Finally, this approach also necessitates the involvement of elements of cultural history in understanding the emergence of 'petroculture' in the new hydrocarbon society. Indeed, because of its omnipresence in literature, film and various forms of artistic expression, hydrocarbons have profoundly influenced our consumption patterns and have transformed our relationship with energy phenomena.






15:00-15:30 - Introduction

Christine Berdon-Mouhoud, Total

Jean-Pierre Williot, Sorbonne Université

15:30-16:30 - Session 1 : Working in the hydrocarbon industry


Gheorghe CALCAN, Petroleum- Gas University of Ploiești « Oil Industry Employees and Their Needs in the Inter-war Romania»

Natasha PESARAN, Columbia University of New York, « Labour and the Iraq-Mediterranean Oil Pipelines, 1932-c.1970»

Gemma JENNINGS, University of Birmingham, « Contested Sovereignties: Oil, Labour and Socio-Spatial Practices in the Algerian Sahara, 1956-66»


16:30 – 17:30 - Session 2 : Petro imaginaries and Industrial cultures


Philippe ROCHOUX, Sorbonne Université, « The creation of elf trademark in 1967 : the human being at the heart of the advertising campaign. »

Radouan MOUNECIF, Sorbonne Université, « The Compagnie Française des Pétroles and the industrial cooperation: shaping a new industrial culture (1971-1986) »

Flora GRESSIER-SOUDAN, Université Paris 1 - Panthéon-Sorbonne, « The involvement of scuba divers in the North Sea : the technical innovation on oil rigs during the XXe century »


17:30 – 18:00 Conclusions

Alain Beltran, CNRS


Partners institutions

Total SA, Sorbonne Université, UMR Sirice, Comité d’Histoire de l’Electricité et de l’Energie, Energy Archives Network (EOGAN).

Scientific committee

Alain Beltran (CNRS), Elisabetta Bini (Università Federico II Napoli), Roberto Cantoni (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), Clotilde Cucchi-Vignier (Total), Pascal Griset (Sorbonne Université), Radouan Mounecif (Total - Sorbonne Université), Marta Musso (King's College London, EOGAN), Jean-Pierre Williot (Sorbonne Université).

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