I am currently engaged in three overlapping but distinct areas of research.
Political Formations in the Southern Peruvian Andes
I have been doing ethnographic research in the Southern Peruvian Andes for nearly 35 years and have seen many changes in that time, not least the effects of the war between the state and Shining Path, the neo-liberalisation of the economy and the emergent struggles for democratic process. My early work focused on the politics of language, on gendered violence and on inequality. This work established my long term interests in political form – and the intersections between modern state politics and the politics of everyday life.
My ethnographic study of roads, which I carried out with Hannah Knox, emerged from an interest in how the state takes form, or materialises, in mundane environments, particularly in rural areas where people routinely present themselves as abandoned and forgotten by state agencies. I subsequently worked on a collaborative project on the forms of political life that were taking hold around processes of technical and administrative government in Cusco, in the context of decentralization. The collaboration with Deborah Poole and a team of researchers (Annabel Pinker, Jimena Lynch Cisneros and Teresa Tupayachi Mar) is gradually turning into an ethnographic monograph Experimental States: creativity, uncertainty and forms of the political in neoliberal Peru.
Infrastructure and Material Politics
CRESC, the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural change, enabled Hannah Knox and I to carry out the research in Peru for our book Roads: an anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (Cornell University Press, 2013). We conducted ethnographic research on two roads, living with the engineers, scientists, bureaucrats, construction workers and residents of the regions that these roads were intended to transform. We followed public debate, particularly engaged by the histories and the projections, the aspirations and the fears, that large-scale infrastructure projects provoke.
Together with colleagues from diverse social science, humanities, and organisational studies backgrounds, we initiated a programme of research infrastructures and material politics which led to two major publications Objects and Materials: a Routledge Companion (2013) and Infrastructures and Social Complexity (2015). The CRSEC research group continues to meet and we are currently developing a new research initiative on ethnographic approaches to ‘mega-projects’, exploring the intersecting worlds of regulation, expertise, politics and material agency.
Colleagues from the Social Anthropology department in Oslo have also been key interlocutors for me – particularly in the development of a forthcoming edited collection on Anthropos and the Material: anthropological reflections on emerging political formations, where I got the chance to elaborate on my fascination with concrete and the vitality of ‘soft matter’. The reading group on Labour that ran for several years in Oslo, and connected up to parallel interests in the Manchester department, resulted in a special issue of the JRAI ‘Dislocating Labour: Anthropological Reconfigurations) edited by Penny Harvey and Christian Krohn-Hansen – forthcoming in 2018.
The decommissioning of the Sellafield nuclear site, where the reprocessing of nuclear fuels is coming to an end in 2020, has become the focus of a new ethnographic field of enquiry on nuclear materials, landscapes and industries which I am carrying out in close collaboration with colleagues from Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute – The Beam.
This project connects to my previous interests in the dynamic transformative potential of materials, and to the politics of infrastructural formations – and to the intersections of neoliberal state policies and the mundane spaces of everyday existence. We are interested in exploring the entanglements of nuclear science with markets, with warfare, with regional economies, and with the ways in which hopes and expectations for green energy futures co-exist with the historical legacies that underpin deep social fears of the destructive force of fissile matter. Issues of public trust and public concern are central to our attempts to deploy ethnographic methods to broaden understandings of the social foundations of our nuclear imaginaries.