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Research

My research focuses on strategies of grassroots autonomy and disruptive protest used by social movements in the highly mobilized, and largely indigenous, country of Bolivia. In the wake of indigenous-led grassroots uprisings in the early twenty-first century, Bolivia offers an unusual opportunity to document the practices and political influence of grassroots movements during a period of massive participation in political life, reorientation of national politics, and restructuring of the state. As an anthropologist of social movements, my work bridges the disciplinary approaches of sociocultural anthropology, historical anthropology, geography, and the interdisciplinary field of contentious politics. My work can be divided into three main areas: 1) an urban-focused study of space-claiming protest; 2) qualitative and quantitative research on protest tactics and repression, and 3) a nascent project on indigenous environmental claims.

My first major project studies the takeover and use of urban space by grassroots social movements in urban Bolivia, particularly in the cities of Cochabamba, Sucre, and La Paz. It documents, ethnographically and historically, how takeovers of urban public spaces generate political legitimacy and contribute to major (sometimes revolutionary) transformations in the balance of power. My work details how movements use practical control over symbolically vital places to claim that they, rather than the government, represent the nation. Its approach contributes specifically ethnographic evidence—of how political action is experienced through the human body, the social significance of urban places, and social movement practices—to the study of social movements. These findings are put forward in the book manuscript, The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia, which was accepted for publication at University of Arizona Press. At its theoretical core, the manuscript connects a geographical analysis of how racial and governmental power structure the contemporary Latin American city with an ethnographic study of social movement practices. Fieldwork for this project resulted in a late 2016 public engagement project in Bolivia supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, resulted in an article in the Journal for Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, and continues to inform a number of other academic publications.

A second area of my scholarship on Bolivian social movements concerns the dynamic interaction between protest tactics and state responses to protest. My work examines protesters’ differing approaches to tactics, including movements that are explicitly nonviolent, violent, or neither; the causes, meaning, and consequences of death in political conflict; and the results of conflicts between unarmed protesters and armed members of state security forces. My qualitative study of these dynamics began during my fieldwork on space-claiming protest, but since 2015 I have been compiling a database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict that covers events since 1982. As a Mellon Digital Humanities Faculty Fellow in 2018–19, I am working to make this database a comprehensive record of the lethal consequences of Bolivian political struggle and to make that record publicly available to support my own scholarship and that of other researchers.

My final area of work concerns how indigenous peoples have developed and elaborated standards of collective rights as part of their efforts to manage threats to their cultures and territories. Organizing at the local, national, and international level, indigenous movements have instituted rights ranging from the prohibition of genocide to prior consent over government activities on their lands. My current research project, Perspectives on Space and Territory in Socio-Environmental Conflicts, looks at the political, ethical, and legal tensions that surround resource extraction projects pursued by “post-neoliberal” governments in South America. Building on my past work in this area as both a researcher and a policy advocate, I am focusing this work on indigenous opposition to environmentally damaging projects on their traditional territories. In coordination with graduate student researchers, I have been conducting initial fieldwork on this topic by engaging indigenous and environmental advocates and will be developing the project over the coming years.

In summary, my research agenda examines how subordinate social groups, particularly the urban poor and indigenous peoples, organize their own spaces and assertively use public spaces. I pursue a spatially aware ethnographic approach, interested in the practical and symbolic significance of urban places and indigenous territories, as well as a careful examination of the practices of social movements in sustained conflicts. My broader research interests include the transnational indigenous, peasant, and global justice movements; evolving ideas of collective rights; and the role of urban space in reproducing and challenging racial and state power.

Teaching

My teaching focuses on providing students with anthropological knowledge on globally relevant issues: indigeneity, environmental rights, the state, race, public space, cultural diversity, social inequality, and political change. My regular courses include:

  • Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
  • History and Culture of the Andes
  • Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • History of Anthropological Theory II
  • Race as a Cultural and Legal Construct
  • Biology and Culture of Race
  • Political Anthropology: States and Their Secrets

After several years of incorporating Wikipedia assignments into my teaching, I joined the board of Wiki Education, a non-profit organization that supports higher-education instructors in teaching with Wikipedia and trains academic experts to improve the quality of knowledge on the world’s largest encyclopedia.

I previously taught at Hunter College, Baruch College, and New College of California. In the early 2000s, I worked for several years supporting indigenous communities affected by oil drilling in Colombia, Nigeria, and Alaska. My writing has appeared in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Limn, the Journal of Peasant Studies, and Anthropology Now.

I blog at Carwil without Borders and tweet at @CarwilBJ.