I am Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, and co-Director of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) where I covene the research theme on ‘Topologies of Social Change’ - an inter-disciplinary group interested in the politics of space, time and matter. I am currently working with Hannah Knox on an ethnography of roads in the Andean and Amazonian regions of Peru. Our almost finished book - Precarious Infrastructures - tracks the material, moral and social controversies produced by a volatile mix of engineering expertise, transnational capital and territorial politics. We are particularly interested in how road construction projects mobilise spatial and temporal imaginaries. Roads are field sites that allow for the empirical study of trans-local places that register histories of travel and of settlement, and that draw together the preoccupations and speculative investments of multilateral funders, international trade and local enterprises. Since October 2010 I have also been working on a new ethnographic project entitled Unsettling the State: Law, Engineering and Regional Government in Cusco, Peru. This is a collaborative project in a research team of six ethnographers, which I run together with Deborah Poole (Johns Hopkins University) that looks at how the ambiguities that technical and legal knowledges create and sustain are mobilised in the exercise of state power. The tropes of temporality and community are central to this work.
I first became interested in the interconnections between time and community while I was writing my undergraduate (honours) thesis on Donna Haraway’s work and its implications for feminist coalition building. Looking at both her and Gloria Anzaldua’s work on hybrid identities it seemed that attempts to rethink community in terms of hybridity also appeared to involve challenges to linear conceptions of time, involving for example, critiques of teleology, progress and assumptions about how change happens over time. I took up this problem in my PhD thesis in Philosophy. However I found it quite difficult to approach this problem in the way I wanted to from a solely continental philosophical framework, and was particularly inspired by Carol Greenhouse’s work to explore the way the time of social life can be understood as being produced through the negotiation of social conflict. As a result I ended up developing an interdisciplinary approach to ‘time and community’ that draws on anthropology, sociology, feminist philosophy as well as continental philosophy.
My current project builds on this work, in order to develop an account of the way both time and community are being transformed in the context of climate change and resource depletion. Taking inspiration from Donna Haraway’s account of figurations as ‘condensed maps of contested worlds’ (1997, 11), I will produce case studies of three figures that might instead serve as ‘condensed clocks of contested worlds’. Looking at atomic and molecular clocks, leather-back turtles on the verge of extinction and community-led attempts to build sustainable cities, I want to analyse how an attentiveness to each of these different sites opens up a view onto the complex temporalities and relationalities that are being mobilised. It is envisioned that these ‘condensed clocks’ may enable new ways of understanding the task of ‘telling the time’ in the current context. This work involves a variety of collaborations including with Transition Liverpool and other members of the Extinction Studies working group.
While completing my PhD I often felt a little lost in the wilderness, with very few guides for how to approach the problems of time and community together in the way that I wanted to – at least none that I could find at the time! While there is certainly some enjoyment in feeling this way, I’m very much looking forward to working with others at the workshop to start developing a more explicit framework for thinking through these intersections.