Dr. West’s research examines how ‘sustainable development’ has become an important vehicle by which the social and economic ideologies of late liberalism are circulated globally. She approaches this topic through the study of how the deployment of particular ideologies, imaginaries, and fantasies of nature and culture work to produce society and space and the analysis of how people make places, plants, and animals valuable and meaningful. Her work focuses on Papua New Guinea and the forms of social power that tie the area to other sites where it is imagined, made legible, and consumed. Through detailed ethnography she demonstrates that ‘sustainable development’ projects do not simply ‘affect’ social and material lives but bring new worlds into being. By ‘new worlds’ she means new ways of thinking about and finding meaning in people’s surroundings, new ways of physically and ideologically producing those surroundings, and new forms of subjectivity and agency.
Within this focus her research has been driven by three central questions. First, how does the circulation of European notions of nature and culture (and the assumed relations between nature and culture connected to these notions) work to displace or supplant other ways of understanding sociality and the environment? Second, how do spaces taken-for-granted as ‘natural’ and practices taken-for-granted as ‘cultural’ come into being? Third, how do people come to be in the world as subjects and agents in relation to their natural environments?
Dr. West’s research sits within the fields of cultural anthropology and the new political ecology. Traditional political ecology, as a subfield of anthropology and geography, has been concerned with the local environmental transformations wrought by external politics and economics. Much of this work has focused on material transformations that have dispossessed rural and poor peoples of land rights and access to subsistence necessities. A critical focus has been on the ways local-level environmental degradations (like desertification and deforestation) have been blamed on the rural poor and not adequately examined in the light of political-economic processes. While this work has been crucial for showing how the local, the national, and the international are connected in instances of environmental change, it has tended to portray people as rational and economic actors and to view their interactions with their surroundings as ‘resource use.’ This portrayal elides the deeply social human relations with the natural world and eclipses the role that the social has in bringing particular ideological forms into being and then naturalizing them.
In her work, Dr. West retains a focus on political-economic structure and process but also draw on contemporary cultural anthropology’s careful analysis of the processes through which meanings, objects, and persons mutually and simultaneously come into being. Her research also adds a serious engagement with the environment to the cultural anthropology literature and an engrained ethnographic engagement with the circulation of value and meaning to the critical geography literature.