Research

Paige West, an endowed professor of anthropology, has worked with Indigenous peoples in Melanesia since the 1990s to understand their biodiversity-focused traditions and to help them conserve their cultures, languages, and environments.

Interested in interviewing or working with Dr. West?

As a scholar, Dr. West is committed to developing new transdisciplinary forms of collaboration that allow for the understanding of the complex socio-ecological problems that evade and outsize the theories and methods of any single discipline. As a teacher, she engages in pedagogical practices that facilitate the development of student’s critical thinking skills and that help them to understand the societal value of knowledge production. As an activist, she is committed to working in partnership with colleagues and communities from Oceania to foster environmental conservation initiatives that are underpinned by Indigenous epistemology and that foster Indigenous sovereignty. As a member of the profession of anthropology, she is focused on pushing the discipline forward by fostering inclusive practices and by advocating for engaged scholarship that can be mobilized to contribute to positive social change.

These are her current research projects:

How do diverse groups of people make new knowledge about the changing climate?

Aunty: A Prayer for the World

For the past decade, because of the unprecedented changes that the people who Dr. West has worked with in Papua New Guinea since 1997 now have to understand and contend with in their daily lives, Dr. West has conducted a multi-sited study of climate-change related epistemic / knowledge making practices. In the research she has asked: How do diverse groups of people make new knowledge about the changing climate? Are those knowledge making processes transforming along with the biophysical environments in which people live? Do people’s understandings of, and knowledge about, the places they live transform as their knowledge about climate change transforms? Are the affective connections that people have with place also changing as those places are transformed by climate related events?

The idea for this research came from conversations in 2010 that Dr. West had with Elders in New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea who she has collaborated with for over a decade and from conversations she had with Elders in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea who she has worked with since 1997. Initially she was compelled by these collaborators to ask about how people in Papua New Guinea were making sense of the worlds altered by climate change but after a few years of these conversations her collaborators pushed her to expand her inquiry by looking closer to her own communities in the United States.

For this project, directed by the questions that elders across PNG asked her about her family, friends, and students and how they understand climate change, Dr. West not only conducted research on climate change and knowledge production in Papua New Guinea, she also conducted research in Georgia, where she was born from, and in New York, where she lives, as well as with some of her former anthropology students and their families around the world. Based on this work, Dr. West is currently writing a book entitled Aunty: A Prayer for the World. In the book, through eight interlinked essays, she tells the stories of some of the people she has spent time with and some of the places where they make their lives, make their livings, have familial and non-familial connections to, and have both deep, and not-so-deep, historic connections with.

Each of the essays in Aunty weaves together five scholarly themes. First, they develop the idea that places are palimpsestic in nature: that layer upon layer of meaning sits on and in place and that to understand place and people’s relations with it, one has to excavate that meaning by working with multiple people and through multiple methods. There is a robust literature in the social sciences on place and place making. What Dr. West adds to this literature with the book is an analysis of how people in place understand, narrate, and build on the palimpsestic nature of their places given the changing climate and the knowledge they have to create to live in a place as it changes. Simultaneously, she pushes back against the move within anthropology to understanding place-relations through “ontology” alone and shows that relationality and knowledge are also palimpsestic in nature. Knowledge accretes over time through agentive and affective relations in place.

Second, in each chapter Dr. West writes with animals. In almost every instance in her long-time work where people have deep social relations with places, animals play a large part in their affective relations. Of late there has been a reinvigoration of interest in people’s relations with animals across the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Aunty will show how people produce knowledge about, understand the effects of, and attend to the loss of animals that is resulting from climate change. Third, throughout Aunty Dr. West destabilizes outsider’s assumptions about place and knowledge. Much of the literature on place in the social sciences has focused on men and place. In each chapter in the book, she centers women through the figure of the “Aunty.” Drawing on Pasifika scholars and her many elder-teachers from Papua New Guinea, she draws the thread of women’s particular knowledges of place, animals, and climate change throughout the book. Each chapter has a woman elder as the central figure. Fourth, in each chapter, in addition to the elder Aunty figure, the legacy of an anthropologist’s work will comes into focus as she writes about the palimpsestic nature of place and of climate change knowledge. Here she attends to the, often horrific, legacy of anthropological research in the sites of her study and asks what can be salvaged from the discipline if we are to remake it anew in the present.

Finally, each chapter makes an argument against the so called “Anthropocene.” Dr. West does not argue against the fact that some humans and some human generated processes are changing the world at a planetary systems level – of course they are. Rather, in conversation with Melanesian scholars, she argues that the scaling up engendered by Anthropocene discourses is inherently a process of erasure, because it disallows for the fine-grained narration of individual lives. In the end Aunty argues that moving people to act because of climate change won’t happen because of analyses at the global scale, rather, if it can happen, it will happen through the narration of lives and places transformed at the most intimate of levels.

When Practice Meets Scholarship

Indigenous Socio-Ecological and Socio-Spiritual Sovereignty

Drawing on her career-long engagement with questions about the ethics, ideologies, and practices of environmental conservation, Dr. West currently co-directs a suite of projects focused on strengthening Indigenous Socio-Spiritual practices as they connect to local livelihoods and biodiversity in Papua New Guinea.

Dr. West currently serves as the co-PI on several on-going projects in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, with Mr. John Aini, the founder and director of Ailan Awareness. Together they work to address questions of Indigenous sovereignty over the future of the aquatic-terrestrial-spiritual interface across in New Ireland. Their first project is their ongoing work with ten Indigenous communities in New Ireland Province who are undertaking small-scale environmental conservation projects based on plans that Aini and West help them develop which pull together scientific conservation methods and historic or “traditional” conservation methods. This is both a practice-based project and a scholarly project. The scholarly aspect, or research aspect, is that they are documenting how these communities produce conservation knowledge at the nexus of science and Indigenous socio-spiritual practice. The practice aspect of the project is that they have helped establish ten Indigenous Epistemology Based Marine Resource Management Plans (IEPs) or what communities now more often refer to as Vala areas. Vala is an Indigenous term from Lovangai (New Hanover) that better encompasses the work Aini and West are trying to do than “management plans”. All of their collaborative work is focused on facilitating communities’ enhancement of the ways of life that they wish to continue. This enhancement includes strengthening local livelihoods and reviving and supporting socio-spiritual practices that connect people, ecological systems, ancestors and sprits. West and Aini believe that the ideas of “Conservation” and “Biodiversity” are inherently external to New Ireland but that Vala expresses our goal of revitalizing the aquatic-terrestrial-spiritual-social interfaces that allow for self-determination and sovereignty over both biological and social futures.

The second project seeks to help facilitate the preservation of Indigenously identified important social practices in New Ireland, through the creation of a mechanism for the transmission of Malagan carving expertise. Malagan ceremonies are the lynchpin for an entire system of belief and knowledge in the Malagan cultures of New Ireland. In 2012 West and Aini were approached by a number of the last living carvers to help them find a way to preserve their cultural practices, and their Malagan carving project has emerged from that collaboration. Today they work with the carvers in several ways. First, they facilitate their meetings and discussions with regard to passing on the carving motifs – motifs that are owned, powerful, and sacred. Second, they are working with them to build a series of carving schools where the carvers could work with novices to pass on the techniques. Third, they are developing a cultural repatriation protocol for Malagan culture-focusing on digital repatriation as there is no museum in New Ireland at this point. As a part of this, they worked with the American Museum of Natural History to create digital archives of Malagan carvings housed at that museum from places where people have lost the cultural tradition. Thereby giving contemporary carvers access to motifs that can be used for teaching. Connected to this, they created an e-book of carvings that is currently circulating around New Ireland, teaching young people about the history of Malagan and the connection between these ceremonies and conservation.

The final of West and Aini’s scholarly collaborations is the Ranguva Solwara Skul a pedagogy-based venture to inspire New Ireland’s youth. Teaching Indigenous knowledges and putting this in conversation with contemporary science, the school connects classroom learning to hands on experience in the reefs just meters from the campus in Kaselock Village. At the school Elders come together with outsiders (national and international) who are trained in various scholarly fields of study. With these pairings students learn at the nexus of multiple epistemic traditions. The school functions on a summer-camp model which brings school groups to campus for singular experiences, it does not have a full time student body at this time.

A Philosophy of socio-ecological self-determination

The Political Ecology of Collaboration

Dr. West and her long-time research partner and collaborator John Aini are currently writing a book about collaboration. In it they develop a narrative focused on their philosophy with regard to socio-ecological self-determination in Papua New Guinea, where they work and where John is from, and more broadly. That philosophy can be articulated as follows: That local happiness and livelihood sustainability, as well as Indigenous sovereignty, can only be achieved if the connections between place, people, ancestors, and sprits are strong and alive.  The book outlines how their work has facilitated socio-ecological self-determination through following an ethnical guideline that they have developed with the Elders who serve as their advisors. It is based on three action-based practices: 1) Step up, 2) Mobilize resources, and 3) Step back.

Keywords

Environmental Anthropology

Conservation

Political Ecology

Papua New Guinea

Selected Publications

Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea

Columbia University Press, 2016

This is a brilliant work with theoretical force and wide-ranging epistemological and ethical implications. Rigorously researched and historically grounded, West documents how representational strategies – discursive, semiotic, and visual – in relation to Papua New Guinea underpin the enduring boundary between the nature/culture divide, which produces destructive material effects while entrenching white supremacy and capitalism in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Rich, lucid, and incisive, Dispossession and the Environment is a must-read for scholars in anthropology, environmental studies, Pacific studies, and beyond.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Wesleyan University

Provocative and absorbing, Dispossession and the Environment clarifies the roles that ideologies of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ play in the production of global inequalities. West demonstrates how indigenous philosophy and political ecology can offer new grounds for theorizing worlds remade by dispossession. A much-needed intervention in current debates over ontology and epistemology, this is decolonial anthropology at its best.

Ty tengan, University of Hawaii at manoa

How do we ensure that anthropology does not set the stage for dispossession? This brilliant, powerful collection of essays by Paige West demonstrates the profoundly material effects of disabling colonial and anthropological representations of Melanesia. Papua New Guinean lives and environments matter, and hardly just for the benefit of capitalists, tourists, conservationists, and social scientists.

katerina Teaiwa, Australian National University

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea

Duke University Press, 2012

Paige West writes against two kinds of flatness: the flatness of commodity chain studies and the flatness of ethical consumption’s marketing spin. She offers, instead, a richly peopled ethnographic account of coffee’s trajectory through time, space, lives, and imaginations, and takes us deep into the contradictory heart of our neoliberal times. Penetrating, provocative, and moving, this is an excellent read

Tania Murray Li, University of Toronto

Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea

Duke University Press, 2006

[West] vividly describes the place and its history, documents the social life of the people and their economy, and explains the ways in which people conceptualize their relationships with land and forest and with the expatriate scientists and conservationists who established a conservation-as-development project in their midst. West offers a strong critique of the assumptions that many conservationists make about Melanesian people’s identification with environmentalist ideals.

Martha Macintyre, current anthropology