Unsettling the State: A Collaborative Ethnography of Ambiguity and Experimentation in Regional Government in Peru

Collaborative Group

Professor Deborah A. Poole, Professor Penelope M. Harvey


Social Anthropology


The research takes a major infrastructural development project in Cusco's Vilcanota Valley as a site from which to explore the tensions and ambiguities surrounding new state forms in Peru. Ethnographic research will focus on material and discursive practices involved in the implementation of three specific projects in road building, territorial reordering, and sanitation. In studying these domains of expert and state intervention into the material and social landscape, the project explores how claims to expert knowledge and appeals to international regulatory regimes support and interrupt the idea of regional government as a new state form, which is a form grounded in the promise of regional autonomy and modernity.

The collaboration has grown from a long history of research experience in Cusco where Harvey has researched language, state formation, and engineering practice, and Poole has studied indigenism, race, law, and politics. Their different areas of specialization converge around a shared interest in exploring ambiguous domains of power and in developing ethnographic approaches for study of the modern state. In developing collaborative approaches to the study of governance and expertise, the project also draws on Harvey’s work in the anthropology of science and technology in relation to infrastructural projects and public works in Spain and the United Kingdom, and on Poole’s ethnographic and archival research on liberalism, ethnicity, and the state in Oaxaca, Mexico. The collaboration was initially supported by a ESRC-SSRC Collaborative Visiting Fellowship for Poole at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change in Manchester, UK, which is co-directed by Harvey. Outputs will include a jointly authored monograph on the technical and legal dynamics of regional state practice; an international workshop which will be held in Cusco in 2011/12; and a co-written article reflecting on methods and collaborative anthropology.

Award period: January 1, 2011 – June 30, 2012