AHRC-NSF MoU: Scale, Ambiguity and Experimentation: A Collaborative Ethnography of Regional Government in Peru

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Social Sciences


In this collaborative NSF-AHRC project, anthropologists Poole (NSF-US) and
Harvey (AHRC-UK) explore the novel forms of regulatory and technical experimentation
through which the Regional Government of Cusco negotiates its legitimacy as a newly
formed layering of the Peruvian state. The project will deepen anthropological understandings of the neoliberal state through a detailed ethnography of two domains of expert knowledge in which modern state power is simultaneously consolidated and undone through its articulation with global or international arenas of knowledge, circulation and value. The first of these arenas is law, and more specifically the international treaties and conventions that regulate how nation states govern indigenous populations and the environment. The second arena is infrastructural engineering, more specifically the metrics, techniques and standards of engineering works that frame the ways in which modern states transform public space and infrastructural systems.. By developing methods and theoretical frameworks for the comparison and analysis of these two domains of state authority, the research explores,
(1) how collaborative ethnography can better inform our understandings of the state as a
'multiscalar' or 'translocal' entity,
(2) how the idea of "the state" acquires political and affective force at the interface between local, regional and transnational modes of practice. A ten-month ethnographic study in Cusco will be conducted in collaboration with local agencies and two research assistants. The ethnography will focus on controversies surrounding technical practices, legal interpretation and expert knowledge in a World Bank funded public works project that is both administered by the Regional Government of Cusco and subject to international indigenous, environmental and regulatory laws. Research will trace these controversies as they unfold in relationship to two specific activities within the project: the construction of a by-pass around an important archaeological site, and a territorial mapping program designed to reorganize and rationalize urban and rural land.

Intellectual Merit: This project contributes methodological and theoretical innovations to cultural anthropology and to theoretical work on neoliberalism, through its novel combination of perspectives drawn from the anthropologies of law, and of science and technology. Methodologically, by tracing parallel domains of expert practice across different layers of the nation state, the collaboration will expand and refine anthropological capacities for comparative thinking across the multi-scalar and dispersed domains of practice and life that make up the modern state. As an anthropological contribution to interdisciplinary discussions of the state and state power, the project will provide detailed empirical accounts of how the neoliberal state deploys and relies on expert knowledge. The project contributes to theoretical work on affect and politics by exploring how the idea of 'the state' acquires political and affective force within ambiguous spaces at the interface between local, regional and transnational claims to expertise. Finally, the project will contribute to Latin American studies as the first ethnography to focus on the workings of regional governance and decentralization in Peru.

Broader Impact: The research will advance models for collaboration between academic institutions and research centers in the US, Britain and Peru. Research findings and methodologies will be shared and developed in workshops held with academic, government and civil society (NGO) researchers in Peru, including the Regional Government of Cusco,
Plan Copesco , and the Centro Bartolome de Las Casas . The workshops will generate journal publications that will advance anthropological research on the modern state. Non-specialist publications based on project findings will contribute culturally sensitive, anthropological insights to public debate an


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Description 1. Comparative methodologies.
Our research contributes to disciplinary conversations within anthropology concerning the role and nature of comparison within multisited and collaborative ethnographic fieldwork. Whereas traditional ethnographic methodologies call for comparison across experientially discrete localities (or fieldwork sites), in our fieldwork we worked to define a two stage methodology which first identifies and then tracks thematic resonances across diverse-non-spatially defined--arenas of regulatory practice, normative control, and administrative intervention. These themes include the relationship between political and technical knowledge; assertions and spaces of administrative and interpretive creativity; tensions between the normative (disciplinary) and sanctioning (sovereign) functions of law; circulation of information and material instruments; shifting configurations of material matter (garbage, soil, rocks, water); and anxieties about corruption and transparency. In this sense, the methodology we advance allows for a collaborative study of the state, not by comparing discrete "case studies" or sites, but rather by tracking the diverse flows of affect, attachment, knowledge claims, anxieties, devices and documents through which the state is acknowledged and made present in politics, material nature, and daily life.

2. Collaboration as a contribution to theorizing scale
Scale is often understood to be manifested in modern states through a spatial hierarchy of nested territories or locations in which different layerings of government claim legal responsibility or administrative competency over particular populations, projects and processes. Through collaborative conversations focused on thematic resonances that extend across localities or sites, our collaborative methodology contributes to the task of dissociating "scale" (as a conceptual and theoretical problem) from a spatial or territorial image of the state. During fieldwork we were able to observe how different actors articulated competing claims to authority and expertise, and how they deployed technical and normative languages to ground such competing claims within their own domains of administrative and legal competency. We have found that attention to the circulation of such claims provides a sense of how competency and/or jurisdiction comes to be imagined as conforming to discrete realms of nested governmental authority and influence. At the same time, we observed that nearly all such claims to regulatory or normative authority very soon enter into tension with other arenas of state control. By tracking how claims to competency, jurisdiction and normative authority move across the different sites within our study, our research points to an understanding of the modern neoliberal state as a non-hierarchical, fluid assemblage in which neat hierarchies of bureaucratic and legal competency fade in the face of competing claims to legal jurisdiction and normative authority.

3. Norm and law
As a contribution to broader debates within the humanities, our ethnography tracks the workings of both affect and desire within the deterritorializing logic of the neoliberal state. By following conversations and discussions concerning shifting jurisdictional or normative fields and competencies, our research also documents how governance unfolds through a shared skepticism towards both the sovereign claims of law and the universalizing claims of technical knowledge. In contradistinction to philosophical and theoretical understandings of law as an expression of sovereignty grounded in sanction and command, the disposition towards law which we observed is open ended, irreverent and overtly political in that it invites contestation and disagreement. As an anthropological study of political life, this finding is significant in that it reveals how the diffuse domains of regional government authority produced through decentralization, open up spaces for particular sorts of political actors.

4. Technical knowledge and political form in the neoliberal state
Finally, our research suggests that the relationship between technical knowledge and political aspiration needs to be rethought in relationship to this skeptical disposition towards state power, law and the public good. The case studies in our research all provide examples of how repeated claims to technical expertise work to deepen skepticism concerning the nature, location and legitimacy of state authority and power. We suggest that regional government in Peru is defined on the one hand by such iterative claims to technical expertise, and on the other, by peoples' shared knowledge of the fact that technical studies expire and lose efficacy over time, and in relationship to changing normative frameworks. This finding is of importance for interdisciplinary research on the neoliberal state in that it reveals how the technical forms that underwrite the democraticizng promise of decentralization as a political form, rubs up against engrained cultural and historical understanding of the territorial state. In this respect, we predict that our ethnography of regional government in Peru will have broad comparative implications for understanding the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of neoliberal governance and the "rule of law" in Latin America and beyond.
Exploitation Route Our findings are primarily directed at academic and research users working across diverse fields of political anthropology, anthropology of the state, the qualitative social science of infrastructure, science and technology studies. The work has also been taken up in Peru where we published a special edition of the academic Antropológica, in Spanish, for dissemination.
Together with Deborah Poole we are in the final stages of a research monograph on Experimental States.

We are also finalising a joint publication on collaborative ethnography which will be published in both Spanish and English and will explicity target non-academic users in local government, policy and planning offices in Peru.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education

Description Our research collaboration involved working with local government officials in our research area. We also worked closely with local development NGOs (particularly Bartolomé de las Casas) and with the Regional Government of Cusco. At the end of the award period we held a workshop to which we invited a range of officials from the Regional Government, from national educational/research NGOs and from the local governments who had been the subjects of our research. The workshop was not only to disseminate our findings but also to pose questions and to encourage these diverse agencies to discuss these issues directly with each other. This conversation was particularly interesting around the area of waste management and sanitation infrastructures - and led directly to the re-evaluation of the sanitation infrastructure proposals put forward by the Regional Government . After the end of the award we applied for a seminar at the School of Advanced Research, Santa Fe funded by the US National Science Foundation. To this event we were able to invite two of our affiliate Peruvian Researchers, who had taken their research experience to subsequent posts in the Regional Government and in a National Government Department. In both cases it was the ethnographic method, and the forms of collaboration that we were developed which they found particularly helpful and which they were subsequently using as an integral part of their on-going work in policy formation and delivery. Finally on the basis of our experience of collaboration on this project, I applied for an ESRC IAA award to work with the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority - as part of a wider project on Big Data which was explicitly structured around modes of collaboration that draw together academic researchers and public service provides (both governmental and private sector). This work resulted in a working paper (see outputs) that has been widely circulated.
Description Big Data and Urban Waste Management
Amount £36,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2014 
End 01/2015
Description School of Advanced Research Team Seminar, Santa Fe
Amount $5,000 (USD)
Organisation National Science Foundation (NSF) 
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 04/2014 
End 04/2014