Paige West, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, joined the faculty in 2001 the year after earning her Ph.D. in cultural and environmental anthropology. Dr. West’s general research interest is the relationship between society and the environment. More specifically she has written about the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Germany, England, and the United States. Her primary research site, since 1996, has been Papua New Guinea.
Dr. West’s most recent books are From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012, Duke University Press), Conservation is our Government now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea (2006, Duke University Press), and, co-edited with James G. Carrier, Virtualism, Governance, and Practice: Vision and Execution in Environmental Conservation (2009 Berghahn Press). She is also the author of numerous articles.
Much of 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 four primary questions. First, how do the political-economic processes termed neoliberalism interpenetrate global conservation and development policies and practices? Second, how does the circulation of European notions of nature and culture work to displace or supplant other ways of understanding sociality and the environment? Third, how do spaces taken-for-granted as ‘natural’ and practices taken-for-granted as ‘cultural’ come into being? Fourth, how do people come to be in the world as subjects and agents in relation to their natural environments?
In 2002 Dr. West received the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology and Environment Junior Scholar award for her work, in 2004 she received the American Association of University Women Junior Faculty Fellowship and the American Council of Learned Societies Faculty Fellowship, in 2006 she received the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Fellowship, and in 2007 she was named a Fellow by the Association of Social Anthropology in Oceania. In 2008 she founded the journal Environment and Society: Advances in Research, which is published by Berghahn Books, and for which she serves as editor. Dr. West is currently the president of the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association.
In addition to her academic work, Dr. West is the co-founder of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research (PNG IBR) a small NGO dedicated to building the academic capacity for research in Papua New Guinea among Papua New Guineans. She is currently on its board of directors. Dr. West is also the staff anthropologist for the NGO Ailan Awareness (AA), a marine-conservation NGO located in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea.
Dr. West current research is a study of the meanings and values attributed to plants, animals, landscapes, and seascapes in Papua New Guinea. Her sites include primary forests in the Highlands, marine reserves on the coasts, palm oil plantations in New Ireland Province, with eco-tourist surfers who visit Papua New Guinea, and in urban markets in Port Moresby.