Academic Profile

Peter Wynn Kirby is an environmental specialist, ethnographer, and Research Fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Peter's latest research fellowship was awarded by the Leverhulme Trust. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Peter came to Oxford as Brookes' Senior Lecturer in the Anthropology of Japan. Prior to taking up that post, he conducted nearly three years of research in France on waste and nuclear risk while based at the Centre de Recherches sur le Japon, EHESS, Paris. He also spent several years as a tenured assistant professor at Ritsumeikan in Japan and held a research post in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Tokyo University while engaging in extensive Japan-based fieldwork. While working in Japan, he returned to the UK to lecture on the 'cultures' of global environmentalism each winter in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge.

Peter was awarded a grant from the John Fell OUP Research Fund, along with colleague Dr Anna Lora-Wainwright, to scrutinize e-waste flows in East Asia and the peculiar industrial ecology of sorts that has developed between Japan, China and the USA. The grant, entitled 'Urban Mining, Toxic Payload: Transnational Circuits of E-Waste Between Japan and China', sent Peter to China to embark on ethnographic fieldwork there. The Leverhulme Trust grant extends and deepens this multi-pronged research project.

Since 2011, he has helped develop and teach an innovative Masters seminar, winner of Oxford University's Teaching Excellence Award, along with colleagues from Oxford's interdisciplinary 'Health, Environment, Development' (HED) collaboration.

He was runner-up for the 2015 Area Prize for New Research in Geography.

Current Research

Peter is probably best described as an 'environmental anthropologist', though he chooses an extremely broad approach to environmental questions that challenges the apparent specificity of the term. While much of Peter's research has, then, been directed toward an analysis of environmental engagement and social action in Japan - most harrowingly in ethnographic pursuit of toxic waste controversies - his interests span a range of themes including reckonings of illness and health; interpretation of 'space' and movement; architecture, discipline, and resistance in cities; operations of social exclusion; the complex 'conversions' of material culture, from recycled garbage to reprocessed radioactive matter; novel subjectivities encountered in robotics labs, as well as challenges posed by robotic waste; and popular culture, particularly involving representations of dystopia.

His first book Boundless Worlds, an edited collection, furnishes a perspective on human-scale movement over the uneven sociocultural terrain that anthropologists chart and navigate in their varied fieldwork. 'Space' as a conceptual regime, with its origins in Ancient Greece, creates distortions in how humans perceive their surroundings and, indeed, how scholars analyze sociocultural realms. The book chooses movement as its vehicle in attempting to get beyond the biases of 'space-thinking' and in turn addresses the ethnographic ramifications of this shift, bringing together nine scholars working in vastly different field settings - insular, nomadic, urban, corporate, military, and so on - to refine and present this anthropological approach to movement.

His second book, Troubled Natures, is a wide-ranging cultural analysis of waste and pollution in contemporary Japan, encompassing ideas of purity, attitudes toward hygiene, notions of health and illness, problems with dumping and vermin, processes of social exclusion, and reproductive threats. Throughout, waste and environmental health problems in Tokyo collide against diverse cultural elements linked to nature(s) - uneasy relations between animals and humans; 'native' conceptions of the foreign and the polluted; reproductive challenges in the face of a plunging fertility rate; and changing attitudes toward illness and health. In highlighting the practical ambivalence of Japanese environmental consciousness and the relatively recent post-Bubble appeal of frugality, sustainability, and recycling initiatives there, the book confronts pressing policy questions to which anthropology is well suited.

One current project considers experiences of nuclear risk and national / cultural constructions of energy, power, pollution, and waste primarily in Japan and in France - the two major nations that have depended most on nuclear power, yet where the risks and benefits of nuclear power play out over vastly different sociocultural topographies. (Early work on this project was awarded three years of Kakenhi funding by the Japanese Ministry of Education.) This extensive research before and just after the 2011 tsunami serves as the backbone of a book-in-progress analyzing nuclear culture and nuclear identity in disaster-torn Japan. Peter is naturally working on the massive debris problems and radioactive fallout that plague Japan in the wake of the triple-disaster in March 2011. With the Japanese government scraping up millions of tons of radioactive dirt from irradiated Fukushima, one particular interest drawn from this research is the loamy enigma of soil: its emotive cultural symbolism, but also how soil is mitigated and mediated, how its microbes are activated and framed as a carbon sink at a fraught juncture vis-à-vis food cultivation and climate science.

Peter is also conducting comparative research on intoxicants such as alcohol, on strategies for fostering conviviality, and on instilling moderation in binge-drinking cultures stretching from Japan to the US.

He has disseminated his research in such venues as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Japan Times, and The Daily Beast, Newsweek. He has also been interviewed on television (e.g. Bloomberg TV) and on radio (e.g. National Public Radio's 'Here and Now' programme; ABC NewsRadio, Australia, 'Japan in Focus' programme). He was invited to discuss the nuclear/environmental ramifications of Japan's tsunami and reactor crisis on a Late-Breaking News roundtable at the Association of Asian Studies meeting in Honololu, April 2011, and at the University of Leiden in 2012. Among many other presentations, he also participated in a conference on toxic pollution in China (held at St. Anne's College, Oxford) and in a symposium on atomic utopias and post-apocalyptic disasterscapes (held at the Architectural Association, London).

He organized a symposium on 'trespassing' at St Hilda's College, Oxford - profiled here in Times Higher Education - and co-organized a workshop (with Oxford colleague Anna Lora-Wainwright) on the transborder e-waste trade, held at Balliol College, Oxford.


Selected Publications

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