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James Blair

College: Graduate Center
Awards: National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, 2014; National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, 2014

Exploring the Falklands' Future

On the windswept Falkland Islands, a British-controlled archipelago off the southernmost tip of Argentina, some 3,000 residents face political and cultural upheaval as they shift the economy from fishing and sheep (488,395 at last count) to offshore oil.

In 1982, Argentina invaded what it calls Las Malvinas and, despite defeat by Britain in a nasty 10-week war, it continues to assert sovereignty at the United Nations. This prompted a 2013 self-determination referendum, in which all but three of the Falkland Islanders who voted opted to remain a British overseas territory.

CUNY anthropology doctoral candidate James J.A. Blair is using his 2014 Fulbright All-Disciplines Postgraduate Award and National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to research how Falkland Islanders chart their future through new forms of governance over resources, particularly energy.

“I’ll observe ways in which Falkland Islanders are planning for oil development,” says Blair. His dissertation, which also is funded by a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, will consider decision-making about infrastructure, including “debates about where the port and roads should be, as well as how to make the most of this potential oil revenue.” Other critical issues range from encouraging people to stay in agriculture to protecting penguins and safeguarding the environment from oil development.

There are also intriguing ethnographic questions. “I’m interested in analyzing this group’s claim that they’re a people. They’re mostly descendants of settlers from Britain, but they’re effectively reinventing themselves as natives through new forms of governance and this claim of self-determination, which since the era of decolonization is a right claimed primarily by indigenous populations,” Blair says.

Blair first became interested in the Falklands as an undergraduate at Boston College, when he was in Argentina researching textile factories. While completing coursework at the CUNY Graduate Center, he visited the Falklands on the 30th anniversary of the war in order to develop his dissertation proposal through a grant program of the Social Science Research Council. In talking with Argentine scholars, he realized that “no one had done an anthropological study in the Falklands.”

With a CUNY Fred A. Mayer Travel Award, he then returned to the islands during the 2013 referendum on self-determination and wrote a series of articles on the Falklands for The Economist. To supplement his ethnographic fieldwork, his project includes archival research in Argentina and in the United Kingdom.

An undergraduate double major in history and philosophy, with a minor in Latin American studies, Blair worked for the Sierra Club in California for several years after earning his bachelor’s degree.

He says he chose CUNY for his Ph.D. because of the anthropology faculty. “It’s theoretically rigorous and innovative, not just studying traditional field sites, but pushing anthropology into new interdisciplinary investigations,” he says. He particularly appreciates his adviser, Marc Edelman at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, an expert in peasants and social movements in Latin America and beyond. “His work is not closely related to my project, but through conversations with him and other faculty, I’ve developed an exciting project.”

As a graduate student, Blair taught undergraduate courses at Brooklyn College for several years, including cultural and linguistic anthropology, cultures and transformation, and anthropological perspectives on sex (“It’s not my field, but I inherited a good syllabus and successfully taught it five times”). “On some days I’d go from teaching to take my own classes and feel pride, for CUNY is a public institution with such a range of students. Some are brilliant, writing papers I’d be proud to publish; others struggle because they are first-generation immigrants. It’s a humbling and special experience to teach at Brooklyn.”