Professor Fairhead's covers two distinct fields:

 1. Anthropogenic landscapes and indigenous agro-ecological knowledge

Beginning with doctoral fieldwork (1986-9) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), James Fairhead initially focused on questions of fertility and health, but with a focus less on people than on soils and plants. This explored the empirical and theoretical cross-over between environmental and medical anthropology.

In 1991 he began a second phase of research focusing on agro-ecology and vegetation management in the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. This led to a trilogy of books examining how the environmental sciences and policy engage with the lives and perspectives of land users, and considered the disjunctures between them. The first book, Misreading the African Landscape (CUP 1996) focused on the Kissidougou region of Republic of Guinea; the second, Reframing Deforestation (Routledge 1998) focused on the West African forest zone more generally, and the third, Science, Society and Power (CUP 2003) examined the forces shaping the conduct of environmental science and policy, comparing how these forces play out in West Africa and the Caribbean. In particular, this worked revealed the significance of anthropogenic forests to West African landscapes and livelihoods, the findings of which have been significant for forestry, ecology, and conservation sciences as well as to anthropology.

A 40 minute TV documentary 'Second Nature' profiles the research that Fairhead profiled in 'Misreading the African Landscape'.

In 2009, he began a third phase of research, leading a research team of anthropologists and soil scientists that has revealed the existence and significance of enduringly enriched, anthropogenic ‘Dark Earth’ soils in West Africa. Together with colleagues he found these ‘African Dark Earth’ (AfDE) soils to be germane to farming in humid West Africa, and has researched not only how they are formed, understood and used, but theorised the balance between inevitability and intentionality in their formation. He has theorised why they have not been noticed before and he has explored how they might offer a model for agricultural intensification that sequesters atmospheric carbon.

Fairhead’s research continues to crossover from environmental anthropology into questions in the anthropology of science and of health. For several years between 2002 and 2008 he focused more directly on the anthropology of medicine and medical research, and more specifically on how immunization research and policy unfolds in relation to the social worlds of West Africa (Guinea and The Gambia) and the UK. His book Vaccine Anxieties (Routledge 2007) draws this work together.

Because several of the regions in which James Fairhead has researched have become theatres of conflict and refugee movement, he has addressed these questions too.


2. The history of early anthropology in the United States.

As an environmental anthropologist, James Fairhead has always researched the broader social and environmental history of the regions in which he studies, as this shapes contemporary landscapes. From this interest, however, he has developed a fresh approach to understanding the early history of anthropology, particularly as it emerged in the United States, by narrating the lives of its earliest informants. His first book developing this genre, African American Exploration of West Africa (Indiana University Press 2003) considered the lives and travels of four of the first Liberian explorers in the 1850s-1870s.

His new book, The Captain and ‘The Cannibal’ : the epic story of exploration, kidnapping and the Broadway Stage (Yale University Press, 2015) is, however, more firmly rooted in ‘narrative history.’ It tells the life of a man named Dako, kidnapped from the island of Uneapa in present day Papua New Guinea and his encounters with anthropology and wider American society in the 1830s.  Taking a narrative history approach to the lives of anthropology’s earliest informants avoids seeing the history of anthropology as the history of its own ideas. It offers fresh insights into the way anthropology unfolds and humanity is narrated, and thus to the position of anthropology in society. He is currently working on two further narrative history works of this genre. One concerns Dr. Peter Wilson and the revolution among the Six Nations in Western New York in 1848 and the other concerns J. N. Reynolds and his voyage to the centre of the earth in 1828-9.


Research Supervision

James is keen to supervise enthusiastic doctoral students developing original research ideas. He is particularly suited to supervise those seeking to research on agro-ecological and environmental knowledge, practices, policy and history, whether in Africa or the Caribbean, but extending to Amazonia; west and central African society, transformation, 'development' and conflict including (but not necessarily limited to) the relations with development agencies, and mining interests; health practices, research and policy - principally in Africa.

Current Doctoral Students:

Andrea Brock, “BioBanking: Struggling to marketise nature?  A critical international political economy account of biodiversity markets” (ESRC)

George Byrne, “REDD+ in Ecuador: The impact of the commodification of the rainforests on local people – an ethnographic study with the Cofán people on the Bermejo Ecological Reserve.” (ESRC)

James Drew, “Pastoralist epistemologies of physical geographic landforms and processes: a case of the Samburu in northern Kenya” (ESRC)

Alexander Dunlap, “Experiencing the ‘Green’ Economy: Green Grabbing, Eco-gentrification, and Migration.”

Katie McQuaid  “Another war”:  Stories of Violence, Humanitarianism and Human Rights amongst Congolese Refugees in Uganda (ESRC)

Peter Slovak, “Interaction between local community and private protected areas in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil: implications for sustainable development and nature conservation.” (ESRC)

Jonathan Sward, “Migrant livelihoods in a changing environment: investigating the links between environmental change, land access and investment in biofuel plantations in Brong Ahafo, Ghana”

Ross Wignall, “‘Our Brother’s Keeper’:  Moralities of Transformation at YMCA Centres in UK and Gambia” (ESRC)

Recent Doctoral Students:

Narciso Mahumana, “Rethinking Indigenous Medicine: Illness (mis)representation and Political Economy of Health in Mozambique’s public health (battle)field” (2014)

Jennifer Diggins, “Slippery Fish, Material Words: The substance of survival in coastal Sierra Leone" (2014)

David Rubyan-Ling,  “Diaspora and Diversity: An Ethnography of Sierra Leoneans living in South London” (2014)

Maria Abranches,  The Route of the Land’s Roots:  Connecting life-worlds between Guinea-Bissau and Portugal through food-related meanings and practices (2013)

Anna Arnone, “Being Eritrean in Milan: the constitution of Eritrean identity” (2010)

Elizabeth Hartmann - Strategic Scarcity: the origins and impact of environmental conflict ideas (awarded 2002)
Nicole Blum - The social shaping of environmental education: policy and practice in Menteverde, Costa Rica (awarded 2005)

Pauline Von Hellermann - Things fall apart? A political ecology of 20th century forest management in Edo state, Southern Nigeria (awarded 2005)

Serge Elie - The waning of a pastoralist community: an ethnographic exploration of Soquotra as a transitional social formation (awarded 2006)

Deborah Simpson - Civil society in the 'new' South Africa: from critique to collaboration (awarded 2006)

Rebecca Prentice - 'Thiefing a chance': Garment work and the production of flexibility in Trinidad (awarded 2007)

Laura Lauzzana - The politics of local knowledge and communication: seed systems, gender and development in Dodoma and Singida regions, Tanzania (awarded 2007)

James Fraser - The Dark earth phenomenon: sustainable agriculture for Amazonia and beyond (Leverhulme)

Genner Llanez-Ortiz - Indigenous universities and the Construction of interculturality: The case of UCI-Red in the Yucatan, Mexico (Mexican National Scholarship)

Dinah Rajak - Anglo-American corporate social responsibility

Kathy Riley - People's experiences of participation in a Cuban neighbourhood (ESRC)

Caroline Wilson - Commoditization of health provisions in Kerala (ESRC)

Lowell Woodcock - The environmental history of Tobago: globalisation and development in crisis 1763-2005 (Leverhulme)