Dr Peter Wynn Kirby

Peter Wynn Kirby is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, and a Research Associate in Oxford's School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Dr Kirby 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 teaching 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.

Dr Kirby was awarded a grant from the John Fell Oxford University Press (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 Dr Kirby to China to embark on ethnographic fieldwork there.

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.

Research interests

Dr Kirby 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 Dr Kirby'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; 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 in 2005.) This extensive research both before and after the 2011 tsunami serves as the backbone of a book-in-progress analysing nuclear culture and nuclear identity in disaster-torn Japan. He has also recently revised an article-length analysis of early postwar Japanese attitudes to nuclear risk, as expressed in period journalism and Japanese popular culture - notably the rich, surprisingly relevant trove of nuclear-themed monster films from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Naturally, Dr Kirby continues to work on the massive debris problems and radioactive fallout that plague Japan in the wake of the triple-disaster in March 2011.

Dr Kirby has disseminated his research in such venues as The New York Times, The Japan Times, The Guardian 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 - listen here). He was invited to discuss the nuclear/environmental ramifications of Japan's Tohoku 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).

Selected Publications

(In preparation) Peter Wynn Kirby and Anna Lora-Wainwright (eds). Peering Through Loopholes, Tracing Conversations: Remapping the Transborder Trade in Electronic Waste. Special journal issue.

(In preparation) Peter Wynn Kirby and Anna Lora-Wainwright. Exporting Harm, Scavenging Value: Transnational Circuits of E-Waste in East Asia.

2013. Flammable Ice, Warming Planet. The Japan Times, 5 April.

2012. Hate Week in China. The Guardian, 14 October.

2012. A Tale of Two StockpilesThe Japan Times, 20 June.

2011. Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

2011. The Human Fallout for Japan. The Daily Beast, Newsweek, 26 March.

2011. Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film. The New York Times, 14 March.

2009. Peter Wynn Kirby (ed.). Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

2009. Introduction: Lost in ‘Space’: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. In Peter Wynn Kirby (ed.), Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

2009. Toxins Without Borders: Interpreting Spaces of Contamination and Suffering. In Peter Wynn Kirby (ed.), Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

2009. Onward Bound: Ethnographic Perspectives on Space, Movement, and Context. In Peter Wynn Kirby (ed.), Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

2004. Getting Engaged: Pollution, Toxic Illness, and Discursive Shift in a Tokyo Community. In J. G. Carrier (ed.), Contesting Environments: Local Understanding in a Globalizing World. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira. 97-117.

2003. Toxic Pollutants and Japanese Identity in Two Tokyo Communities. In Synthetic Planet: Chemical Politics and the Hazards of Modern Life. M. Casper (ed.). London and New York: Routledge. 3-24.

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