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Carwil Bjork-James

Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Assistant Professor of Law

Carwil Bjork-James is a cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on strategies of grassroots autonomy and disruptive protest in Latin America. His 2020 book, The Sovereign Street: Making Revolution in Urban Bolivia, analyzes the takeover and use of urban space by grassroots social movements in the cities of Cochambamba, Sucre and La Paz. Using anthropological and historical methods, he explores how pivotal public events generate political legitimacy, contribute to major transformations in the balance of power, and provide models for future political action. 

A second area of his scholarship concerns the dynamic interaction between protest tactics and state responses to protest in Bolivia. This includes studying protesters’ differing approaches to tactics, exploring the causes, meaning, and consequences of death in political conflict, and examining the results of conflicts between unarmed protesters and armed members of state security forces. In addition to ethnographic study of these dynamics, he is compiling a database of deaths in Bolivian political conflict that covers events since 1982.

Finally, Professor Bjork-James' emerging research project, Perspectives on Space and Territory in Socio-Environmental Conflicts, looks at the political, ethical and legal tensions that surround resource extraction projects pursued by “post-neoliberal” governments in South America. Building on his past work in this area as a researcher and policy advocate, this project focuses on indigenous opposition to environmentally damaging projects on their traditional territories.

Bjork-James' research agenda examines how subordinate social groups, particularly the urban poor and indigenous peoples, organize their own spaces and assertively use public spaces. Broader issues of interest include evolving ideas of collective rights, including the right to strike, strategic and tactical questions in collective mass action, and the role of urban space in reproducing and challenging racial and state power.

Before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 2013, Bjork-James taught at Hunter College and at Baruch College in New York.

At Vanderbilt, he teaches Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, History and Culture of the Andes, Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, History of Anthropological Theory II, Race as a Cultural and Legal Construct, Biology and Culture of Race, and Political Anthropology: States and Their Secrets.

Research Interests

Political anthropology, social movements, indigenous rights