2012 Winner

Protecting the Archive

by Sarah E. Vaughn

By Prize Committee members—Caitrin Lynch, chair (Olin C), Elizabeth Ferry (Brandeis U), and Anastasia Karakasidou (Wellesley C) We are pleased to announce the winner of the Elsie Clews Parsons Prize, for best graduate student essay. We enjoyed reading this competitive batch of essays that so wonderfully demonstrated that graduate-student work can powerfully exemplify AES’s commitment to using ethnographic writing to build theory and anthropological understanding more generally.

The winner is Sarah E. Vaughn, from Columbia University. Her essay, "Protecting the Archive," takes on questions about security and insecurity in the context of climate change. Vaughn analyzes how landscapes stand in as an archive of natural history in Guyana. Examining a range of seemingly incommensurate perspectives and diverse actors (engineers, beekeepers) involved with a mangrove restoration project, Vaughn’s lucid prose brings disparate frames into articulation.

Vaughn interrogates competing state and private notions of property and “protected areas,” and she asks questions such as these: “How are protected areas produced as a fact about landscape? How are scientific facts employed to stabilize an area as an object worth protecting or not? How does science create an archive of facts about protection? What are the temporal and spatial dimensions of a protected area when dynamics of terrain, marine, and atmosphere are simultaneously considered? How do ideas about protection get tacked onto those about prediction?”

Her conclusion on imagining different futures examines the technical and emotive dimensions of the notion of “protection,” showing how it “travels well beyond the language of environmentalism and into the language of historicity.” Vaughn argues that understanding the depth and nuance of protection in its specific contexts enables us to appreciate the effects of archival practices on aspirations for a more secure future.