Catching up with our Postdocs: Dr Nathaniel Morris

20 September 2019

Since this week is National Postdoc Appreciation Week, we thought it would be great to catch up with some of our Teaching Fellows and Research Associates about what they have been up to over the summer! We spoke to Dr Nathaniel Morris.


It looks like you’ve been busy over the summer with lots of writing and research! What have you published recently?

 First, an article of mine finally came out a few weeks ago, which is very satisfying! It’s about the participation of Mexico’s indigenous Cora (Náayari) people in the conflicts that rocked the country between its independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, and the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920. The article is the first major output of my Leverhulme-funded project at UCL, which explores the role of militias in modern Mexican history, in particular militias made up of indigenous people, who often have a very different idea of what Mexico is all about compared to the ethnically mestizo, Spanish-speaking politicians who dominate the country… The article is in a special edition of the Small Wars and Insurgencies journal, which is dedicated to nineteenth-century guerrilla and counter-insurgency warfare, and also features a bunch of other fascinating articles on everything from guerrillas in the Congo to bandit warlords in China – you can find my article online, with links to the rest of the papers alongside it, right here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09592318.2019.1638544?journalCode=fswi20

Second, I also wrote up a blog piece for the website of Prof. Jonathan Goodhand's SOAS-based 'Drugs and Disorder' project, which went up on their website a few weeks ago… It’s all about this massive economic crisis that’s hit some of the poorest and roughest bits of the Mexican countryside in the last year. These are parts of the country where peasant communities depend for their livelihoods on producing raw opium, which Mexican drug cartels then turn into heroin and smuggle into the US… But the thing is that suddenly, because heroin in the US is being displaced by this new, synthetic drug called fentanyl (the same stuff that killed American music stars like Mac Miller, Prince and Tom Petty), there is no longer such demand for raw opium, the value of which has dropped by up to 80% in a matter of months. Unsurprisingly, this is wreaking absolute havoc – not just economically, but also socially and politically – on some of Mexico’s most marginalised regions. You can read more about it right here: https://drugs-and-disorder.org/2019/08/12/what-you-didnt-know-about-mexicos-opium-crisis/

Third, the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development – which is a really cool journal by the way, based just round the corner at SOAS – is putting out an article that I co-wrote with Romain LeCour at the Sorbonne and Benjamin Smith at Warwick University… it’s basically a longer and more scholarly version of the aforementioned blog post, based on fieldwork that we’ve done recently in the bits of Mexico where opium is traditionally grown, and where we realised that there was this huge crisis kicking off that seemingly no-one else in the world of academia, or indeed in the media, had really heard about… The article will be coming out in mid-October; there's no link to the piece yet, but the Journal’s website is here if you fancy checking them out: https://jied.lse.ac.uk/. I actually just got some money from UCL’s Global Engagement Office to put on an event about all this stuff – what we’re calling ‘The Mexican Opium Crisis’ – next year, so watch this space for more information about that!  

Oh, and last but not least, I’ve just signed a contract for my first book, with the University of Arizona Press. So that’s pretty cool!

Congratulations on your book contract with the University of Arizona Press! Can you tell us a little more about what the book will be about?

Yeah sure! The book is provisionally titled ‘Soldiers, Saints and Shamans: Indigenous Communities and the Revolutionary State in Mexico's Gran Nayar, 1910-40.’ It’s all about the participation of four different indigenous peoples – the Coras, Huichols, Tepehuanos and Mexicaneros – in the Mexican Revolution. These groups are famous for being among the least ‘assimilated’ of all of Mexico’s peoples, and it’s often been assumed that they were somehow stuck up in their mountain homelands – collectively known as ‘the Gran Nayar’ – with no knowledge of, or interest in, the uprisings, civil wars, military coups and huge political upheaval that were underway in the rest of the country between 1910 and 1940. But based on a huge amount of archival research, combined with years of fieldwork in the region – lots of riding around in the backs of pick-ups and hiking for days through crazy canyons to get to isolated ranches where the local elders lived – I show that the inhabitants of the Gran Nayar were actively involved in the Revolution, which, after the dust had settled from the armed phase of the revolution itself, led to serious clashes between their autonomous communities and the expansionist Revolutionary state: a confrontation between practitioners of subsistence agriculture and promoters of capitalist development, rival Indian generations and political factions, and opposing visions of the world, of religion, and of daily life. These clashes produced some of the most severe defeats that the Mexican government’s state- and nation-building programmes suffered during this period, with sometimes counter-intuitive consequences. Anyway, it's due out in Autumn 2020, and I'm very excited indeed!

We have lots of new students starting at UCL next week, both undergraduate and postgraduate. What would your advice be for them?

Well, I guess for a start - be curious! Read lots, and not just essential set texts - often a bit of a random browse in the section of the library where the book you're meant to be looking for is, can turn up other, related stuff you’d never have thought to read, which can often be far more interesting that what everyone else is reading! A related tip, rather important in these times when so many people expect everything to just be on the internet, is to actually go to the library in the first place! The web’s great for some things, but when it comes to academia, it’s filled with paywalls… plus there’s just so many obscure print-only publications, and several centuries’ worth of books, that Google or whatever have never bothered to scan, so there’s basically no record of them online, but they’re just sitting there in the UCL Library, Senate House, or the British Library, waiting for someone to discover them! Ah, and my last piece of advice would be – keep your eyes peeled for funding opportunities, and go for all of them! There are lots of obscure pots of cash out there, to support research trips abroad, or for organising events, or doing an exchange somewhere, or whatever else – apply for as many as possible and you might find yourself heading off with money in your pocket to somewhere you never thought you’d get a chance to visit, with the explicit purpose of uncovering some neglected story, meeting crazy interesting people who’ve lived stuff we can’t even imagine, and seeing places you’ve only read about in books…