WWU's Josh Fisher Travels to Nicaragua to Study the Complex Web of City Life


Cities are complex. Interwoven webs connect each aspect of a city to others, and together they form something that somehow functions as a society.

But how does it all work? Josh Fisher, an associate professor of Anthropology at Western, is figuring that out. He researches city environments to find out how pulling on one string of the web affects the others.

Eight times a year, Fisher flies south to Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua to do research, lead workshops, and conduct follow-up interviews with participants. He has been running the workshops for the past two years, and has been traveling to Ciudad Sandino for the past 16 years.

“Basically anytime we are on a break -- spring break, winter break, whatever -- I am down there,” he said.

Fisher and his co-researcher Alex Nading of Brown University are funded by the National Science Foundation and work with the Foundation for Sustainable Development a local NGO in Ciudad Sandino. The workshops they put together bring individuals together from different parts of the city. These people could be food producers, teachers, government bureaucrats, sanitation workers or garbage pickers -- people who make a living by sorting through the city dump. Fisher said the purpose of the workshop is to understand how these social dynamics from different parts of the city link together.

“What we find is that instead of focusing solely on water for instance, or food, or education, all of these things are actually interconnected. If you want to improve the aesthetics of a city, for example, then you also have to improve environmental education and and waste collection," he said.

Cities are intricate nets made up of thousands of links. He says that through their research they are creating a transferable system that shines light on these networks. When their research is complete, the evaluation system they are creating will be able to be packed up and used to test other cities with the same kind of questions. Fisher said he developed parts of his research methodology by taking student engagement methods taught to faculty at Western and retooling them to be used in his research.

Fisher traveled to Nicaragua in June but he was not able to conduct his scheduled workshops due to the ongoing conflict in the country that reignited in April. Bringing 40 people together for a workshop could have been viewed the wrong way by one or both sides in the current unrest, but Fisher said he is not worried about the delay and has rescheduled the workshops for his next trip in August.

“As an anthropologist, you don’t get to create a lab space in order to do this kind of thing. So when things happen, they happen,” he said. “We want to understand how the world works, and this is the world. What we have actually found is that many of the questions we have been raising for two years have come into sharp focus with these events.”

Others are viewing his research with interest as well; on Sept. 17, Fisher will travel to Cambridge University for a presentation and discussion of their findings. Afterwards, he will attend the annual Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth’s conference at Oxford University.

And when the unrest in Nicaragua cools down, he said he hopes that they can continue their research in Ciudad Sandino, and find out more about how all cities can grow and thrive.

For more information on Fisher’s research in Nicaragua, contact him at Josh.fisher@wwu.edu.