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Societies and Cultures Institute

Researching the Overseas Territories - Online Workshop


There is growing academic interest in Overseas Territories (OTs) from a broad range of scholars based in the UK and beyond. These varied studies have explored questions related to the social, cultural, economic, environmental, diplomatic and (geo)political status of OTs from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

This online workshop aimed to bring some of these scholars together for reflection on how they have undertaken research in, with, and for OTs. It sought to explore, for example, how they have negotiated the ethical challenges and pitfalls associated with researching small island communities (see Matheson et al., 2020). Contributors were asked to reflect on what worked well, as well as the failures and things they might have done differently. It will also look forward, in asking provocative and challenging questions about how we could improve the ways we engage OTs’ communities in research.

This workshop took place on Tuesday 23rd May, 13.30 - 17.00 and was organised by Matt Benwell (Newcastle), Catriona Pennell (Exeter) and Al Pinkerton (RHUL).

Attendees were invited to prepare a 'lightning' presentation that reflected on an experience/moment/scenario from their research on OTs which raises broader methodological and/or ethical questions about how we do research in, with and for the OTs.

Please read the blogs below written by these attendees on their research.

Peter Howson

The UK's Blue Belt isn't working. It's time for a rethink.

The Blue Belt network of large Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) surrounding 7 of the UK’s Overseas Territories accommodates over 90% of UK’s biodiversity. According to the government, the Blue Belt helps protect the oceans from global warming and plastics, while establishing the UK as global leader for meeting the UN’s target for protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. The Blue Belt also connects with an agenda for resetting the UK’s relationship with the Territories, several of which rely heavily on UK aid. Just 42 Pitcairn Island residents, for example, received more than £18 million from the UK since 2011. 

For the UK Treasury, the goal is to phase-out support for day-to-day spending in the Territories. For remote St Helena in the South Atlantic, the reset has involved investing in hotels, golf resorts, and a new airport. But more-and-more flights to remote destinations will accelerate global warming.  

Tourism does not automatically protect marine biodiversity. Research suggests that close encounters between tourists and wildlife can actually increase the likelihood of environmental crimes. Tourists usually visit remote islands to eat fish, not conserve them.  

Environmental concerns for the Territories give cover for the UK’s geopolitical interests. In 2010, foreign secretary David Miliband approved a huge MPA around the Chagos Islands. The move was a kick in teeth for many Chagossians, kicked out by the UK government in the 1960s to make way for the US military. For Chagossians, the MPA exists to stymie their return, whilst enabling the ongoing UK-US lease agreement. 

Despite their threatened ecosystems, politically sensitive and populous territories like the Falklands and Caribbean islands, have been omitted from Blue Belt plans. MPAs are pushed in territories more dependent on UK aid. But if these Blue Belt territories do grow their economies through tourism and fishing, some will no longer qualify for Official Development Assistance, yet they will probably be too poor to manage without it. Their fisheries and dependence on tourism could swell to meet an income shortfall as UK aid dries up. They shouldn’t face a choice between poverty or environmentally ruinous growth. A conservation basic income – a universal payment to all residents – could acknowledge the work of islanders in conserving UK biodiversity. In covering their material needs, it would prevent people having to turn to unsustainable fishing and mass-tourism. Swapping fast planes for slow boats and luxury resorts for family guesthouses would be a better strategy. 

The Blue Belt idea is not a new one. France plans to protect 22% of its marine territory as MPAs, the US has reached 26%. The IUCN wants 30% of the world’s oceans enclosed. But with a growth-oriented approach to managing these spaces, increased tourism and fishing may prove environmentally and socially disastrous for the Territories. With a different approach, the Blue Belt could be an ideal opportunity to heal colonial scars, build resilient communities and, in some cases, compensate local people for maintaining these pristine islands for everyone’s benefit. 

Peter Howson is an Assistant Professor in International Development at Northumbria University, Newcastle. His research explores the human dimensions of large marine protected areas.
Further reading: Howson, P. (2020). Degrowth and the Blue Belt: rethinking marine conservation in the British Overseas Territories. Ocean and Coastal Management, 196: 105290.
Photo by Peter Howson

Dr Kate Matheson

In 2018, I started working on a new (to me) project with colleagues at UWE, where I had done my PhD 10 years previously. Our project was to look at the viability of communities on (very) small islands, and involved fieldwork in spring 2019. A colleague and I set out in late February to a small island, not far from the English coast, to conduct a week’s fieldwork – living and working amongst residents, buffeted by the wind and subject to the vagaries of winter transport timetables. It very quickly became apparent that residents were keen to speak with us, but reluctant to do so ‘on the record’. Their island’s primary industry is tourism, and that tourism, for many reasons, centres on the premise of a harmonious island community, unsullied by modern concerns or local antagonisms. Although residents were aware of a number of problems brewing – some specific to their island, some more generalisable across island communities – they were concerned that speaking out about them might compromise either the island idyll, or, more tangibly, their employment and housing prospects. As a consequence, we decided that we would visit a second island location, so that we could offer not only anonymity for participants, but also for the island locale, as referring to a participant as ‘barman’ in a community with one bar doesn’t go far to conceal their identity. 

This perhaps runs counter to the general trajectory of social sciences research. Over the years, research ethics has become synonymous with the offer of anonymity to participants. There are numerous examples, however, of where this has failed or backfired – Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s ‘Ire in Ireland’ being a classic of the genre – whilst the tendency in Island Studies as a discipline has been to include the identity of the island (and perhaps therefore the participants) in order to advocate for their interests. The tension then for our research was how to advocate for the interests of the island / islanders whilst also protecting their more immediate and material interests by not disclosing the location. 

This policy was possible, in the first instance, because I was new to the field, and not known as an island or Overseas Territories researcher. Subsequently, I have conducted research in specific locations, where participants have been named and shared stories openly – for example as part of podcasts. This is more akin to the growing discipline of narrative research, which aims to give voice to (often unheard) people and to promote their stories in their own words. As a result of these projects I have come to be associated (admittedly in a small field) with OTs and particular island locations. There are some advantages to this admittedly – I am privileged to be invited to certain events, and included within a group of researchers with similar interests. But this does then potentially compromise the identity of future research locations – should anonymity be something we wish to continue to promote. 

There are no specific answers to this question, but we need to think carefully about what we are promising when we promise anonymity to our participants. This is to an extent the case in any small community, but the specificities of island and OT locations can make them particularly easy to identify. 

Dr Kate Matheson is the Programme Leader for Criminology at UWE Bristol.
Further reading: Matheson, K., Pawson, C. and Clegg, P., 2020. Anonymity versus advocacy: challenges and pitfalls of ethical island research. The Round Table109(6), pp.720-729.
Photo by Dr Kate Matheson

Dr Nichola Harmer

Researching the UK/UK OTs relationship through Hansard

In recent years, my research has centred on using Hansard official records of UK Parliamentary debate to gain insights into the relationships between the UK and the UK overseas territories. This is important because Parliament is a key space where these relationships, longstanding, colonial, and variously valued, strained, and contested, are shaped. And while citizens in the overseas territories do not have representation in the UK Parliament (there are locally based parliaments, assemblies and councils), the ongoing constitutional relationship means that decisions made within the UK Parliament can directly impact on the territories, often thousands of miles distant.  

Researching how Parliamentarians debate the overseas territories is important as significant power is held by Parliament and Members of Parliament. Analysing Hansard records can identify patterns and themes in the ways that the overseas territories and their relationship with the UK are imagined and constructed by Parliamentarians. Their attitudes, and perceptions influence decisions that can affect the lives of people from the overseas territories. 

However, the ethics of using this approach are not straightforward and raise various questions.   

Firstly, a focus on Hansard alone does not always allow for wider contextualisation of the policy process or for those Parliamentarians to expand on and explain their statements made in the House – statements which are often crafted for particular purposes, in a specific form, and for a particular audience. Different forms of engagement with Parliamentarians, which also puts them into conversation with other perspectives, are also needed. Emma Crewe’s ethnographic research in Parliament provides an excellent example of the depth of insights and understanding that can be gained by an extended immersion and participation within this space. As Crewe explains: “To get beneath the surface, and make sense of multiple views, a researcher has to continually ask, ‘why is she saying that’? Because like anyone else politicians’ statements are produced by their specific social context and mix of cultural values, pressures, ideologies, norms, emotions and aspirations” (2017, p. 164-165).   

Secondly, there is the question of whether focusing on UK elite perspectives and constructions of the overseas territories amplifies those already powerful voices and perspectives. There is therefore a need to include and highlight how these debates, decisions, and policies from the UK are received, accepted or contested and voiced by policy-makers and wider communities in the overseas territories.  

These two concerns suggest the potential of broadly adopting a tripartite approach outlined in work on literary geographies (Sharpe, 2000). This involves continuing to pay close attention to the text of the debates reproduced in Hansard and the discourses, language, imagery, associations and meanings they produce. Additionally, it is important to research the processes and socio-political contexts by and from which the statements come into being. And thirdly, the research, through partnership working with researchers and communities in the overseas territories, should seek to understand how these statements are read, understood and potentially contested or reproduced by audiences both in the overseas territories.   

Here methodology and ethics are inherently entangled, and this approach may be helpful as a framework for thinking further through the ethics and researcher positionality at each of these stages with the aim of creating research that is more inclusive and holistic.  


Crewe, E. (2016). "Ethnography of Parliament: Finding Culture and Politics Entangled in the Commons and the Lords." Parliamentary Affairs 70(1): 155-172. 

Sharp, J. P. (2000). "Towards a critical analysis of fictive geographies." Area 32(3): 327-334. 

Dr Nichola Harmer is a Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering) at the University of Plymouth.
Photo by Dr Nichola Harmer

James J. A. Blair

Avoiding Methodological Nationalism in a Disputed Overseas Territory

Four decades after a violent 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina re-established British authority over the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas in Spanish), a commercial fishing boom and offshore oil discoveries have intensified the sovereignty dispute over the South Atlantic archipelago. Scholarly literature on the South Atlantic focuses primarily on military history of the 1982 conflict and the geopolitics of respective claims for sovereignty through self-determination of the islanders and territorial integrity of Argentina. Taking an anthropological approach against methodological nationalism, I have sought to make strange these familiar geopolitical assertions in the South Atlantic (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002, 302). 

Unlike much of the British or Argentine scholarly research on the Falklands/Malvinas, I conducted fieldwork from the relatively unsentimental position of being an American researcher. In other research contexts, I have engaged reflectively with local social movements in the role of an advocate for marginalized communities and their environments. During the fieldwork for my book, I made friends with many individuals and sympathized with their devotion to the islands. I also grew a deep fondness for this unique place and its stunning landscape. However, I sought to offer ethnographic insights that might strengthen social equity and environmental governance without directly consulting or accepting benefits from industry or state actors.  

Despite careful consideration of these ethical issues, the sovereignty dispute and industry gatekeeping presented several dilemmas. I never felt unsafe, and my hosts were always hospitable, but I have had to avoid being entangled in the imbroglio. Functionaries of the Argentine Foreign Ministry tried to persuade me to send them private documents; I declined to do so. Royal Air Force military personnel hinted that I had been monitored. Ministers of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office asked for advice on lobbying US Congress. Oil managers threatened to destroy my phone until I showed them that it was not recording. The Falkland Islands Government invited me to apply for a tender to conduct a social impact monitoring program on the proposed oil development—a tempting opportunity to apply my research concretely—but it would have risked potential fines and imprisonment in Argentina, so I did not submit. Newspaper or magazine editors drew on my research and reporting to publish stories about the Falklands that followed a line of neoliberal multiculturalism and imperialist nostalgia that I did not endorse. I even received a veiled threat of potential defamation action from a high-ranking official if I published anything about their involvement in certain scandalous topics. 

My book Salvaging Empire: Sovereignty, Natural Resources, and Environmental Science in the South Atlantic is not a defence or apology for any particular position in the sovereignty dispute. It is not an exhaustive account of armed conflict or an authorized war history. Nor is it a plea or proposal to advocate for a new diplomatic solution to resolve the ongoing imbroglio. Instead of arguing in favour of a national or international cause, I have sought to engage critically with contradictory aspects of these contending claims.  


Wimmer, Andreas, and Nina Glick Schiller. 2002. “Methodological Nationalism and beyond: Nation–State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences.” Global Networks 2 (4): 301–34. 

James J. A. Blair is Associate Professor in Geography and An­thropology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of Salvaging Empire: Sovereignty, Natural Resources, and Environmental Science in the South Atlantic (Cornell University Press, 2023). Blair’s research on sovereignty, energy, water and environmental justice has been supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fulbright-IIE, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Mellon Foundation / American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). For more information, visit:
Photo by James J. A. Blair

Dr Maria Mut Bosque

The Challenges of Public International Law Regarding the British Overseas Territories (BOTs)

One of the main challenges faced by legal researchers focusing on the study of BOTs is the rigidity of international law in classifying these territories and determining the applicable international legal regime. International law primarily applies to states, but these territories neither they are states nor Free Associate States and nor an integral part of another state. So, from a classic international legal perspective, they are considered pending decolonization and are listed as non-self-governing territories by the UN. However, there are concerning issues with the list. Surprisingly, not all of the 14 BOTs are included in the list, despite having the same internal and international status. This is the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which is not in the list - an archipelago of 58 islands, which Chagos islands are part of it-, even though the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that the UK must immediately terminate its unlawful occupation of the Chagos archipelago. Instead, territories like Gibraltar and the Falklands are in the list, even though the people have expressed satisfaction with their current status through referenda. In this sense, the classic justification of International Law specialists is based on the 2.4 CNU the principle of territorial integrity. Then, under this argument, territories such as Gibraltar or the Falklands should be returned to Spain and Argentina. However, we wonder why the SBAs territories are not included in the list and why the principle of territorial integrity regarding Cyprus is not relevant in this case.  

Another important issue is the international subjectivity of these territories. According to Public International Law (PIL), only states have full legal personality in the international arena. So, they have recognised rights and obligations such as treaty-making, diplomatic relations, and state representation. However, other subjects of law, such as peoples, are attributed partial legal personality with limited rights and obligations. Given the rigidity of PIL and the lack of answers to these questions, researchers need to turn to the discipline of international relations, which offers more flexible criteria and a wider variety of territorial categories. 

However, the discipline of international relations does not fully resolve the BOTs' issues because, although these territories may have a role on the international stage, they cannot direct their own foreign relations without authorization from the United Kingdom. As a challenge, while waiting for PIL to evolve and recognise the limited legal personality of these entities, researchers need to consider new approaches and instruments to strengthen the international role of BOTs. This includes simplifying authorisation processes and reconsidering their status in international law and international relations. 

Finally, it is important to recognise the diversity among BOTs, as they have varying aspirations for their future. Consequently, the status of each territory should be examined from a comprehensive perspective that takes into account their unique characteristics. While it may be more convenient for the UK to assign a uniform status to all 14 BOTs, this approach disregards the significant differences that exist among these territories on multiple levels.

Dr. Maria Mut Bosque is Erasmus and International Exchange Coordinator, Senior Lecturer in International and European Law in the School of Law at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), University of London.
Photo by Dr Maria Mut Bosque