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Professor James Dunkerley, OBE, BA (York), MPhil, DPhil (Oxford)


Tel: 020 7882 8598
Location: Arts One 2.13


James  Dunkerley
James Dunkerley studied modern history at the University of York, where his outlook was strongly influenced by Gwyn A.Williams. It was for Williams’s final year seminar on guerrilla movements in history that he prepared a paper on the failed campaign of Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia, making a counter-intuitive argument that the Bolivian armed forces had prevailed not simply through CIA intelligence and logistical support but also because they retained significant popularity as a result of the revolution of 1952 and the Pacto-Militar Campesino.
Bolivian Rangers in Valledgrande, 1967 (Presna Latina)
Bolivian Rangers in Valledgrande, 1967 (Presna Latina)
Dunkerley pursued his postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford. He took an MPhil in Latin American Studies at the Latin American Centre whilst a student at Hertford College, and then a DPhil at Nuffield College, where he was supervised by Laurence Whitehead. His doctoral thesis sought to apply the techniques of social science to military history, surveying the institutional and political arrangements of the Bolivian armed forces between the War of the Pacific (1879-83) and the Chaco War (1932-35). The thesis was defended in 1979, and Spanish editions of the work were later published by Quipus (in 1988) and by Plural (in 2003). Although, following the example of his other supervisor Malcolm Deas, the dissertation sought to provide a sober scholarly account, some of its tone and approach were inevitably affected by the political atmosphere in the sub-continent following the overthrow of the Unidad Popular government in Chile.
Guerrilla attack on coastal highway, Usulután, El Salvador, 1980
Guerrilla attack on coastal highway, Usulután, El Salvador, 1980 (from El Salvador. Work of Thirty Photographers, 1981)

The original intention of the DPhil was to provide an analytical survey of the Bolivian military up to the period of Guevara’s guerrilla, but this proved exceptionally difficult in 1977-78, when popular mobilisation against the military dictatorship of General Banzer interrupted even research in the Archivo Nacional and certainly made interviews with contemporary political actors problematic and sometimes risky. Accordingly, the more contemporary features proposed for the work were held back, developed whilst James Dunkerley was a Research Fellow at the Institutes of Latin American Studies at the Universities of London (1980-1) and Liverpool (1981-2), and subsequently appeared in Rebellion in the Veins. Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-1982, [new window], published in the 1984 by Verso. The book was issued in Spanish in 1998 (by Quipus) and again in 2003 by Plural.

At the end of the 1970s and through most of the 1980s Dunkerley deepened his interest in Central America, where some saw the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 as the start of a process reversing the bureaucratic authoritarian regimes in South America. As a writer-editor at the Latin America Bureau (LAB) [new window], he contributed to a number of publications itemising the violation of human rights in the region as well as analysing the political systems of the countries of Central America, which were then poorly known in the English-speaking world.

20 July 1979 in the Plaza de la Revolución, Managua (from Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua Jane 1978-July 1979, 1981)
20 July 1979 in the Plaza de la Revolución, Managua (from Susan Meiselas, Nicaragua Jane 1978-July 1979, 1981)

Although during the Reagan presidency (1981-89) it was not at all hard to find evidence of aggressive US intromission in and influence over these small and impoverished states, that in itself seemed an insufficient cause of the social conflicts experienced almost everywhere and of the civil wars suffered by several of the countries. Focusing particularly on El Salvador, Dunkerley’s work sought both to engage with the analysis of local intellectuals and to give proper weighting to the national and regional, as well as international, factors and causes of bitter strife. The Long War [new window] was, in fact, first published less than three years after the Nicaraguan Revolution, but its title proved to be justified and seven more years would elapse before the country’s conflict would be brought to a negotiated end.

Again, the harsh realities on the ground made it exceptionally difficult to conduct primary research. Equally, as particularly evident in the sad experience of Grenada in 1983 (in which LAB took a close and not uncontroversial interest), no honest observer could deny the fact that some of the forces of the regional left were often narrow in outlook and divisive in attitude even as they sought with appreciable valour to secure social justice.

Palacio de la Moneda, 27 September 1973 (from Memorias en Blanco y Negro, LOM Ediciones 1993)
Palacio de la Moneda, 27 September 1973 (from Memorias en Blanco y Negro, LOM Ediciones 1993)

In 1985 Dunkerley took up a position as Faculty Fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame, where he taught the university’s first course on Central American politics and, over one of the coldest of winters, drafted a long script that endeavoured to place the ongoing Central American crisis in national and regional historical context: Power in the Isthmus [new window].

Shortly thereafter, and very much influenced by his continuing work on the origins and course of the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, Dunkerley participated in a collective project organised by his colleagues and friends, Leslie Bethell and Ian Roxborough, who had designed an exciting reappraisal of the socio-political conjuncture of Latin America in the late 1940s. This enabled him to consider in more precise form the political condition of Guatemala in the period 1945-54, one outcome of which was a renewed recognition that forward movement in time does not always bring about social progress.

Passengers on an Aviateca flight from Guatemala City to Flores, 1949 (from CIRMA, Guatemala ante la Lente, 1870-1977, 1998)

From 1986 James Dunkerley has been a member of SPIR at Queen Mary, where he has held a personal chair since 1990. During the late 1980s and early 1990s his intellectual concerns primarily lay in developing analysis of the political condition of Central America and Bolivia as well as writing the chapters on El Salvador and Guatemala since 1930 for the Cambridge History of Latin America, which he served for a while as assistant editor to Leslie Bethell.

However, his research was also affected by the experience of teaching broad introductory courses, interaction with his talented theorist and comparativist colleagues, and a growing curiosity about the intellectual consequences of the end of the Cold War from an historical perspective. The result was a five-year project that sought to retrieve in a vivid and detailed historical manner the state of the Americas as a whole around the year 1850, before Karl Marx was very influential or the “manifest destiny” of the USA very far developed. Published in 2000 as Americana, [new window], this study purposefully broke several rules to do with length and scholarly protocols at a time when such matters had become more vital than ever as a result of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.

Lincoln’s First Inauguration, 4 March 1861, with the new dome of the Capitol still under construction (from R.Reed, Old Washington DC in Early Photos 1846-1932, 1980)

The outcome was not a great success on either commercial or critical criteria, but it did receive occasional reviews from colleagues, such as Felipe Fernández Armesto in the Hispanic American Historical Review, who similarly argued that continued restriction of analysis to the parameters of the actually-existing nation states of the western hemisphere could seriously impede understanding of the human condition in the past. In any event, it was a fascinating experience to survey such a swathe of international history, not least by following the fortunes of individuals such as Francisco Burdett O’Connor or feeling the fatal fissures in the fabric of the USA on the cusp of the Civil War.

Moreover, the pleasures of engaging in a fresh and exciting comparative context were redoubled by working in Latin America at a time when constitutional democracy had been restored and many of the simple joys of civil society restored.

Boca Juniors play San Lorenzo, April 1990 (Dylan Martínez)
James Dunkerley began teaching Central American Politics on the MA in Area Studies (Latin America) at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) in 1988 whilst continuing to provide his undergraduate classes and to supervise doctoral students at Queen Mary. From 1994 he was officially seconded to ILAS from QM. From 1994 to 1998 he coordinated the ILAS master’s programmes, teaching Latin American Politics and the International Politics of Latin America, and in 1998 he succeeded Victor Bulmer-Thomas as Director of the Institute. James Dunkerley became Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA) in 2004 and returned to Queen Mary as Professor of Latin American Politics in 2008.


Postgraduate teaching:

  • Themes and Cases in US Foreign Relations
  • The Americas in Comparative Perspective I: Historical Roots
  • The Americas in Comparative Perspective II: Modern Politics and Society


Research interests:

James Dunkerley is a member of the Politics sub-panel for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Thereafter he will be pursuing two main projects. The first, “A Tale of Two Shocks” seeks to provide a comprehensive comparative understanding the structural stabilisation plans of 1956 and 1985 in Bolivia, ranging from the mind-set to the international technocrats who designed them, through the behaviour of the urban wage-owners in conditions of hyper-inflation, to the cosmologies of value held by indigenous peasant farmers. The second project: “The Cosmopolitan Club: Intellectuals and ‘quiet state-building’ in the early 19th-century Atlantic World”, will trace the transition to modernity through the careers of four men – Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Andrés Bello, and Albert Gallatin -  who were born in the Enlightenment, came to prominence during the Napoleonic wars, and combined statesmanship with intellectual  and artistic creativity in the new age of Romanticism.


Bolivia . Revolution and the Power of History in the Present. Essays (2007).

-with M.D.Kinzo (eds.), Brazil since 1985. Economy, Polity and Society London: ILAS 2003

(ed.) Studies in the Formation of the Nation-State in Latin America London: ILAS 2002

Americana: The Americas in the World, around 1850 (London: Verso, 2000) 642 pp.

Warriors and Scribes: Essays on the History and Politics of Latin America London: Verso, 2000 211 pp.

with V. Bulmer-Thomas (eds.): The United States and Latin America: The New Agenda London and Cambridge, Mass: ILAS and David Rockefeller Centre, 1999 359 pp.

‘The Study of Latin American History and Politics in the United Kingdom: An Interpretative Sketch’, in V. Bulmer-Thomas (ed), Thirty Years of Latin American Studies in the United Kingdom, 1965-1995 London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 1996 pp.13-61

Fuller list of Publications

PhD Supervision

I specialise in Latin American politics and modern history. I am available for the supervision of research degrees in the areas of:

  • Modern History and politics of the Americas, particularly the USA, Bolivia and the Southern Cone;
  • Comparative political thought and history

Public engagement

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