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Carolyn Smith

PhD student

Volcanic Imaginaries: Between Indigeneity and Risk Across the Chile-Argentina Border


Carolyn Smith’s PhD research examines intersection between geography, decolonial theory and environmental risk in relation to the Indigenous Mapuche/Pewenche communities living with Copahue volcano. The persistently active volcano straddles the Chile-Argentina border in the regions of Bíobío (Chile) and Neuquén (Argentina). The project uses Copahue as a point of equivocation through which to examine the development, use and negotiation of knowledges in the context of volcanic risk and drastically asymmetric power dynamics.


  • PhD in Geography, University of Cambridge, 2020-present
  • MPhil & ARB/RIBA Part II in Architecture and Urban Design, University of Cambridge, Queens’ College, 2017-2019
  • BSc(hons) & ARB/RIBA Part I in Architecture, University of Bath, 2012-2016


  • 2020-present: PhD Researcher, ERC IMAGINE (PI: Dr Amy Donovan), Department of Geography, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 2019-2020: Research Assistant, Department of Economics, Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia, Venice, Italy
  • 2019-2020: Researcher, We are here Venice (NGO), Venice, Italy
  • 2019: Research Assistant, H2020 Pop Machina, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 2016-2017: Architectural Assistant, Designscape Architects, Bath, UK
  • 2014: Architectural Assistant, Designscape Architects, Bath, UK
  • 2013: Architectural Assistant, Tonic Architecture, Bristol, UK


  • 2023: Department of Geography Fieldwork Funding, University of Cambridge
  • 2021: Il Premio per Venezia, Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti (for Whose City is it Anyway? report)
  • 2021: Pressland Fund Bursary, University of Cambridge
  • 2021: Researcher Development Language Training Bursary, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2021: Wolfson College Language Grant, University of Cambridge
  • 2020-present: ERC IMAGINE Studentship
  • 2018: Kettles Yard Travel Award (for MPhil fieldwork)
  • 2018: Department of Architecture Fieldwork Funding, University of Cambridge
  • 2016: Basil Spence Prize, University of Bath


Carolyn’s research sits within a wider ERC study, titled IMAGINE: Geographical Imaginations and the (Geo)politics of Volcanic Risk and led by Dr Amy Donovan. The research is concerned with the role of geographical imaginations in the creation, use and communication of knowledges by scientists, government authorities and local communities in transboundary volcanic contexts; the transdisciplinary study is currently working with various communities, volcanoes and scientific institutions across the Andes.

Within this wider remit, Carolyn’s PhD project project is an ethnographic study that focuses on the Mapuche/Pewenche communities who live with Copahue volcano. Copahue is bisected by the postcolonial the border between Chile (Bíobío) and Argentina (Neuquén). The research situates volcanic hazards and risk mitigation within a more holistic understanding of the (geo)political power dynamics, colonial legacies and ontological con/disjunctures that intersect within the volcanic territory. Through collaboration with the communities of Butalelbun (Alto Biobío, Chile) and Millaín Currical (Caviahue-Copahue, Argentina), the project situates Copahue as a common coordinate through which to examine the power-laden processes of (co-)production and negotiation that occur between various ways of knowing and being-with volcanism.

There are six Mapuche/Pewenche communities who live in close proximity to Copahue (four in Chile, two in Argentina); each has its own distinct history and relationship with the volcano. The area is marked by intense (geo)political tensions and layered power dynamics, which have undermined past efforts to mitigate and manage volcanic risk. Through collaboration with these communities, the project critiques the institutional and governmental framing of Disaster Risk Reduction across the postcolonial border, and aims to contribute to a more symmetrical and holistic approach understanding and living with Copahue in the future.

Carolyn arrived in the Department of Geography via Architecture and Urban Design (BSc(hons) & MPhil); a common theme throughout her work has been an engagement with the links between collective identities, the material world (built/urban form and the land), histories and social justice. Her background in urbanism provided a strong grounding in the interrogation of social, economic, political and cultural contexts. Cities are just one, concentrated, expression of our collective relationship with place. Carolyn’s two-year MPhil at the University of Cambridge was centred on Venice, Italy. In the context of mass tourism, contemporary depopulation, rising sea levels and environmental degradation, Venice’s urban realm is a contested space. Carolyn’s MPhil thesis examined the symbiotic relationship between myth-making, imagined reality and the city’s urban form in weaving the contemporary collective identity of the città storica. Carolyn returned to Venice after graduating with Distinction, and turned her thesis into a report on the future of Venice for a local NGO (Whose City is it Anyway?).  This report was subsequently widely quoted in the media and awarded the Istituto Veneto’s Il Premio per Venezia 2021 for its contribution to the city.

Carolyn’s research interests include: geographical imaginations, social volcanology, political ontology, disaster risk reduction, decolonial theory, indigeneity, architectural and urban sociology, design theory, spatial philosophy, Latin American studies, intercultural communication.


Peer-reviewed journal articles

  • Walshe, Rory A., Julie Morin, Amy Donovan, Francisca Vergara Pinto, Carolyn Smith (2023). Contrasting memories and imaginaries of Lonquimay volcano, Chile. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, doi: 10.1016/j.ijdrr.2023.104003.

Book chapters

  • Camatti, Nicola, Carolyn Smith, Jan van der Borg (2021). Changing the Growth-Focused Mindset: A Pathway Towards Sustainable Tourism Development. In: Mandić A., Petrić L. (eds) Mediterranean Protected Areas in the Era of Overtourism. Springer, Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-69193-6_16



Undergraduate supervisions

  • Part 1B Geography: Living with Environmental Change (section: environmental futures)
  • Part 1B Geography: Development Theories, Policies and Practices (section: post-development theories and thinking)
  • Part 1B Geography: Research Skills (section: research design for projects in the Global South)
  • Part 2 Geography: Geographies of Hope (section: the power of pragmatism)

Undergraduate dissertation methods supervisions

  • Interviews (2023)
  • Participatory methods (2023)
  • Interviews and discourse analysis (2022)
  • Ethnographic surveys (2022)

External activities

  • Peer Reviewer for Social Anthropology / Anthropologie Sociale
  • Architecture Tutor and Curriculum Designer for Reach Cambridge