Dr Tom Thornton


Research Groups


Dr Tom Thornton

Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor


I am a senior research fellow at the ECI. My academic training is in social and cultural anthropology (BA Swarthmore College; MA, PhD University of Washington). Before coming to Oxford in 2008, I taught at Portland State University, Trinity College, Saint Lawrence University, the University of Alaska, and Beijing Normal University (Fulbright Lectureship). I also worked in government as an environmental resource specialist and as a consultant to Native American tribes.

My primary teaching and research interests are in human ecology, adaptation, local and traditional ecological knowledge, conservation, coastal and marine environments, conceptualizations of space and place, and the political ecology of resource management among the indigenous peoples of North America and the circumpolar North.

Research Interests

Recent research projects include:

GREEN-WIN: Green growth and win-win strategies for sustainable climate action.

GREEN-WIN is a European Union Horizon 2020 research project that assesses possibilities for green growth and win-win strategies for sustainable climate action (mitigation and adaptation) in the face of climate change impacts on societal wellbeing. I co-lead the Oxford work package on Transformation in Urban Systems (http://green-win-project.eu/about/wp6 ). Our focus is on key win-win opportunity spaces in critical sectors for decarbonisation—such as transport and construction—in the global cities of Barcelona Istanbul, Shanghai, and Venice, and what kind of enabling environments are necessary to support successful win-win transitions toward sustainability.

Indigenous Ecotourism Enterprises

This project will identify best practices in the development of indigenous ecotourism from a social entrepreneurial and cultural-institutional perspective.

Human Adaptation to Biodiversity Change (HABC)

Co-Investigator, Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation lead project funded through a partnership between the Department for International Development (DFID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), 2010-11

This project's aim is to kickstart the development of appropriate conceptual frameworks, methods and integrated models for understanding human adaptation to change in biodiversity and related ecosystem services that can eventually be used to predict outcomes for biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being in highly biodiversity dependent societies, and provide evidence for the utility of these outputs to a new network of researchers and policy makers. The building blocks for development of concepts, methods, tools and models are

  1. local information or knowledge systems and monitoring capacity;
  2. local valuation of biodiversity and related ecosystem services;
  3. integrating biological resources and ecosystem services into an understanding of livelihood processes;
  4. assessing perceptions, risks, needs, and ability to respond;
  5. under-standing biological and welfare outcomes and feedbacks.

The project joins partners from anthropology, economics and ecology/biology at Oxford, Kent and The University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, with partners from South Africa and India. Partners will jointly elaborate the conceptual framework in a first intensive workshop using a scenario building protocol. Then, teams incrementally develop and evaluate research protocols and methods and collect primary data in a field research site in the Western Ghats, and results are initially modeled.

Indigenous-State Relations in Alaska and Beyond: Sustainable Livelihoods, Biocultural Diversity and Health since the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) (Principal Investigator, National Science Foundation, $485,000, 2008-2011)

In September 2007, the National Science Foundation, Arctic Social Science Program funded this three-year project under grant #OPP-0715461. The objective of the project is to analyze how the creation of Alaska Native business corporations (spawned by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971) transformed institutional arrangements between Alaska Natives, state governments, ecosystems, and regional-global economies, and how these Native corporations have contributed to particular outcomes in indigenous groups' biocultural health as measured by indigenous and cross-cultural models of sustainable livelihoods and ecosystem services. The study compares development, socio-environmental change, and livelihoods in two separate biocultural regions: Bering Straits (Inupiat) and Southeast Alaska (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian), which are served by two regional and more than a dozen village corporations.

Dynamics of Circumpolar Land Use and Ethnicity (CLUE): Social Impacts of Policy and Climate Change (Co-Principal Investigator, US National Science Foundation, 2008-2012)

This project is funded under the International Polar Year Initiative. It examines how the impacts of rapid climatic change among the peoples of the circumpolar rim affect land use and ethnicity. Using anthropological fieldwork and semi-structured interviews of members of local northern populations in Alaska, Fennoscandia, and Russia, as well as their representative organizations and government resource managers, we aim to establish the current "rules of the game" with respect to definitions, eligibility criteria, and accompanying land and resource rights. Given the variety of different criteria by which states justify special resource allocations, such as ethnic heritage, form of livelihood, residency, or even population size, CLUE seeks to uncover negotiated and path-dependant patterns of ethnicity in the context of these evolving rules and increasingnatural resource pressures, rapid climate change and resultant “rationalizations” of livelihoods.

Oceans and Human Systems

Herring Synthesis: Documenting and Modeling Herring Spawning Areas within Socio-Ecological Systems over Time in the Southeastern Gulf of Alaska (Principal Investigator, North Pacific Research Board, 2007-2009)

More recently I have extended this research on marine ecosystems as part of Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) Urgent Anthropology Fellowship, including networking with researchers involved in or developing similar ethnographic and historical-ecological investigations in the Canadian, Japanese, and Russian Pacific spheres, as well as the North Atlantic.

Project outputs include:

Ocean Modeling Forum

In 2015 I became a member of the Oceam Modeling Forum and working group, which fosters networks of scientists and managers to improve the way models are used to address the most pressing challenges facing the world’s oceans.

Food sovereignty and sharing the future of the herring in the North Pacific A project with Shingo Hamada of IUCN CEESP on how the exchange of food gift weaves inter and intra-communal social networks in the mid of the herring conservation controversy in the North Pacific.


I currently supervise the Masters and DPhil students and offer lectures in the undergraduate Human Sciences and various graduate programmes. The following are current and recent DPhil students as of 2019-2020.

Current DPhil students include:
  • Nadezhda Mamontova - Spatial Knowledge, Language, and Adaptation to the Landscape among the Ewenki of Central and Northeastern Siberia
  • Bernard Soubry - Climate resilience on Maritime farms: Exploring adaptation options for small-scale agriculture and food systems in Eastern Canada
  • Dina Hestad - Transformational capacity: investigating organisations ability to foster social transformation towards sustainability
  • Victoria Wyllie de Echeverria - Linking interactions between cultural and biological diversity on the Pacific Coast of North America in the face of climatic change
  • Carolina Gueiros - Forest governance in the Brazilian Amazon: Policy change and Innovation to curb deforestation
  • Logan Hamilton - How has the 2013 Village Law impacted power dynamics concerning village forest governance in Indonesia?
Recent DPhil students
  • Brice Perombelon - Geopolitical Arctic(s): Indigenous representations of geo-power: the case of the Sahtu Dene
  • Emma Cardwell - Using property rights to manage fisheries: A study of the UK's market based fisheries policy
  • Abrar Chaudhury - Organising climate change adaptation: An organisation and network perspective to agriculture adaptation in developing countries
  • Dan Cooper - Under Mount Roraima: The conservation and development of a sacred landscape
  • Alexis Gutierrez - The impact of market-based incentives on global sustainable fishing
  • Erin Freeland-Ballantyne - Sustainability's paradox: community health, climate change and petrocapitalism
  • Dominic Henri - Managing nature, producing cultures: Inuit participation, science and policy in wildlife governance in the Nunavut Territory
  • Bernardo Peredo - Forest governance and development: meandering paradigms in the Bolivian lowlands
  • Chase Sova - Decision-making, agenda setting, and preference shaping in Ghana’s agricultural climate change adaptation policy regime: A political ecology perspective
  • Jessica Thorn - Measuring local ecosystem services of small-scale agricultural landscapes in the context of global environment change
  • Claudia Comberti (DPhil Candidate, d.) - Climate change and Amazonian Indigenous peoples: Adaptation, development and social-ecological systems.


  • Thornton, T.F., Hamada, S. and Mastracci, D. (forthcoming) Urgent Anthropology and Marine Ecosystems: Lessons from Pacific Herring Marinescapes. In, Urgent Anthropology. Royal Anthropological Institute.
  • Thornton, T.F., Mangalaiu, D., Ma, Y., et al. (forthcoming) Cultural models of and for urban sustainability: assessing beliefs about Green-Win. Climatic Change.
  • Thornton, T.F. (2009) Anatomy of a traditional cultural property: the saga of Auke Cape. The George Wright Forum, 26(1): 64-75.
  • Hunn, E.S., Johnson, D.R., Russell, P.N. and Thornton, T.F. (2007) Huna Tlingit gull egg harvests in Glacier Bay National Park, 2007.Piatt, J.F. and S.M. Gende (eds.) Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5047 Proceedings of the Fourth Glacier Bay Science Symposium, October 26–28, 2004. U.S.. 193-195.
  • Thornton, T. (2007) Alaska Native Corporations and Subsistence: Paradoxical forces in the construction of sustainable communities. Chapter 2 in, Maida, C.A. (ed.) Sustainability and Communities of Place. Bergham, Oxford. ISBN: 978-1-84545-016-8.
  • Thornton, T. (2007) The cultural ecology of berries in Glacier Bay. In, Piatt, J.F. and Gende, S.M. (eds.) Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5047. Proceedings of the Fourth Glacier Bay Science Symposium, October 26-28 2004, US. U.S. Geological Survey. pp. 29-34.
  • Thornton, T.F. (2005) Last of the sealers or last of the seals? Natural History ('Picks from the Past' online feature), June
  • Wheeler, P. and Thornton, T.F. (2005) Subsistence Research in Alaska: A thirty year retrospective. Alaska Journal of Anthropology, 3(1): 69-103.
  • Hunn, E.S., Johnson, D.R., Russell, P.N. and Thornton, T.F. (2003) Huna Tlingit traditional environmental knowledge, conservation and the management of a "Wilderness" Park. Current Anthropology,, 44(Supp): 167-194.
  • Thornton, T.F. (2003) Place names and the language of subsistence in southeast Alaska. Maintaining the Links: Language, Identity and the Land. Proceedings of the Seventh FEL Conference, Broome, Australia. Foundation for Endangered Languages
  • Thornton, T. (2001) Subsistence in Northern Communities: Lessons from Alaska. The Northern Review, 23(Summer 2001): 82-102.
  • Hope III, A. and Thornton, T.F. (2000) Will the time ever come? A Tlingit sourcebook. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Indigenous Knowledge Network, University of Alaska.
  • Thornton, T. (1999) Tleikw Aaní, The Berried Landscape: The structure of Tlingit edible fruit resources at Glacier Bay, Alaska. Journal of Ethnobiology, 19(1): 27-48.