Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky

Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs


I received my PhD in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  From 2012 to 2015, I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan, where I completed a project based on fieldwork in Darjeeling, India.  My book, The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014) explores how legacies of colonialism intersect with contemporary market reforms to reconfigure notions of value—of labor, of place, and of tea itself.  My current research explores agrarian and industrial reform in the Indian tea industry through the lenses of taste and masculinity.   


My current book project, The Cost of Cheap Tea, examines the co-production of mass-market tea and middle-class masculinity in Indian tea auctions. The project tells the story of mass-market tea—from blended and standardized tea bags to tannic CTC (or cut-tear-curl) tea.

I am developing a thread of the Cheap Tea project for a September 2016 School for Advanced Research (SAR) Advanced Seminar in Santa Fe, NM on “How Nature Works.” I am co-convening this seminar with Alex Blanchette and Naisargi Dave. My individual contribution to the seminar and the edited volume describes the phenomenon of plantation closures and starvation deaths in the Dooars region of West Bengal.

Building on fieldwork I completed for my first book, The Darjeeling Distinction (2014), I am engaged in long-term research on the intersection of environmental justice and territorial sovereignty in Darjeeling.  


2016. “The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea.” Cultural Anthropology. 31(1): 4-29.

2015. “Agricultural Justice, Abnormal Justice? Fair Trade’s Plantation Problem.” Antipode. 47(5): 1141-1160.

2015.  “Looking for Work: Placing Labor in Food Studies” (co-authored with Sandy Brown).  Labor. 12(1- 2): 19-43.

2014.  The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  [Won the 2014 Society for Economic Anthropology Book Prize]

2014.  “The Labor of Terroir and the Terroir of Labor: Geographical Indication on Darjeeling Tea Plantations.” Agriculture and Human Values.  31(1): 83-96.  [Won the 2014 Anthropology & Environment Society Junior Scholar Award]

2010.  “Colonial Pasts and Fair Trade Futures: Changing Modes of Production and Regulation on Darjeeling Tea Plantations.” In Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies. Sarah Lyon and Mark Moberg, eds. Pp. 97-122.  New York: NYU Press.

2008.  “Can a Plantation be Fair?  Paradoxes and Possibilities in Fair Trade Darjeeling Tea Certification.”  Anthropology of Work Review.  29(1): 1-9.


ANTH 0110: Anthropology and Global Social Problems

This course offers students an opportunity to examine and analyze a range of contemporary global social problems from an anthropological perspective.  We will explore human-environment entanglements with particular attention to intersecting issues of capitalism, international development, and state and non-state governance.  Course materials will look at various kinds of work in, on, and with the environment, asking questions about the possibilities of over-working our landscapes, while addressing the potentials for social and environment justice and sustainability.  

ANTH 2020: Methods and Research Design in Anthropology

The purpose of this graduate seminar is to help students design or reconceptualize an original research project in anthropology. Over the course of the semester, we will work to understand the objectives of social inquiry from past to present, thinking in particular about the possible futures of fieldwork in relation to the discipline’s developing objectives and inquiries, as well as the potential for our own unique contributions.

News|Recent News

The Materiality of Finance (interview with Sarah Besky)

March 21, 2016 Cultural Anthropology

Sarah Besky in Cultural Anthropology, "Small tea growers are now able to supply tea at cheaper prices than plantations. Unlike plantation companies, small growers are not legally obligated to provide workers with medical facilities, food rations, firewood, and housing."


The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea (by Sarah Besky)

February 12, 2016 Cultural Anthropology

Sarah Besky in Cultural Anthropology, "The Tea Board saw digital auctioning as a means of opening and freeing the tea market. Just as colonial bureaucratic enumeration was based on the ideal of rendering a mix of races, ethnicities, languages, and cultures transparent, digital trading technology promised to make the opaque world of valuation transparent."