Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist, whose research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of nature, labor, and capitalism in India.
She is the author and co-editor of three books. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014), which won the Society for Economic Anthropology book prize. Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (University of California Press, 2020), blends historical and ethnographic research on science, value, and the idea of quality in the tea industry to analyze efforts at economic reform in India. How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR Press, 2019), which Besky co-edited with Alex Blanchette (Tufts University), brings together contemporary theoretical conversations in posthumanism with questions about political economy, precarity, and the meanings of work. Her articles have appeared in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Antipode, and Environmental Humanities, as well as other interdisciplinary journals.
Besky is conducting research on two new projects. The first is an historical ethnography of land and livelihoods in Kalimpong, West Bengal on the India-Bhutan border. The second is about the future of work—of lobster harvesters and processors, the scientists that study them, and the waters in which they fish—in the Maine lobster industry.
Besky received her PhD in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before coming to Brown, from 2012 to 2015, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan.
Besky’s most recent book, Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (University of California Press, 2020), examines how quality became a discrete category of knowledge and value from the final decades of British rule in India to the early years of Indian independence. It explores how a tension between taste and the market came to be embodied in the experts who evaluate tea's flavor; the buyers who purchase tea at auction in India; the blenders who create flavors tailored to specific markets; the scientists who study and manipulate tea’s chemical contents; and, finally, mass-market black tea itself. Working across archives and first-hand ethnography, I argue that quality is assembled in a sometimes collaborative, sometimes contentious engagement between aesthetic and scientific experts. The book situates contemporary efforts to make “quality tea” within India’s broader effort to secure its place as a global economic leader, showing how, together, the materiality of plants and aesthetic and technoscientific practices mediate—and perhaps impede—economic and political reform.
2018. “Introduction: The Naturalization of Work.” (co-authored with Alex Blanchette) In “The Naturalization of Work,” edited by Besky and Blanchette. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website.
2018. “Sickness” In “The Naturalization of Work,” edited by Besky and Blanchette. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website.
2017. "Fixity: On the Inheritance and Maintenance of Tea Plantation Houses in Darjeeling, India." American Ethnologist 44(4): 617-631.
2017. “The Land in Gorkhaland: On the Edges of Belonging in Darjeeling, India.” Environmental Humanities 9(1): 18-39.
2017. “Tea as ‘Hero Crop’? Embodied Algorithms and Industrial Reform in India.” Science as Culture. 26(1): 11-31.
2016. “Placing Plants in Territory” (co-authored with Jonathan Padwe). Environment and Society: Advances in Research 7: 9-28.
2016. “The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea.” Cultural Anthropology. 31(1): 4-29.
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.
Labor and Social Life. ANTH 2018
This is a graduate seminar that will explore anthropologies of labor. The Fall 2016 focus was on labor, posthumanism and feminist theory, and critical studies of capitalism.
Anthropology of the Himalayas. ANTH 1345
This course critically examines the Himalayas, drawing on anthropological studies from Afghanistan to Northeast India. Despite the region’s rugged terrain, Himalayan peoples have long been linked through trade and migration. The Himalayas are sites of Hindu and Buddhist legend. Today, however, they are beset by environmental degradation and disaster. Long the object of romantic representations, people in the Himalayas struggle to find work and make ends meet. This course brings these themes together to examine the political, economic, environmental, religious, sensory, and affective aspects of everyday life in the Himalayas.
Talks & Media
I have upcoming talks on Tasting Qualities at Clarkson University on April 24, 2020 and the
International Development Group at MIT on November 5, 2019, as well as a roundtable discussion and workshop for “Interrogating the Plantationocene” A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on October 10-11, 2019.
Other 2019 talks included:
“Indian Tea, Postcolonial Governance, and the Uses of Transparency.” Transparency in Extractive Industries Workshop. Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, June 1, 2019
“Fixity: On the Inheritance and Maintenance of Tea Plantation Houses in Darjeeling, India.” Himalayan Studies Centre, North Bengal University, May 29, 2019
Also presented at: Department of Anthropology, Sikkim University; May 12, 2019.
Commentary on Amy Cohen’s “Negotiating the Value Chain: A Study of Surplus and Distribution in Indian Markets for Food.” Department of Urban and Regional Planning, MIT, April 18, 2019
“Can a Plantation be Fair?” Connecticut College, April 4, 2019
“The Quality of Cheap Tea: Industrial Reform in the Dooars, India.” Program in Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business, February 13, 2019
May 20, 2019
Anthropologist Sarah Besky comments on the wages and management of tea gardens, explaining "that ideally the houses required to be built and maintained by the plantation management - something that rarely, if ever, happens. Whether it is painting the house, or just growing vegetables outside, it is done by the families and 'almost always by the women.'"
April 17, 2019
Anthropologist Sarah Besky comments on the tea garden workers in Darjeeling and the Indian elections. "...the importing of the ‘kindly rhetoric of colonial plantation management into India’s Constitution’ was that these tea gardens function like states within states."
July 25, 2017
Anthropologist Sarah Besky in The Hindu, "Understanding Gorkhaland requires understanding its underlying histories. In many ways, the Gorkhas of Darjeeling have yet to taste the liberation of India’s Independence."
December 15, 2016
Sarah Besky, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, speaks with Al Jazeera's The Stream on the rights of tea workers and how one can be a responsible consumer.
May 9, 2016
Claremont McKenna College
Sarah Besky joins Claremont McKenna College to discuss India's tea plantation workers on the school's Asia Experts Forum.
April 7, 2016
Sarah Besky, assistant professor of anthropology and international affairs, answers questions about the plight of young girls working in tea plantations in India as part of CNN's Freedom Project.