Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky

Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs

Biography

Sarah Besky’s research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of inequality, nature, and capitalism in India. In her work, she analyzes how materials and bodies take on value under changing political economic regimes, and she explores the diverse forms of labor that make and maintain that value.  Articles on these questions have appeared in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Antipode, and Environmental Humanities, as well as other interdisciplinary journals.  

Her first 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 the value of labor, of place, and of tea itself.  Her latest book project, Market Qualities: Indian Tea and the Composition of Value, 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. Market Qualities is scheduled for publication by the University of California Press in Fall 2019.  

Another book, How Nature Works, an edited volume Besky compiled with Alex Blanchette (Tufts University), will be published by SAR Press in Fall 2019.  The book is a product of a 2016 SAR Advanced Seminar that brought together contemporary theoretical conversations in posthumanism with classic and continually relevant questions about political economy, precarity, and the meanings of work.  

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.  

Research

My current book project, Market Qualities: Indian Tea and the Composition of Value, 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.

Publications

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. “Monoculture.”  In Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website.

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.

Teaching

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

“Market Qualities: The Cost of Cheap Tea.” Centre for Diasporic and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto, October 2, 2018. 

“Cheap Tea and the Problem of Quality: Mass-Markets and Industrial Reform in the Dooars.”  Department of Anthropology, Emory University, March 19, 2018.

“Can a Plantation Be Fair?  Fair Trade in the Tea Industry.”  World Tea Expo, Las Vegas, NV, June 15, 2017

“Cheap Tea and the Endurance of Monoculture in the Dooars, India.”  Annual Hunt Lecture in Economic Anthropology.  Brandeis University, April 28, 2017 

World101x: University of Queensland MOOC module, posted July 13 [LINK]

Ten Questions.” Chapati Mystery, January 27, 2017 

“Exhaustion and Endurance in Sick Landscapes.”  Department of Anthropology, Rice University, January 24, 2017

The Real Cost of Your Cup of Tea.” Al Jazeera’s “The Stream.” December 14, 2016 

“Can a Plantation Be Fair?  Fair-Trade Certification in Darjeeling Tea.” Seattle Museum of Art’s Asian Art Museum, December 3, 2016

“Spaces for Labor: Inheritance, Inequality, and Infrastructure on Darjeeling Tea Plantations.”  Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, December 2, 2016

News|Recent News

What's brewing in Darjeeling (co-authored by Sarah Besky)

July 25, 2017 The Hindu

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."

more

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."

more

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."

more

All News

Events

All Events