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.
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.
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.
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
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.