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Sarah Besky is one of nine new ILR faculty members joining the school in fall 2020.

Q&A With Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist whose research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of nature, labor and capitalism in South Asia. She comes to Cornell following a stint as the Charles Evans Hughes 1881 Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Besky earned both her doctorate and her master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison after attending Connecticut College as an undergraduate. Before arriving at Brown, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan from 2012 to 2015. 

What is your research about?
My research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of inequality, nature and capitalism in South Asia, particularly the Himalayas. I am interested in how materials and bodies take on value under changing political economic regimes, as well as the diverse forms of labor that make and maintain that value. I am particularly interested in everyday commodities and all of the work that goes not only into producing them, but also into valuing and circulating them. For the most part, I’ve studied the Indian tea industry. I am currently expanding this work in a long-term ethnographic and historical project about the colonial concept of “settlement” on the Himalayan margins of India. Settlement was, and continues to be, a productive logic that applied to both land and labor. 

How did you become interested in your field?
I am a cultural anthropologist. One of the interesting things about anthropology is that it is a subject that you don’t really encounter until college. I remember sitting in my “Introduction to Anthropology” class and being completely struck by the fact that there is an entire discipline dedicated to understanding how people make meaning out of the world and all of the subtle and contingent ways that meaning is translated, held together and made coherent. Meaning, of course, is not a neutral political project in any way. I was captivated by the possibilities of thinking about the everyday-ness of the world through the stories that people tell. 

What impact do you hope your research will have?
I study seemingly mundane agricultural products. My main objective is to share stories about the labor conditions on plantations in India. Further, I hope to bring attention to the fact that modern day plantations are fundamentally unequal systems of production that deliver the trappings of everyday life to homes all over the world—tea, coffee and sugar, but also rubber and palm oil. I am committed to showing the subtle means by which the plantation persists in the present. 

What attracted you to the ILR School?
Questions of work are the heart of my research. I was excited by the opportunities afforded by thinking with a community of interdisciplinary scholars who care about questions and experiences of work. ILR is a very unique space—especially for an anthropologist. 

What are you most excited for about your time at ILR?
I am excited about bringing questions and concerns from the anthropological study of work to bear on the critical conversations already going on at ILR. In my discipline, questions of work are gaining new ground and new relevance. This is an exciting time to learn from the research of others and think about creative new paths. 
Cornell’s “Any Person, Any Study” ethos – how will you be part of that?
I think that this directive is more meaningful than ever as we strive to understand the entrenchment of privilege and difference and strive to build more equitable institutions.
If you could share one piece of advice with your students, what would it be?
I often teach a research methods course, and I am sure my students will tell you that I am full of axiomatic phrases. I would put one of them at the top of the list: Allow yourself to be surprised.  

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