People at ILR

Sara Besky
people / faculty

Sarah Besky

Associate Professor, International and Comparative Labor AND Labor Relations, Law, and History
International and Comparative Labor
Labor Relations, Law, and History


Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor in the ILR School. Her research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of inequality, nature, and capitalism in the Himalayas. 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, American Anthropologist, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 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 second book, 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. Another book, How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR Press, 2019), a volume Besky co-edited with Alex Blanchette, brings together contemporary theoretical conversations in posthumanism with classic and continually relevant questions about political economy, precarity, and the meanings of work.

Her new research explores the intersections of agricultural extension and experimentation, colonial and postcolonial governance, and the everyday productive and reproductive work of farming in the Himalayan region of Kalimpong, West Bengal.

Teaching Statement

As an anthropologist, I have been trained to learn by listening to the stories of others. As a teacher, I have three goals: to help students hear the stories of other people, whether they are far away, in their own neighborhood, or sitting at the desk beside them; to initiate a classroom dialogue that complicates the seemingly natural practices that we undertake in our everyday lives; and to enable students to apply
qualitative methods and critical theories to narrate and understand the beliefs and practices of others.

Research Statement

For the past 15 years, I have conducted ethnographic and historical research in South Asia and, more recently, the United States. My work engages three key areas of inquiry: interdisciplinary studies of work, political economy (particularly that of food and agriculture), and critical environmental studies. The central aim of my research to date has been to develop an ethnographically and historically grounded understanding of the plantation as an economic and social form. In my published scholarship, I address this aim by asking, first and more specifically, how and why the plantation has persisted from colonial times into the present, and second and more conceptually, how materials, landscapes, and bodies take on value under changing political economic regimes. Through long-term research on the Indian tea industry, I have developed an anthropological conceptualization of the plantation that links field and factory labor to the labor of valuation and trade. Along the way, I have traced how the plantation, as a heterogenous and multi-sited array of labor processes, drives environmental change.

Service Statement

Service to my discipline, university, and department has been a consistent part of my professional identity since I completed my PhD in 2012. In my view, service pays dividends in terms of professional networking, but it also allows me to develop a deeper familiarity with the breadth of intellectual activity in my field and beyond. My commitments range from governance to peer review to hiring and curricular development.


Journal Articles

    Book Reviews

    • Sarah Besky. 2020. Review of Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2017). Journal of Asian Studies , 2020. (524-526)