Prior Fellows

2022-23 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Called by the Plants: The multicultural, mutinatural world of humans and teacher plants in the Peruvian Amazon

In the Amazon jungle near Iquitos, Peru there is a tree called Noya Rao. Noya Rao means “flying (plant) medicine” in Shipibo, an indigenous Amazonian language, and indeed Noya Rao is believed by many Shipibo people to possess the remarkable ability to confer the power of flight onto humans who undertake to learn from her.1 Decades ago, at a time when many indigenous Shipibo believed she was extinct or merely mythical, a Shipibo master healer began a ritual practice referred to as a pipe “diet” with a pipe made from her wood. He ingested the smoke and prayed to her until she appeared to him and revealed her living location far from the Shipibo homelands of Ucayali. Today, the healer’s son-in-law runs an ayahuasca retreat center on the land where Noya Rao grows. Ayahuasca2 is a hallucinogenic brew used traditionally by Amazonian indigenous peoples and increasingly by foreign tourists who attend ceremonies at retreat centers focused on spiritual, physical, and mental healing. In the midst of the broader context of ayahuasca-based spiritual tourism in the area, some Westerners feel called to this corner of the world not by the lures of ayahuasca but by Noya Rao and the other teacher plants in her pantheon. They travel to the Amazon to fast and ingest an extract of Noya Rao, learn Shipibo songs to sing to her in ayahuasca ceremonies, and walk to her daily to sit at the base of her trunk and pray. Through this process (known as a plant diet, dieta in Spanish, or sama in Shipibo), they begin to communicate with her and cultivate metaphorical seedlings of Noya Rao inside their bodies, minds, and souls. My dissertation seeks to illuminate why Westerners are called to her and what world-making effect this pilgrimage has by examining Noya Rao and other teacher plants as agentic beings who communicate with and shape the humans in their world. Furthermore, this project explores this global impact and import of Amazonian plant diet pilgrimages as the global plant diet community grows and Westerners who learn this practice of dieting plants through Shipibo healers then go home to apply Shipibo dieting practices to plants in the U.S. or Europe. Through telling the stories of both Shipibo and Western dieters collected through 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork at both the center where Noya Rao grows and in Shipibo communities in the Shipibo homelands, I explore the teachings and behavior of teacher plants such as Noya Rao and others in her pantheon such as Bobinsana, Marusa, Chullachaqui, and Chiric Sanango. What can these Amazonian plants teach us about human social relations, bodies and healing, language, and the relationship between personal and political trauma? I investigate each of these areas to explain how: (1) plants and humans create new kinds of shared social worlds which challenge and contribute to ongoing debates about the relationship between nature and culture, (2) humans become hybrid human-plant bodies through digestive routines designed to remove humanity and inject plant essence, (3) new forms of human language and communication emerge via the intervention of the plants and the ritual sharing of Shipibo healing songs among Western and Shipibo dieters, and (4) plants guide healing on the individual but also structural and societal levels. The goal of this project is to provide a portrait of these teacher plants through the lens of human perspectives and interpretations that come with all of the expected human baggage - language, culture, individual experience. Just as a portrait of these plants will materialize, so too will insights about how culture, language, and individual experience shape how humans understand the plants and their messages.

Lorna Hadlock is a PhD candidate and anthropologist in the department of Comparative Human Development. Her research focuses on indigenous Amazonian and Andean healing traditions and interactions between humans and non-humans as well as cross-cultural encounters. She is specifically interested in language use in those contexts. Through examining language use in healing and cross-cultural and cross-species contexts, her research contributes to theoretical discussions about both the agency of non-human actors and how language and culture influence experience, especially perception of altered states of consciousness and healing/illness. She is currently conducting ethnographic field research in Peru as a Fulbright Hays DDRA Fellow. She has also been the recipient of other awards including multiple FLAS Fellowships and research funding from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.

Dissertation: Ethics of Exchange: Gender, Religion, and Democratic Life in Eastern Indonesia

What counts as ethical conduct in a democracy? This dissertation examines how the everyday workings of democracy in contemporary Indonesia are organized and contested in relation to gendered practices of kebersamaan (literally, “togetherness”), which I analyze as the ethical aspiration of reciprocal exchange. My findings suggests that kebersamaan—social relationships maintained through the exchange of words, money, and other resources—serves as infrastructures that undergird democracy’s ethical problems and paradoxes in Kupang, an eastern Indonesian locale. I ask how forms of kebersamaan shape two social roles that have become normatively gendered as roles performed by women: (1) as lay leaders of congregations in the Protestant Church of Timor (GMIT), and (2) as members of local networks of koperasis, not-for-profit microcredit associations. Thus, my objective is to illustrate how these two domains exemplify the ethical paradoxes that characterize gendered forms of inclusion in the world’s third largest democracy. Through a critical assessment of exchange practices and the interactional modalities that accompany exchange, I develop the toolkit necessary to analyze shifting forms of gendered inequality in democracies —a crucial toolkit as democratic societies globally grapple with the ethics of fostering inclusion while facing an unprecedented level of socioeconomic inequality.

Rafadi Hakim is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His dissertation examines how language, gender, and religion shape the ethical paradoxes of exchange in Kupang, eastern Indonesia. His research has been funded by the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) Fellowship, the Wenner-Gren Foudnation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, The Social Sciences Research Center at the University of Chicago, and the Committee on Southern Asian Studies at the University of Chicago. He earned an MA in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and a BA in Sociology and Anthropology with a Concentration in South Asian Studies from Carleton College.

Dissertation: Women’s Violent Crime and a Crisis of Weak Patriarchy in Late Imperial China


My dissertation draws upon over 500 capital crime reports known as Qing Board of Punishments memorials (xingke tiben) located in the First Historical Archives in Beijing about women sentenced to death for killing their husbands. These women ranged in age from teenage newlyweds to grandmothers over fifty and resided throughout the Qing Empire, including among the Manchu, Miao, Hui, and Zhuang ethnic minorities. Their defiance, as evident in the vivid and often counterintuitive testimonies they gave in court, grants us access to an unknown realm of generational experience of patriarchy, and allows me to argue that we have underestimated the role of ordinary, non-elite women’s emotional lives in shaping Qing society. Whether it be a young girl’s refusal to abandon hope of creating a life with the boy she had loved since youth, a mother working to safeguard herself and her children from a uncaring and economically inept husband, or an aged wife acting upon her sexual desire for a man half her age, these women’s stories compel a re-envisioning of traditional Chinese womanhood centered on the ‘Chinese Woman’ as resisters to and manipulators of what I call “weak patriarchy,” a concept that challenges our assumptions about the male-dominated household. 

Stephanie Painter is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Chicago exploring the intersection of gender, sexuality, law, and women’s history in Qing China (1644-1912). Her research reclaims violence as an instrument of women’s power. She approaches the testimonies of women on trial for husband-murder as an untapped site for reconstructing non-elite women’s emotional, material, and working lives.

Dissertation: Equality out of Empire: Race, Citizenship, and Decolonization in the British Empire, 1941-68

Usama Rafi’s dissertation, Equality out of Empire: Race, Citizenship, and Decolonization in the British Empire, 1941-68, examines how debates about the meaning and implications of racial equality in certain ‘problem spaces’ of empire—colonized East Africa, the newly established United Nations, the Colonial Office in London, the migrant communities of ‘coloured colonials’ in post-war Britain—shaped the timing and scope of the major wave of decolonization in the British Empire during the mid-twentieth century. Drawing on official records, the political thought of African anti-colonial leaders, calypso music of Britain’s postwar migrant communities, and East African folktales about ancestral land, Equality out of Empire demonstrates that it was the incommensurability between official appropriations of the idea of equality as a means to sustain colonial rule after WWII and notions of equality as material redistribution articulated by colonized peoples which led anti-colonialism from demanding racially-equitable imperial citizenship towards decolonization into nation-states. Situating these discourses of equality alongside each other illustrates that how decolonization unfolded in the postwar British Empire was more a matter of chance than destiny. Focusing on debates around popular and elite aspirations for what racial equality should entail in a ‘non-colonial’ future, the dissertation also highlights a rich and vibrant collection of ideas about what decolonization could be, beyond simply the end of formal foreign rule in individual colonized societies.  

Usama Rafi is a PhD Candidate in History, focusing on the British Empire in Asia and Africa, the history of race sciences, and twentieth century international history.  He received an International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) from the Social Sciences Research Council in 2019 and has conducted archival research in France, the United Kingdom, and Kenya. Rafi has extensive teaching experience at the University of Chicago, and most recently taught a class titled ‘Race, Decolonization, and Human Rights in the 20th Century,’ for which he was awarded a Graduate Prize Lectureship from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights.  

Dissertation: Emigrant Colonialism in the Interwar World: Germans and Poles on the Frontiers of Brazil and East Africa, 1880-1945

My dissertation explains the emergence of a new style of imperialism that several small, traditionally emigrant-sending states developed over the 1920s and 1930s. In these years, second-rate powers aspiring to first-rate status, states like Poland and Germany, Italy and Japan, pioneered what they called “emigration colonialism.” Adapting their expansionist ambitions to an age in which the world was already divided among the great powers, each of these countries formed private companies to purchase land with minimal state presence within other states. Their logic of expansion ran that as they channeled more and more of their emigrants to the isolated frontiers of Brazil and East Africa, settling their countrymen in homogeneous national blocs, such mushrooming national enclaves would eventually acquire the rights of self-government. At a minimum, they foresaw establishing small autonomous regions, like Quebec or the Transvaal. Their grand scheme, however, envisioned these communities blossoming into independent self-governing daughter states. My dissertation tells the history of emigrant colonialism through the case studies of Poland and Germany, analyzing why so many states developed such a simultaneously idiosyncratic and yet so similar style of imperialism, and why emigrant colonialism seems to so ill-fit our categories of settler colonialism and imperialism today. By analyzing the changing norms in public opinion, migration politics, and international law, my dissertation argues that the post-WWI era of national self-determination made emigration colonialism conceptually and legally feasible in a way it had previously not been. Moreover, I argue that emigrant colonialism was the product of transnational mimesis and rivalry among emigrant-sending states. As my work shows, this style of colonialism squares uncomfortably with our typical categories of settler colonialism because, first, these categories have been so defined by the Anglophone experience as to make this alternative appear aberrant, and second, because emigrant colonialism was intentionally designed to seem different. By marrying their expansionist aspirations to national self-determination, these self-style underdog imperialists were adapting settler colonialism to the modern age, devising what they insisted was a more moral form of colonialism. 

Ben Van Zee is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree in History and German Studies from Swarthmore College. He was awarded both graduate research and study fellowships from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to complete a M.A. in modern history at the Freie Universität Berlin. As a doctoral student his research has been supported by fellowships from the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA), the DAAD, the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, and the Kosciuszko Foundation. His research interests include the histories of modern Germany and Poland, the Habsburg Monarchy and the successor states, comparatives empires, migration, and global and transnational history.

2021-22 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Living institutions: Welfare-state exposures and health over the life course

My dissertation draws on several sources to understand how exposure to varying institutional and policy contexts across people’s life courses shape their health. I use cross-national harmonized longitudinal microdata, country-level institutional data for Latin American, European, and Asian countries, state-level data within the U.S, and also a novel dataset elaborated from coded international reports on pension systems and social security. With these, I seek to understand (1) how the health status of Latin American immigrants in the United States varies by the level of exposure to varying policy contexts pre-and post-migration in both their countries of origin and states of destination; (2) how certain features of pension systems can explain variation in the relationship between retirement timing and health; and (3) how variations in the relationship between loneliness and health across time and space can be explained as a function of the level of people’s exposure to defamilization policies. By showing the way life course exposures to varying institutional contexts matter for the relationship between stratification and health, I expect to contribute to the emerging intersection between political sociology, social epidemiology, and life course research, and also to add to the base of evidence informing policy interventions seeking to reduce health inequalities.

Ariel Azar is a Fulbright Foreign Student Fellow from Chile and a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. His research seeks to understand the way in which institutional arrangements are capable of modeling health inequalities across time and space in different contexts and regions, and across cohorts. His research seeks to put political sociology and social epidemiology in dialogue, emphasizing how exposure to institutions across the life course matters for the distribution of health. Additionally, Ariel is interested in understanding people's attitudes towards welfare states, particularly towards health care systems. He is also interested in expanding techniques for spatial sequential data analysis.

 Dissertation: Embedding Cognition and Culture in Semantic Topologies: with an investigation on the language-culture-policy nexus from the late imperial to modern periods of China, 1368 - 2000

Recent developments in cognitive science, computational linguistics, and computational social sciences propose various theories and methods modeling large-scale interactions between cognition, culture, and society based on social and historical corpus data, but they face multiple challenges particularly in methodology and empirical interpretation and evaluation. This thesis develops a cognitively-driven computational model for mapping topologies and variations of semantic categories, and provides a new computational framework for modeling semantic categorical relations and interactions between cognition and language in historical and social processes. Specifically, the study proposes a graphical and geometrical methodology for modeling and measuring how the mechanism of statistical learning at the individual cognitive level may drive or interact with long-term changes in semantic categories under the conditions of the presence or absence of large-scale population migration and the change of political institution or institution-level language policy. Empirically, the model and methodology are applied to the textual data in ancient and modern Chinese in several literary and textual genres from the late imperial to the modern periods, quantifying how semantic categories in color, smell, kinship, shape, and classifier in different social and political settings change across more than six-hundred year of Chinese history. 

Yu (Eugene) Ji is a PhD candidate working in Leslie Kay Lab in the Department of Psychology. His earlier research in the lab focused on modeling oscillations and synchronizations in the mammalian olfactory systems and cognitive relationships between human language, vision, and smell. His current thesis research focuses on developing new modeling methodology to study how language cognition and social and cultural processes interact and “synchronize” with each other.

Dissertation: Barbarians on the Shore: Global Trade, Everyday Life, and Conflict Resolution between China and the West, 1780-1860

Kubler’s dissertation, titled “Barbarians on the Shore: Negotiating Global Trade and Daily Life on the South China Coast, 1780-1860,” examines the dynamics of socioeconomic opportunity seeking and conflict resolution between merchants, sailors, prostitutes, interpreters, coolies, cooks, pirates, and other liminal actors whose global circulations helped shape the course of Sino-Western relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Combining a granular focus on the microeconomies of the Pearl River Delta with a broad scope that spans six continents and draws on sources across eight languages, Kubler pushes back against conflict-centered narratives of Chinese-foreigner interaction and argues that mutually incentivized problem solving, rather than conflict, characterized transnational relations on the ground level. By highlighting these processes of negotiation and relationship building, his dissertation aims not only to substantially revise how we understand the trajectory of Sino-Western relations in China’s late imperial period but also to arrive at a more sensitive understanding of how people from different places, holding dramatically different worldviews, could make sense of and engage with one another in their daily lives.

Carl Kubler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History who specializes in the social, economic, and transnational history of late imperial and modern China. His research centers on how the forces of global trade, migration, and cross-cultural encounter shape everyday life, with particular emphasis on the history of contact between China and the West.

Dissertation: Formations of Tamil Islam: Negotiations and Contestations in Contemporary South India 

My dissertation examines the practices through which Muslims in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu cultivate and sustain attachments to multiple traditions, histories, and places. Continued attempts by the Indian state to regulate Muslim religiosity has obscured the everyday ways in which Tamil Muslims constitute Muslim subjectivity and modalities of belonging that exceed the essentializing categories of nationalist discourse. Based on 18 months of ethnographic research among mosques, shrines, pilgrimage centers and Islamic organizations in Tamil Nadu, I argue that “Tamil Islam” is at once deeply embedded in the cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu and mediated by histories and geographies that extend beyond the region. I pay particular attention to the contestations among Tamil Muslims about ‘correct’ Islamic practice vis-à-vis long-standing forms of religiosity that are coded as both Islamic and Tamil. I suggest that an understanding of “Tamil Islam” depends not only on the explicit arguments—active debates, public speeches, and religious discourses—that seek to define it, but also on heterogeneous, everyday embodied practices of devotion and care. Ultimately my research throws into relief different ethical possibilities of imagining Muslim religiosity and belonging that are not limited by either political discourse or the geographical boundaries of Tamil Nadu and the Indian nation-state.

Harini Kumar is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on Tamil Islamic traditions and practices, specifically how the complex relation between a religious and ethno-linguistic identity is articulated in the contemporary moment. She previously earned an MA in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a MA in Communication from the University of Hyderabad, India.

Dissertation: Mediations of War: Formations of Statehood and Criminality in Mexico's 'War on Drug Trafficking'" 

My research dissertation explores how Mexico’s “war on drug trafficking” is ideologically constituted through the production and circulation of mass mediated objects. I analyze the public figurations of such events and their protagonists as a conduit for understanding how episodes of mass violence, both past and present, become culturally, affectively, and morally intelligible.  My work centers on the war’s media ecology as a site of struggle for dominant representations, truthful and compelling accounts, and the underlying logics of secrecy and publicity, which help shape and reflect widespread affective and moral stances towards the state and criminality. I do so by exploring how a range of actors (state agents, mass protesters, and the media industry, among others), aim to harness and mobilize the affective potency of their mass mediated representations. I theorize how these patterns of mediation of violence illuminate longstanding fractures underlying the national community—forms of state violence, class antagonisms, and heightened forms of gender oppression—which delineate the terms in which such violence is assessed.

Agnes Mondragón-Celis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology. Her research engages with the mass mediation and collective sense-making around contemporary forms of warfare. She has done ethnographic research in her hometown, Mexico City, since 2010. 

Dissertation: Federal Futures: Imagining Federation, Constitution, and World in Late Colonial India 

The constitution of independent India does not use the word “federation” in it. This omission is striking because there was no political ideal as influential and as unifying as federalism in the last three decades of colonial rule in South Asia. How did federation—a system of shared sovereignties as opposed to a unitary nation-state—that captured the political and legal imaginations of South Asians of all hues in the 1920s through 1940s become so disagreeable at the time of India’s founding? This question and the possible histories/answers it opens are central to his research. His dissertation studies the rise of federalist ideas in interwar India and their growing influence among various groups—princes, liberals, and minorities—in the late 1920s through the 1940s. It presents an alternate genealogy of political thought, constitutionalism, and worldmaking in late colonial India by showing the deep fissures between those who wanted a unitary state (singular sovereignty) based on the British colonial state and those who wanted a federation (shared sovereignty) based on Euro-American constitutionalism. He draws on multi-lingual archives—marshalled through 18 months of archival research in three continents—to recover the underappreciated federalist imaginaries in late colonial South Asia. 

Sarath Pillai is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Chicago. He holds a master of studies in law from Yale Law School, a master of arts in history from both the University of Chicago and the University of Delhi, and a postgraduate diploma in archives and records management from the National Archives of India, Delhi. He is a 2021Hurst Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School. His writings have appeared in both peer-reviewed and public forums such as Law and History Review, Archives and Records, Economic and Political Weekly,, The Diplomat, The Indian Express, among others.

Dissertation: Intimate Rites: Localizing Queerness through Ancestral Spiritualities in Contemporary Zimbabwe

Raffaella’s research interests include the politics of gender and sexuality, religion and spirituality, subjectivity, and African Studies. Broadly, she is interested in the production of religious beliefs and practices, on the one hand, and changing cultural understandings about gender and sexuality, on the other. Her dissertation investigates these themes by examining how young people in Zimbabwe are developing new expressions of queerness through the reinvention of spiritual practices involving ancestors. In Zimbabwe, nationalist politicians and religious leaders frame same-sex intimacies as imports from the West, opposed to both African traditions and Christianity. In response, Western donors have poured millions into defending the rights of LGBTQ Africans, who they view as victims of religious and cultural persecution. Yet young queer Zimbabweans participate in and move between LGBTQ organizations, Pentecostal churches, and sites associated with traditional religious practices. Raffaella’s dissertation shows how young queer Zimbabweans are inspired by Pentecostalism to revive ancestral spiritual practices. In the process, she argues that queer Zimbabweans simultaneously remake ancestral spirituality through ideas taken from LGBTQ organizing and localize understandings of queerness in Zimbabwe.

Raffaella Taylor-Seymour is a UK-US Fulbright Scholar and PhD Candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She received her undergraduate degree in Archaeology & Anthropology from King’s College, Cambridge, and received the inaugural Fulbright-Diamond Family Foundation Award for research in Africa in support of her doctoral studies. Raffaella is the recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, the Association for Feminist Anthropology's Dissertation Award, the Association for the Sociology of Religion’s Joseph H. Fichter Award, and the Robert Lemelson Foundation Fellowship. At the University of Chicago she has been awarded the Bernice Neugarten Award and the Orin Williams Fellowship, and her field research has been funded by the Center for International Social Science Research, the Committee on African Studies, and the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights.

Dissertation: Friendly Welfare: The Politics and Practices of Care in Northern England 

Emily Wilson’s dissertation entitled “Friendly Welfare: The Politics and Practices of Care in Northern England” analyzes voluntarism and volunteer labor across multiple contexts in Northern England, a region that has been devastated by ongoing austerity measures starting with the 2010 economic crisis. Based on twelve months of combined in-person and virtual ethnographic and archival research conducted with multiple charitable organizations across the cities of Manchester, Leeds, and the region of East Yorkshire, her dissertation tracks the experiences of charity staff, volunteers, and social care recipients as they negotiate relations of care amidst continuous budget cuts, program closures, and ideological suspicion of the state. Moving among the multitude of environments in which volunteer care is enacted, including the private sphere of the home, public meeting halls and event spaces, door-knocking campaigns, and organizational events and meetings, Friendly Welfare analyzes the national volunteer economy in Northern England, and the constant making and unmaking of ad hoc situations of care.

Emily Wilson is a PhD candidate in Comparative Human Development. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Michigan, where she specialized in social policy, organizational management, and housing and homelessness. She has been the recipient of multiple fellowships including a National Science Foundation (NSF) doctoral dissertation completion fellowship, a Society for Psychological Anthropology (SPA) Lemelson Fellowship, and a Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR) Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph field research award. 

Dissertation: Commercializing Benevolence: The Architecture of Grassroots-Oriented Corporate Philanthropy in Contemporary China 

Prevalent research and popular media accounts have suggested that government-controlled charities in China solicit philanthropic donations from firms via intimidation and clientelism, yet little is known why corporate gifts increasingly flow to grassroots nonprofit organizations unaffiliated with the state. Drawing on comprehensive corporate donation data, 15-month participant observation, and 120 in-depth interviews, this dissertation identifies the conditions conducive to this unanticipated grassroots-oriented corporate philanthropy on the sides of both donors and recipients. Rather than sacrificing monetary resources for access to political capital as in collaboration with government charities, according to this dissertation, Chinese firms seek to prioritize their own commercial objectives of business growth when contributing to grassroots nonprofits. Specifically, the current dissertation advances three interconnected arguments: First, private exercise of government functions extricates Chinese firms from obligation to donate to state-controlled nonprofits. Second, grassroots-oriented corporate philanthropy creates opportunity for Chinese government contractors to promote and innovate corporate products. Third, commercially-oriented corporate sponsors funnel more donations to grassroots charities that engage in intense yet ambiguous local status competition, where nonprofits become more capable of social problem-solving and more malleable to lucrative pursuits. These findings inform a strategic commercialization theory of corporate philanthropy and contribute more broadly to theories of political embeddedness, market-society relation, and social status hierarchy.

Yuhao Zhuang is a joint doctoral candidate in Sociology and Business at the University of Chicago. His research primarily asks how interrelationships between state, market, and civil society evolve across various political contexts. Drawing on qualitative, statistical, and computational methods, his dissertation focuses on the unanticipated disengagement of corporate philanthropy from the repressive state’s exploitation in contemporary China. In other recent projects, he studies procurement strategies of the U.S. government, discursive transformation of China’s state media, and the role of physical copresence in bridging political opinion dividesin the social services sector of China. Yuhao’s research has been supported by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation, the Social Sciences Research Center, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, among others. He holds an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Sociology from East China Normal University, China.

2020-21 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Holding Their Feet to the Fire: Negotiated Accountability in the Shadow of the International Community 

Genevieve’s dissertation examines how those who participate in conflict determine who must be held accountable for atrocities committed, and what forms that accountability should take. It also explores the extent to which an international community in favor of accountability, exemplified by the International Criminal Court (ICC), can influence the justice mechanisms parties to a conflict agree to implement themselves. Under what conditions is the ICC, and the international community in general, effective in creating incentives for human rights violators to agree to punish themselves? While much of the literature remains divided about the effects of international courts on domestic politics, Genevieve suggests that under certain conditions, international criminal tribunals can have important effects. Using insights from game theory and a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis—including data gathered during more than six months of fieldwork in Colombia—she argues that the international community can have an indirect effect on the accountability parties to a conflict face, acting as a “shadow” in the background of negotiations. The domestic processes established under the shadow of tribunals like the ICC are reflective of international and domestic power politics that can hurt or, under some conditions, actually help those most responsible for atrocity.

Genevieve Bates is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include political violence, post-conflict politics, transitional justice, and international criminal law. She is a member of the Transitional Justice and Democratic Stability Lab, and a doctoral fellow with the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. She has published in Perspectives on Politics. She received a BA in political science from Yale University, with a concentration in comparative politics. Before entering the PhD program, she spent several years working on international criminal matters at the US Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs. You can find out more information about her at

Dissertation: Whither the Reef? Marine life and ethical positioning at extinction’s edge

What are the global oceans to us when the existence of their exemplary form of life, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is in doubt? Damien Bright investigates the field of ethical and moral struggled that the sciences of marine life rouse as they develop a controversial array of environmental interventions in the name of global heating. Faced with a horizon of mass extinction, science-based environmentalisms are developing so-called “life support systems” for “The Reef.” These aim at permanently altering coral reef ecologies, hence the known oceans and our relationship to them. The promise to make an engineering virtue of ecological necessity turns the marine sciences into an exercise in planetary salvage and, therefore, turns life’s limits into the foundations for a new kind of know-how. Bright asks: how do scientific and parascientific actors fashion themselves as ethical actors vis-à-vis mass extinction, and what political and moral stakes arise when marine life becomes a matter of permanent experimentation? His research examines endangerment as both obstacle to and operative feature of the modern project, by interrogating a new kind of know-how that takes up mass extinction not as a limit of but a ground truth against which to repeatedly test—practically and ethically—its own abilities.

Damien Bright is a PhD candidate in Anthropology. He holds an MA in anthropology (University of Chicago) and an MA in political science (Sciences Po Paris). Placing technoscience studies in conversation with the environmental humanities, his dissertation research develops a political anthropology of climate action. His ethnographic fieldwork was supported by the Orin Williams Grant and Leiffer Research Fellowship. Bright has been a fellow with the Arts, Science, & Culture Initiative, supervised BA students as a preceptor in Environmental and Urban Studies, and instructed courses in anthropology and social theory.

Dissertation: In-Between Empires: Transit and Sovereignty along the Maritime Routes of Imperial France and Great Britain, 1870-1930

His dissertation, “In-Between Empires: Transit and Sovereignty along the Maritime Routes of Imperial France and Great Britain, 1870-1930,” is a study of colonial-era steamships belonging to the French Messageries Maritimes Company and the British Peninsular & Oriental Company, in an era when globalizing processes were accelerating at an unprecedented pace. Through micro-histories of steamship voyages, Charles recreates the spatial politics and moral economies of 'floating cities' in which subjects and citizens of colonial empires lived and worked in uneasy cohabitation, during long and frequent voyages, along a vital maritime highway that stretched from the French port of Marseille across the Suez Canal to Yokohama, Japan. Combining research from business, diplomatic, military, and maritime archives in France, Britain, and Vietnam, the project emphasizes the critical roles played by nationally-subsidized merchant shipping and inter-imperial collaboration in the maintenance of colonial empires. In an effort to reexamine the politics of mobility at the apex of European imperial domination, this project argues that steamships were both microcosms of empire and mobile borderlands, the everyday histories of which can help us trace the fault lines of imperial sovereignty and a nascent regime of global governance.

Before coming to the University of Chicago, Charles Fawell studied at Boston University, L'Institut d'études politiques de Paris, and New York University. From 2016-2017, he carried out sixteen months of archival research for the dissertation in France, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam from the support of the Lurcy and Chateaubriand Fellowships. Charles Fawell has lectured in the Writing Program, the Colonizations Sequence in the Social Sciences Core, and most recently, as the Von Holst Prize Lecturer in the History Department.

Dissertation: Colonial Agrarianism: A Historical Archaeology of Hacienda Land and Labor in Cusco, Peru

Hunter’s dissertation draws on archaeological and historical datasets to investigate the ecological and social consequences of Spanish colonialism in the Andes, with a focus on the emergence of the hacienda system of agriculture in the Cusco region of Peru. He argues that the remaking of agrarian ecologies subsequent to the Spanish conquest and emergence of the hacienda system articulated new social and ecological contexts; assemblages of ‘new’ and ‘old’ plants, animals, and labor organization in a structurally refigured Agrarian landscape that simultaneously invoked Inka and Spanish power. Hunter’s dissertation argues that these processes occurred over centuries, and thus, that the Spanish conquest of the Andes is not legible simply as the transition from Inka to Spanish hegemony, but should be understood as one moment in long term processes of colonialism that continue to reverberate into the present. His dissertation explores these processes along three axes: diachronic changes in agricultural practice, manifested materially through shifts in land and infrastructure use; changes in the conceptualization and representation of agricultural land, as demonstrated by land tenure patterns and discourses about land ownership; and the movement within domestic economies that happened alongside these processes as privately held hacienda estates expanded across Andean landscapes, monopolizing agricultural land and labor.

R. Alexander (Sandy) Hunter is an anthropological archaeologist interested in the historical interactions of imperialism and ecology, and in particular, the ecological and social consequences of colonial agriculture and resource extraction. Hunter’s current research focuses on the Cusco area of Peru, where he directs historical and archaeological research to better understand how the emergence of the hacienda system of land management under Spanish colonialism effected the focus of agricultural production and local agrarian ecologies. The project is particularly concerned with understanding how indigenous communities were transformed as haciendas became the dominant structure of rural life. Hunter’s broader research and teaching interests focus broadly on human-environment interactions, including; political ecology, histories of agricultural production, landscape studies, colonialism and extraction, and remote sensing and GIS applications in archaeology. Hunter previously obtained a MA in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and a BA in History from Iona College, in New Rochelle, NY. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.

Dissertation: Body Politics: Morals, Markets, and Mobilization of Organ Donation 

When confronted by the ethical dilemma between cultivating altruism for transplants and following customs and beliefs that take the body parts as family possessions, how do policymakers, medical professionals, and donors’ families negotiate the moral boundaries? By comparing the development of organ donation in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, where the Confucianist thought regards preserving body integrity as enacting filial piety, her dissertation addresses this question. Wan-Zi Lu argues that the historical trajectories shaping the stakeholders and their political coordination explain why the similar moral barriers for transplants in these sites generate different regulations. But governments can only claim relative autonomy. The practices of organ donation portray that when mobilizing altruistic acts, organizational arrangements shape the possibilities for situational adaptation and generate unexpected donation outcomes: Singapore shows a decline in donation rates with the country’s most incentivized donor pool whilst Taiwan’s organ supplies grow given its most stringent regulation on organ donation worldwide. In addition to examining the sub regional variations, her dissertation traces how countries around the world debated, passed, and amended regulations related to organ donation and gamete exchange. She identifies factors shaping the legislative processes to explain why the same country adopts contrasting approaches to regulating the giving of the same set of body parts.

Wan-Zi Lu is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation, “Body Politics: Morals, Markets, and Mobilization of Organ Donation,” traces the global development of bodily giving regulations. To understand why shared cultural norms produced different policies over and practices of organ donation, she compares the transformations of the transplant fields in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. She has co-authored a chapter in The New Handbook of Political Sociology (Cambridge) and published in Contexts.

Dissertation: The Birth of African Nationalism: The social sources of new political imagination in South Africa, 1860-1912

At key moments in history, political understanding and action is irrevocably transformed. Most of the time politics uses familiar scripts and follows common patterns of action. Yet at pivotal moments in history something new breaks into the existing practice of politics and transforms the framework of what politics is, who it is done by, and how it is done. How is such political novelty possible? The rise of African nationalism was just such a moment of political transformation: a political shift which came to be the dominant vision of how to do politics, forever transforming African identity and organization in the process. Jonathan’s dissertation studies the early moments of the emergence of African Nationalist politics in South Africa, and in doing so aims to understand the conditions which enabled political novelty and transformation. He combines the study of emerging political concepts among African intelligentsia, analysis of the social networks of political leaders in nascent African political organizations, and computational text analysis of political discourse in is iXhosa newspapers. In doing so he explores the social conditions which facilitated political innovation and consolidation, and offers deeper insights into how new forms of political understanding and practice can emerge.

Jonathan Schoots is a PhD Candidate in the department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is broadly interested in political and historical sociology, focusing on historical moments of transformed political understanding and practice, with work previously published in Poetics and Development in Practice. Before undertaking his PhD, Jonathan received an MPhil in Development Studies, a BSc in Computer Science, and a BA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His work focuses on African intellectual and political responses to colonialism and his PhD follows the emergence of Xhosa proto-nationalist political organizing between 1860-1910 in the present day Eastern Cape region of South Africa. His work combines intellectual history with social network analysis to follow the conditions which facilitated the political innovation seen in the early development of African nationalist and Pan-Africanist ideology and political organizing.

2019-20 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Moving Targets: of traffic rules, police authority, and road safety in Hyderabad, India

Sneha Annavarapu is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Prior to coming to Chicago, she received an integrated M.A. in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in Chennai, India. Sneha’s research interests are at the intersection of urbanization, politics and social control in South Asia and her work has previously been published in Journal of Consumer Culture, Journal of Historical Sociology, Journal of Developing Societies, and Economic and Political Weekly. A strong proponent of writing for popular outlets, she has written think-pieces for Public BooksAgents of IshqThe Wire and The Hindu.

Sneha’s dissertation tentatively titled “Moving Targets: of traffic rules, police authority, and road safety in Hyderabad, India” is an exploration of how driving behavior is becoming a site of contestation and conversation around development and modernity in contemporary India. She first shows how in transnational and domestic middle-class discourses around road traffic, what is often articulated is a ‘problem of governance’ that is tied to a ‘problem with governance’. On the one hand is the figure of the “unruly Indian driver” who treats “traffic rules as mere suggestions”, and on the other hand are “corrupt and ineffective” state agencies (licensing authority and law-enforcement) that are unable to discipline the unruly drivers. But going beyond the discursive realm, and drawing on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the southern city of Hyderabad between 2017-2019, Sneha delves into how state agencies in the city are attempting to elicit obedience to traffic rules, how these attempts resonate with and implicate the practices of Hyderabadi drivers, how gender and class relations shape (and are shaped by) everyday encounters between drivers, traffic rules and police authority in the broader context of “making roads safer”. On the one hand, this study contributes to the rich scholarship on postcolonial governance and urban politics in South Asia; on the other hand, it speaks to classic sociological concerns that address social control and social inequality in everyday life. 

Dissertation: Who is in Gezi Park? Genealogy of Gender Politics and Resistance in Urban Public Space

Onursal’s dissertation investigates the genealogy of urban space and its gender politics in Istanbul. It takes its cue from the Gezi Park Uprising, which started as a small-scale urban conservationist protest against the demolition of a public park but evolved to feature the unmistakable hypervisibility of gender politics as one of its main constituents. He contends that access to the emphatic cultural aspects of political contention requires us to see past the dazzling qualities of the spectacle.  Beyond the spectacle of the "event" lies continuous, non-episodic, and historically contingent forms of claims-making over urban public space. Onursal marshalls archival materials that date as far back as 1716 and consist of historical maps, urban plans and urban planning competitions, world exhibitions documents, government correspondence, periodicals, private travel albums, letters, diaries, and travelogues. The through line he extracts from them revolves around the continuous ways of governing, designing, and representing gender in urban Istanbul, as well as resenting, resisting, and negotiating being gendered in it. Onursal’s research uncovers a local genealogy of the relationship between gender and public claims-making in this inveterately urban city, where the continuous intermingling and segregation of bodies, the sedimentary accumulation and erasure of the spatial manifestations of gender norms, the endless traumatic repurposing of public space as the ostensible panacea to the ruptures of war, genocide, modernity, downfall, revolution, emancipation, and liberation take the stage as the primary explanatory factors behind contingent forms of gender contention.

Onursal Erol is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Prior to coming to Chicago, he obtained a MSc at Lund University in Sweden, and a BA in Bogazici University in Turkey.  His dissertation research is situated at the intersection of gender politics, social movements and contentious politics, and critical geography. The multi-site archival research he conducted was funded by the Orin Williams Grant. In addition to his research, Onursal has been a 2018-2019 Mansueto Urban Fellow, supervised BA theses as a preceptor in both Political Science and Global Studies programs, and taught political science and human rights courses.

Dissertation: An Archaeology of the ‘Natural': Historical Landscapes of the Sandawe Homeland, Central Tanzania

Matthew’s project represents the first archaeological analysis of socio-natural landscapes in the Sandawe homeland of central Tanzania.  This project is generating a basic corpus of data for the last 2,000 years of the region, including material culture inventories and chronologies, settlement patterns, and evidence of vegetation and environmental change.  Traditionally, scholarship has cast the region as an isolated refuge for a remnant forager population until the late pre-colonial period.  By extension, the region has been viewed as a pristine natural environment, which, until recently, was left relatively untouched by human activities.  Reappraising the evidence produced by earlier research, this project hypothesizes instead that the Sandawe homeland has deep historic links to the broader sociopolitical and economic networks of eastern Africa.  Further, the region’s reputation as an ecologically undisturbed hinterland may have resulted from how its inhabitants have engaged with these networks, rather than their isolation from them. This project investigates these hypotheses through a combination of landscape and frontier theory and more recent models of political economic mosaics.  Multiple methods, ranging from survey and excavations to environmental proxy sampling, will help to explore the co-construction of social and ecological geographies. The multi-scalar nature of these datasets allows for an investigation of how local societies have differently organized themselves over time and in relation to broader political economic and ecological networks. This information can further allow for a critical assessment of what representations of the Sandawe homeland, and its inhabitants, as “natural” have entailed historically.

Matthew Knisley is a PhD candidate in anthropology, with an emphasis in archaeology.  He previously obtained an MA in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and a BA with honors in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis.  His research has been funded by external grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and Fulbright-IIE and by the Anthropology Department and Committee on African Studies at the University of Chicago. Knisley focuses broadly on human-environment relations, ranging from the historical archaeology and anthropology of foragers to the Anthropocene.  He is also interested in political ecology and landscape studies, post-coloniality, temporality, and ethnobotany and archaeobotany.

Dissertation: Putting Empire in Its Place: Localism and the Qing Imperial State in Jinan, Shandong, 1733-1912

Daniel’s dissertation, titled, “Putting Empire in Its Place: Localism and the Qing Imperial State in Jinan, Shandong, 1733-1912” examines the history of a provincial capital in eastern China, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).  Combining interests in social, cultural, and political history, this project examines how Jinan’s role as a major administrative center was co-constitutive with various forms of place-making across both the high and late Qing. In addition to addressing the paucity of scholarship on urban North China, this project develops a framework focused on the processes of place-making and state-building as an alternative to the state-society paradigm common in scholarship on late imperial China. He argues that Jinan’s history shows how these two processes could be mutually constructive, thus challenging the assumption in Weberian social science theory that state and local society are fundamentally distinct realms of human behavior. His project draws on scholarship across disciplines like geography, anthropology, and art history related to theories of place and space. In dialogue with recent scholarship on the history of the U.S. state, he aims to work toward a new comparative history of the state.

Daniel Knorr is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, specializing in the history of late imperial and modern China. He studies the exercise of political power across space and the formation of local communities through both institutions and cultural practices. His current project is a history of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province in eastern China, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). In 2016-17 he received a Fulbright fellowship to conduct archival research for this project in Jinan and Beijing. Daniel’s broader research interests include local literary traditions, social movements, inter-cultural exchange, and theories of empire and the state. In addition to Chinese and East Asian history, he also teaches courses on world history.

Dissertation: Living Fukushima: Politics and Ethics of Living “Well” with Radiation in Japan

What does it mean to live well in a time, place, and ecology where toxicity has become the very fabric of everyday life? Hiroko’s dissertation explores this question through an ethnographic study of policies and practices surrounding health and care after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. It considers responses to the radioactive fallout, in which health and well-being have been articulated in varying terms among residents, evacuees, supporting organizations, activists, and bureaucratic institutions. Hiroko’s dissertation stages the everyday intimate experiences of living with environmental toxicity, as they unfold in relation to cumulative historical processes and planetary environmental change.

Hiroko Kumaki is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research examines the everyday experiences and ethics of living with environmental toxicity in the aftermath of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan in 2011.

2018-19 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Elite Politics, Jurisdictional Conflicts, and the Legacy of Colonial State Building in Malaysia

Despite a highly centralized government, why do conflicts between religious and secular courts become politicized and even turn violent in some states more than in others? Through a comparative analysis of jurisdictional conflicts on the syariah and civil courts across four states in the Federation of Malaysia, my dissertation addresses this question. Current literature focus on ethnic demographics or party politics, leaving out the role religious elites play in jurisdictional conflicts. I argue that contemporary jurisdictional conflicts become politicized in some states more than in others because of the extent to which religious elites are incorporated into the legal system, a process historically conditioned in the colonial state. In a bid to centralize state power, the colonial state co-opted religious elites into legal administration. Consequently, this led to the growth of a religious bureaucracy which strengthened the political position of religious elites. Amidst the growing role of religion in public life, my dissertation contributes to further understand how religious elites shape the political governance of modern legal institutions. A comparative ethnographic and historical analysis reveals how variation in elite competition across states is situated within the context of regime transformation and social change.

Hanisah Binte Abdullah Sani is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her current research focuses on the politico-legal administration of religion in developmental states. Using ethnographic and historical methods, her dissertation examines the relationship between colonial state building, elite competition, and contemporary jurisdictional conflicts on the secular and religious courts in Malaysia. She has published research in Space and Culture, where she examines the religious experience of a minority community in plural society. She has also done research on the growth of new religious movements, and conflicts of religious ideologies in Southeast Asia.

Dissertation: Coping with Democracy: Authoritarian Successor Party Regeneration in Latin America

Political parties founded by outgoing dictatorships have emerged as major competitive players in a host of Latin American party systems. Existing work attributes the success of these so-called authoritarian successor parties (ASPs) to the preponderant organizational resources they possess upon democratic transition. Yet some of the most competitive ASPs in Latin America entered democracy not in positions of preponderant strength but perennial weakness. Why do habitually weak and seemingly discredited ASPs emerge as major competitive players in democracy?

My project links ASP fates to the shape of conflict during democratic transition and its immediate aftermath. Where sustained demand for economic redistribution or greater political inclusion generated shared perception of threat among political elites of every stripe, ASP survival was predicated on collusion—that is, the construction of broad ruling coalitions that encompassed both ASPs and their former opposition. In the absence of such demand, conflict directed against ASPs (e.g., transitional justice or political retribution) facilitated party-building strategies by supplying ASPs with the activist networks and ethos of struggle that are perquisites for the construction of mass parties.

My project elucidates and tests this conflict-based argument using statistical analysis of outcomes for all Latin American ASPs since 1990 as well as detailed qualitative analysis of ASPs in Chile and Peru.

Mark Deming is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. Prior to his doctoral studies, Mark completed his MA in International Relations at the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations. Mark’s research centers on authoritarian regimes, regime transitions, and political parties and party systems. Mark has conducted extensive field research in Latin America. His research has been funded by the US Department of Education, the University of Chicago’ Center for Latin American Studies, and the University of Chicago’s Center for International Social Science Research.

Dissertation: Darija Revolution? Language, Sensibilities, and Modernity in Contemporary Urban Morocco

My dissertation investigates Moroccans' unconventional relationship to their mother tongue, Darija, a regional Arabic dialect that is both unwritten and officially unrecognized. Long relegated to the confines of everyday speech, Darija has become increasingly present in domains previously reserved for classical Arabic (Fusha): education, the press, and audiovisual media. These challenges to Morocco's linguistic hierarchies have been largely welcomed by outside commentators-heralded as a step towards transforming Darija into a full-fledged language. Yet, the vast majority of Moroccans remain unseduced by the idea of a vernacular revolution, i.e. the official replacement of Fusha with a standardized written Darija. Taking this skepticism of vernacular revolution as its starting point, my dissertation uses contemporary Casablanca as a case to ethnographically investigate how Moroccans are engaging in diverse projects that reimagine Darija by challenging both Morocco's linguistic hierarchies and Western trajectories of vernacularization. By following a wide-range of actors, from dictionary-makers to soap opera translators, I argue that Moroccans are enacting a linguistic revolution on their own terms: reimagining Darija not as a "language" but as what I call a public dialect: a form of speech that strives to be modern and cosmopolitan while simultaneously rejecting any imperatives to become standardized, officialized, or independent.

Kristin Gee Hickman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on language politics and the place of colloquial Arabic (Darija) in contemporary urban Morocco.

Dissertation: An Archaeology of the 'Natural': Historical Landscapes of the Sandawe Homeland, Central Tanzania

This project represents the first archaeological analysis of socio-natural landscapes in the Sandawe homeland of central Tanzania. This project is generating a basic corpus of data for the last 2,000 years of the region, including material culture inventories and chronologies, settlement patterns, and evidence of vegetation and environmental change. Traditionally, scholarship has cast the region as an isolated refuge for a remnant forager population until the late pre-colonial period. By extension, the region has been viewed as a pristine natural environment, which, until recently, was left relatively untouched by human activities. Reappraising the evidence produced by earlier research, this project hypothesizes instead that the Sandawe homeland has deep historic links to the broader sociopolitical and economic networks of eastern Africa. Further, the region’s reputation as an ecologically undisturbed hinterland may have resulted from how its inhabitants have engaged with these networks, rather than their isolation from them. This project investigates these hypotheses through a combination of landscape and frontier theory and more recent models of political economic mosaics. Multiple methods, ranging from survey and excavations to environmental proxy sampling, will help to explore the co-construction of social and ecological geographies. The multi-scalar nature of these datasets allows for an investigation of how local societies have differently organized themselves over time and in relation to broader political economic and ecological networks. This information can further allow for a critical assessment of what representations of the Sandawe homeland, and its inhabitants, as “natural” have entailed historically.

Matthew Knisley is a PhD candidate in anthropology, with an emphasis in archaeology. He previously obtained an MA in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and a BA with honors in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. His research has been funded by external grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and Fulbright-IIE and by the Anthropology Department and Committee on African Studies at the University of Chicago. Knisley focuses broadly on human-environment relations, ranging from the historical archaeology and anthropology of foragers to the Anthropocene. He is also interested in political ecology and landscape studies, postcoloniality, temporality, and ethnobotany and archaeobotany.

2017-18 Dissertation Fellows

Dissertation: Institutionalizing A Revolutionary Army: The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (1979-82)


Finding the right balance between the revolutionary power of the passionate masses on the one hand and the efficiency of centrally organized structures on the other has often proved problematic for revolutionary leaders, especially in building revolutionary armies. Various cultural explanations have been offered to theorize how mentalities, habits, social networks, and ideological beliefs of volunteers can provide the required organizational structure in a grassroots fashion. Historical examinations demonstrate, however, that top-down processes of control have always been at work to guarantee military success. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a militia that emerged after the Iranian revolution of 1979, defied this pattern. To explain the successful prolongation of the revolutionary moment within the IRGC, I argue that the actors’ mostly subconscious capability to recognize each other’s cultural belonging should be considered, as it can lead to extreme organizational flexibility. I lay out the characteristics of this collective work style by studying the emergence of revolutionary institutions in general and the IRGC in particular.

I reconstruct the resilient networks that eventually shaped the IRGC in the first three years after the Iranian revolution (1979-82), based on in-depth interviews with Iranian military personnel, archival material, and published document collections and memoirs. I argue that clerics close to Ayatollah Khomeini and their Shi’a followers formed fluidly connected communities by recognizing individual volunteers’ cultural belonging. Reliance on elastically strong ties allowed leaders to act against collective decisions as contingencies necessitated, grassroots clusters could be trusted and granted authority, and consequential decisions could be made informally to avoid organizational accountability to rival institutions. The resulting organizational flexibility was appealing to volunteers as their desire for revolutionary direct action was fulfilled within such organizations—a feature that proved critical for the IRGC’s successful institutionalization in post-revolutionary armed conflicts.

Maryam Alemzadeh is a junior research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Alemzadeh graduated from the University of Chicago Sociology Department in 2018. My research focuses on post-revolutionary institution building and the role of culture in the success of grassroots organizations. In her book project, Maryam studies the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Her future research will be a comparative study of how different lived experiences of religion can lead to different organizational styles among grassroots Islamic militias across the Middle East.

Alemzadeh’s dissertation was supported by the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.

Dissertation: The Legacy of the Missing Men: World War I, Female Labor, and Social Change in France

What were the effects of the shockingly high World War I death rates on the role of women in European society? Doctoral Fellow Victor Gay will answer this question using a new database that contains the names, places of birth, and dates of birth of all 1.3 million French soldiers who died during the war. Gay will examine how the high military death rate induced many women in France to join the labor force and altered the social norms regarding gender roles for generations to come.

With my project, I will study the long-run impact of French military fatalities in World War I on the behavior of women and gender roles in French society.

I am interested in uncovering the specific pathways through which the shock of losing so many young men in the War affected women’s’ working behavior using rigorous empirical methods. Analyzing how World War I affected preferences and beliefs about gender roles throughout society will be a step toward a better understanding of the dynamics of the profound change in the role of women in society throughout the twentieth century.

I am a PhD candidate in the Departement of Economics at the University of Chicago. Before that, I studied at ESSEC Business School in Paris where I received an MBA. I also studied economics at the University of Cergy. The core of my research is about the long run impact of historical shocks on individual behavior. Additionally, I study the role of culture for labor market decisions, and in particular how the grammatical structures of languages can reflect deep cultural norms and help explain variations in behavior across cultures. I am also interested in the political economy of democratization.

Dissertation: The Authoritarian Origins of Vigilante Violence and Quotidian Order in Democratic Indonesia


In the years after a transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, many new democracies struggle with armed conflict and violence. While much of the existing literature focuses on ethnic riots, electoral clashes, mass protests, and civil wars, considerable evidence shows that new democracies are also prone to frequent quotidian acts of violence. A democratic transition is often accompanied by an alarming rise in the vigilante killings of suspected thieves, social deviants, and an assortment of other alleged offenders. What explains the rise in vigilantism in new democracies?

My project will examine how institutional and instrumental factors interact to produce unique patterns of vigilantism in new democracies. I will argue that the capacity for vigilantism emerges from the use of informal security institutions to balance against formal ones such as the military during the authoritarian period. These informal security institutions increased citizens’ involvement in managing threats against the authoritarian regime, but with the democratic transition and its increase in political competition, citizens reoriented the informal institutions to serve their own goals.

My argument is based on an analysis of sub-national data on the incidence and impact of vigilante violence in Indonesia. Following a turbulent transition to democracy in 1998, Indonesia struggled to recover from a debilitating economic crisis and multiple communal conflicts. A decade after the democratic transition, the economy had stabilized and all major conflicts were contained, but economic and security improvements corresponded with rise in vigilante attacks. Since 2005, there have been over 33,250 vigilante violence. This entrenchment of vigilante violence in democratic politics is also an increasingly prominent feature of daily life in other post-authoritarian societies such as Guatemala, Nigeria, South Africa, and the Philippines. This project will explain a) the logic that drives authoritarian regimes to build informal security institutions that rely on citizen participation, and b) the variation in the retention of these structures and their role in violence after the democratic transition.

Dissertation: Abolishing Anomaly: Indian Reformism, 1835-1890

From the 1830s onwards, metropolitan and native reformers increasingly took issue with India’s position as an anomalous, hermetically sealed space distinct from the British Empire proper. They concluded that British rule remained unprincipled and under-scrutinized, as agents throughout the colonial administration executed arbitrary decrees with scant oversight or concern for Indians’ subject rights. To address these failings, the primary reform organizations and actors articulated an enduring program of trusteeship premised on the conservation of native political institutions ranging from municipal village governments to enormous princely states. India, the reformers stressed, possessed the seeds for its own material development. All it required was integration into global capital flows through investment in public works and cash crop agriculture.

By examining these reform networks’ modes of organization and rhetoric, my study addresses a series of questions that concern the inner workings of imperial sovereignty. Could non-official actors challenge despotic policymaking if institutional modes of redress were lacking or non-existent? How did outsiders acquire sufficient legitimacy to stage an efficacious agitation? In other words, if a regime was unwilling to police itself or render its actions transparent, was there any hope for a reconstitution of exploitative imperial rule as a moralized form of governance?

Zak Leonard is a PhD candidate in the history department at the University of Chicago, specializing in modern South Asia, Britain, and empire. Prior to coming to Chicago, he received a MSc from Edinburgh University and a BA from Brown University. His published research includes an article for the Historical Journal detailing methodological shifts in colonial ethnography on India’s North-West Frontier following the advent of sociocultural evolutionism. He has also contributed a book chapter to a forthcoming collected volume that reassesses the career of Scottish scholar-administrator Mountstuart Elphinstone. This piece suggests that colonial ethnographers and metropolitan reformers invoked Muslim “fanaticism” as a polemical device to substantiate divergent theories of native political development. His present dissertation project analyzes the activity of Victorian India reform organizations that challenged “anomalous” modes of colonial rule. Chapters examine pressure group competition and link-ups, forms of imperial constitutionalism, the utilization of law of nations theory and international law in the defense of princely sovereignty, and the reformers’ alternative conceptualizations of colonial political economy.  In addition to his research, Zak has taught lecture courses, supervised BA thesis projects, and co-organized a recent conference on colonial frontiers and borderlands.

Dissertation: The Making of the Chinese Rustbelt: Work, Welfare, and Industrial Transformation in Northeast China, 1949-2015

My ongoing dissertation project examines the entanglement of historical legacies, human lives, and global/national politico-economic transformations in northeast China, once the heavy industrial heartland that is now the epitome of the Chinese ‘rustbelt.’ Bridging the economic and political dimensions of the transformation, my work centers on generations as a nexus between the country’s socialist past and its capitalist/neoliberal present. I examine the life experiences of different generations that span the Mao era (1949-1976), market reforms (1977-1992), and the country’s neoliberal turn (1992-2015) to illuminate the complexities of how historical legacies interact with shifting national policy priorities. This project draws on ethnographic observations, interviews and archival data from multiple places in the region.

Wen Xie is a 5th year PhD student in sociology. She is broadly interested in economic sociology, comparative historical sociology, regional political economy, and labor issues. A central interest driving her past and ongoing projects is politico-economic transformations and social consequences in China since 1949.