an overview of my research, publications, and media features
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I am a Eurasian (French and Chinese) environmental anthropologist and environmental humanities scholar interested in capitalism, ecology, Indigeneity, health, and justice in the Pacific. I am currently DECRA Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Sydney, learning and living on unceded Gadigal lands. I previously worked for the Indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the UK and Indonesia.
At the University of Sydney, I co-lead the Sydney Environment Institute BioCultural Diversities Research Theme, Sydney Staff & Student Workshops on Anthropological Research Methods (SSSWARM), and Un/Worlding Environmental Humanities Group. I am keen to forge meaningful collaborations and conversations with Indigenous and decolonial academics, artists, and activists towards a better understanding of and relationship to, morethanhuman worlds.
We inhabit an epoch in which industrial activity is undermining conditions of life at a planetary scale. Addressing the anthropogenic crisis demands that we recognize and protect the morethanhuman worlds we inherit, inhabit, and pass on. These worlds encompass plants, animals, elements, and humans who unequally bear the burden of ecological ruin and repair. They invite us to rethink the entanglements of humans with otherthanhuman life, matter, and meaning. Making and remaking morethanhuman worlds requires care, courage, creativity, and collaboration, as we work towards more livable shared futures.
Duke University Press, 2022
2021 Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award
2023 Sharon Stephens Prize - American Ethnological Society
2023 Honorable Mention – Book Prize in Critical Anthropology, Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
“The stories Sophie Chao tells in this amazing book are mesmerizing, and her interpretation of them is clear and powerful. She makes a major contribution to the intersection of multispecies and posthumanist scholarship and critical BIPOC studies in ways that could shape imaginations both in and beyond the academy. Brilliant, insightful, and meticulous, In the Shadow of the Palms will be an influential and important book.” — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, coeditor of Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene
June 2022 | Use code E22CHAO to save 30% from dukeupress.edu
"We all know about the encroachments of oil palm plantations on the biodiversity of the landscapes they displace. Yet Chao’s account of what this has been like for the Marind people of West Papua does not simply add local detail or the poignancy of personal experience. It adds an unlooked-for contrast, turning oil palm into one of a duo, which becomes the heart of this compelling narrative."—Marilyn Strathern, Society "Based on empirical facts and utilizing rich details, Chao’s ethnography does not stop at rational arguments but incisively moves further to stir our emotions. In an era in which almost every sphere of human life has been capitalized and laws, regulations, plans, and rationality are operated as tools of appropriation by the ruling class to achieve their political-economic goals, satisfaction, happiness, and joy, this ethnography is a refreshing read."—Pujo Semedi, American Anthropologist "Raising fundamental questions about ethnographic practice, theory, and activism, Sophie Chao offers a truly new examination of human-plant relations that pushes us forward in how we imagine, understand, and narrate these forms of relation. This excellent and beautifully written book, which is at points both heart-wrenching and joy producing, makes a field-changing contribution to anthropology, human-animal studies, political ecology, environmental humanities, and postcolonial studies.”—Paige West, author of Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea "The architecture of ‘empire’ and ‘colony’ were planted in self, soil, and the ecology of plantation, by foreign interests in foreign soil. We – I speak as a Pacific islander - are in those days and the maps of those defining years are written all over us, still making us – unless we take note of the kinds of issues Chao raises and become cartographers of truly new ways of doing and being."—Robert Wolfgramm, The Pacific Circle Newsletter “In equal measure a work about the changing political ecology and multispecies relations of the Marind, as well as the phenomenological dimensions of their recent thoroughgoing lifeworld changes, In the Shadow of the Palms is a rich and theoretically dense ethnography of multifaceted interest. The book provides a refreshingly distinct contribution to the evolving field of anthropological oil palm studies, and to political and more-than-human anthropology in general. While never downplaying the magnitude of the depredation and devastation caused by the oil palm, In the Shadow of the Palms never loses sight of the possibilities for agency and regeneration remaining in the ruination.”—Isabell Herrmans, Inside Indonesia "Sophie Chao, anthropologue de l’environnement, consacre son livre à la manière dont les peuples autochtones, en particulier les Marind (province de Merauke), perçoivent et conceptualisent ces transformations — comment cette monoculture reconfigure les relations des autochtones entre eux, mais aussi avec les espèces animales et végétales. Au-delà d’une biodiversité qui s’étiole, d’une végétation indigente à force d’uniformisation, c’est le lieu d’un imaginaire de vie et de croyances qui s’appauvrit ; et avec lui ce pouvoir d’énonciation de mythes et d’histoires essentiel aux peuples — creuset d’identité et de souveraineté."—Philippe Pataud Célérier, Le Monde Diplomatique "In the Shadow of the Palms is a brave, compelling piece of ethnographic work, cleverly structured and delightful in its elegant yet accessible prose, offering a new, powerful take on the longstanding issue of agribusiness expansion in Indonesia."—Silvia Pergetti, ANUAC - Rivista della Società Italiana di Antropologia Culturale "Chao's deeply thought-provoking and riveting tome is both theoretical and real, development economics and the anthropology of slow violence. It is a homage to an Indigenous community with their own means of resistance. This is the work of a true ethnographer, deftly decolonizing anthropology by ensuring that she writes the tales her people want her to share. This is a story that needed to be told. "—Serina Rahman, Journal of Southeast Asian Economies "This is a brilliant book – beautifully written – based on rigorous and sensitive ethnography and sharp theoretical analysis that seamlessly blends ethnography with theory. Chao’s respect and admiration for her interlocutors shines through the text and brings to life Marind skinship with sago and more-than-human becomings -and how this is under threat by the oil palm as an actor of multispecies violence."—Camelia Dewan, Anthropology Book Forum "The evidence Chao provides in the form of thick ethnographic description and songs, stories, and dream accounts convincingly complicates the tendency to generalize plant-beings as either benevolent helpers, enigmatic tricksters, or passive, neutral fixtures. In the Shadow of the Palms is sure to bend one’s gaze upon a situated vision of robust humanness persisting amid profound changes, and of particular relational, ontological, and material entanglements that seem to tug on the broader planetary fabric in these calamitous times."—Carter Beale, Forest & Society "In the Shadow of the Palms affords us a searing and lucid account of agro-politics, asymmetrical development, racism, violent dispossession, and environmental destruction across Southeast Asia. This book is beautifully written, deeply researched, and deserves to be read widely. Not only by students and scholars of Indonesia, but for all those interested in Southeast Asia and environmental politics. In the Shadow of the Palms may well become a classic in both anthropological studies and studies of Southeast Asia."—Tomas Cole, Asian Studies Review "Chao's commitment to doing ‘political engaged anthropology’ is present throughout the book and is a welcome position on a complex topic. It is not only the stories that she tells of Marind negotiation of capitalist-driven palm oil expansion, but the theoretical debates she furthers, such as multi-species entanglements, that are critically rich and politically radical."—Sebastien Antoine, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford "[Chao] explores how oil palm plantations interfere with the Marind people’s forms of relating, living, and dreaming, and how they raise difficult conceptual questions about how we more generally think through our relationships with non-human others. If the ‘anthropos’ – the rational, white, and property-owning subject unleashed upon the earth during the last five centuries (Wynter 2003) – has not yet figured out how to coexist with vegetal beings, let alone with greedy ones, then in the puzzled stance of the Marind we might find the seeds of question, a call, and a dream we have yet to dream."—Irene van Oorschot, Etnofoor "Aligning with racial, queer and indigenous critiques, Chao argues that Marinds are being dehumanised and eclipsed – ‘in the shadow of’ a plant. With laudable density and nuance, she asserts that Marinds do not need to be reminded of the damage caused by the combined effects of both human and other-than-human actors and argues that agency must be widened if a multispecies standpoint is to be adopted."—Nicholas Mahillon, Ethnos "Counterposing her analysis of translations of Marind perspectives with oil palm company narratives featuring promises of economic growth, job opportunities, and progress, Chao highlights the incongruity between government and corporate views and Marind values relating to the forest and aspirations for a nourishing future. This difference is an argument for the prominence of peripheries, how ‘out-of-the-way places’ and peoples, subject to the resource frontiers of development, produce necessary commentaries on the gaps in and alternatives to globalising political economies."—Sally Babidge, Nathália Dothling, Sarah Thomson, Tyler Riordan, Kirsty Wissing, Ainá Sant’Anna Fernandes, and Sara Mejía Muñoz, The Australian Journal of Anthropology “In the Shadow of the Palms represents, above all, a deeply ethical project. Ethical in the sense of giving voice to otherwise marginalised and silenced people; and ethical in its broader existential ambitions. This is a book we all need to read: it speaks to the current predicaments facing all of us.”—Warwick Anderson, The Australian Journal of Anthropology "Chao documents terrifying dreams of becoming disoriented and lost in an oil palm plantation; dreams featuring screaming; dreams in which the life-sustaining waters of a river turned black and oily and are choked with dead bodies. This close attention to the elusive, psychic, unbidden, uncontrollable phenomena of dreams throughout In the Shadow of the Palms underlies the hauntings of which Chao writes. There is no leaving behind this research."—Eve Vincent, The Australian Journal of Anthropology "In the Shadow of the Palms is ethnography at its best, a deep journey into a world rich with meanings explained in accessible language that will engage and yarn with any reader whether they are an anthropologist or someone who just wants to meet the Marind and their disturbed palm oil damaged community. This is the deep anthropology aspired to by many but not often achieved. This is what the Global North needs to learn from the Global South."—Jakelyn Troy, The Australian Journal of Anthropology "The book accomplishes more in addition to innovative theoretical contribution to multispecies and ontological anthropology. Each chapter focuses on a specific ontological or epistemological site—disoriented senses of space, beingness of human and nonhuman beings, the contrapuntal or multivoiced intertwining comparison of oil and sago palm, and temporal disorientations as time “comes to a stop.” In so doing, Chao shows how the Marind worldview and being is relational, multispecies, in motion, dynamic, and ever-changing."—Rebecca Ann Dudley, Culture, Agriculture, Food, and Society "Chao is a first-rate fieldworker, an excellent ethnographer, and a consummate storyteller. There is much to learn from Chao’s work about the possibilities of life in the ruins of the ‘capitaloscene’, and about the possibilities and the (necessary) limits of ethnographic projects. This is a book that should be read and then re-read."—Nick Bainton, Oceania "In the Shadow of the Palms is a wonderful book that will be of interest to a wide range of scholars and activists. This includes those whose work is specifically focused on the necrobiopolitics of the Plantationocene, as well as anyone who might be having trouble finding possibilities for hope in this moment of planetary undoing."—Kevin Burke, American Ethnologist "Sophie Chao’s powerful monograph In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua offers an important intervention into the vague sense of dread, discomfort, and culpability that thinking about palm oil may evoke. Here, palm oil is situated, and its impacts on a specific group of people in a specific place are drawn out with unflinching clarity and precision."—Mardi Reardon-Smith, Society+Space "A vividly drawn portrait of a peopled ecology, In the Shadow of the Palms is exemplary of the breadth and depth of contemporary political anthropology and gives us reason to be optimistic about the field's future as it deals with such urgent and alarming problems as climate change, the destruction of Indigenous knowledge systems, and the human and non-human forms of the new capitalist frontiers."—Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Critical Anthropology Book Prize Committee, 2023
a podcast on Papuan plant epistemologies, featured in Networking with Plants in the Anthropocene. With Kate Brelje. 1 December.
an essay on plantations, published in French magazine Terrestres. 3 November 2023.
Translated by Paul Fabie. Originally published in Environmental Humanities (Living Lexicon: "Plantation").
a guest news feature on RTTL: Rádio e Televisão de Timor-Leste. 7 October 2023.
a blog on environmental and labor conditions at the Tibar landfill in Timor-Leste, published with Fundasaun Mahein. 4 October 2023.
a University of Sydney news piece on the Honorable Mention received from the Association for Legal and Political Anthropology for In the Shadow of the Palms. 27 September 2023.