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an overview of my research, publications, and media features

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Credits: Genevieve Wright.jpg

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 (US: Assistant Professor) 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 United Kingdom and Indonesia. 

At the University of Sydney, I co-lead the Biodiversity, Conservation, and Culture Research Theme within the Sydney Environment Institute. 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.

For more, check out the morethanhuman matters interview series or subscribe to receive the morethanhumanworlds newsletter.

why morethanhumanworlds?

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


2024 Nautilus Book Award Winner - Gold, Category 06: Ecology & Environment

2024 Nautilus Book Award Winner - Special Honors: Best in Large Press


2024 Early Career Book Prize - Asian Studies Association of Australia

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review excerpts

"You’d have to search long and hard for a book that better captures the ineluctable violence of our times, that makes the damage feel so poignant, so inexorable, so real."—Danilyn Rutherford, The Journal of Asian Studies “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 "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 "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 "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 "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 "In the Shadow of the Palms is a testament to the fact that the Marind people are still here, and that what happens to their culture will illustrate whether or not the world is capable of embracing a philosophy of being that considers both the human and other-than-human."—Jessica Richardson, Edge Effects "The structure of the book renders it an excellent text to teach with. The chapters bring to fore a compassionate form of storytelling that both upper-undergraduate and graduate students of anthropology are likely to find inspiring. Chao's pairing of chapters will allow professors to show their students how Indigeneity and modernity unfold in dialogue with each other within the postcolonial context."—Shweta Krishnan, Anthropological Quarterly "The great challenge for researchers approaching capitalist natures is how to toe the line between an overtly human-centred focus and one that absolves humans of responsibility. Chao tackles this question head on, advancing a powerful analytical framework that prioritizes Marinds’ plural theories of reality, which will be influential in and beyond academia."—Julia C Morris, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute "Evocative of the writings of Val Plumwood, Donna Haraway, and Michel Callon, Sophie Chao has written a striking ethnographic view of the Marind peoples’ entanglements with the palm oil industry in the Merauke region in West Papua, Indonesia. Regardless of the reasons for engaging with this book - research purposes, general interest, understanding the destructive reach of palm oil, worldview exploration, etc. – Chao has provided something for everyone.”—Jennifer Marshman, Global Media Journal "Situating [Marind] theories alongside intersectional and Indigenous epistemologies, Chao encourages readers to think about the hierarchization of theory that is produced in the West and its impact on how people come to understand each other. Through this, she is able to offer critical insight into Marind agency, subtle and subversive, as they work against plantations, the state, and oil palm. Chao challenges readers to really attend to the ideas of the communities in which we work, and this alone is a valuable reminder for students and academics."—Jamon Halvaksz, The Contemporary Pacific By focusing on the murky undersides of multispecies relations, Chao brings original analyses of human-plant violence to other works on plantations. If social science studies of plantations have so far examined the transformative effects of accounting techniques and technologies on both laboring human bodies and resource extraction as part of a calculus for profit, then Chao’s work powerfully brings to the fore the animals and plants enrolled into those very processes."—Jia Hui Lee, Science as Culture "We all felt that Sophie Chao’s account might open the eyes of many to the critical need for giving priority to ecosystems in planning for prosperous and flourishing human and non-human futures. This text inspires us to learn from human lifeways that engage with their ecological surrounds, suggesting models different to the prevailing one of human dominance. Chao committed herself to a fieldwork program that was risky and challenging. The results remind us that outstanding research can be produced through imagination, boldness and persistence."—2024 Asian Studies Association of Australia Early Career Book Prize Committee “In the Shadow of the Palms is a priceless document of the everyday texture of life under conditions of rapid dispossession of land and livelihood. It is the outcome of Chao’s resilience across exceptionally stressful immersive research in a highly securitized and racialized landscape, and her careful and inspired work of analysis.”—Rupert Stasch, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory “Instead of presuming that the damage is done, Chao’s narrative dwells in zones of contact and pressure, continually circling back to tense structural oppositions and to the “dangers,” in a Mary Douglas sense of things, that ensue from the violent categorical rearrangements of landscapes and beings.”—Sarah Besky, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory “When Chao places her dream in the epilogue of the book, she and her ethnography become key pieces in imagining futures among the Marind. This aspect exemplifies the relationships, affections, engagement, and commitments we develop when residing in other localities to work with anthropology. If the oil palm refused to relate with the Marind, the anthropologist, on the other hand, agreed to share her dream with them and to dream together and in so doing Chao’s amazing ethnography reminds us of why we do anthropology.”—Rosa Cavalcanti Ribas Vieira, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory “In her conceptual care for the insights of multispecies studies, Chao wishes to put a restraint on the enthusiasm of some exponents who expose such relations as invariably productive or benign. Instead of exegesis pointing to itself, what we have in her work is something probably rather crucial to our times.”—Marilyn Strathern, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory “In the Shadow of the Palms is remarkable for its stunning combination of ethnographic breadth and subtlety in attending to some of the many-layered complexities that come with living with and among oil palm. It draws us into zones that are not so much dead (Graeber 2012) as they are grey. Tracing the textures, sounds, feel, and lived experience of what her Marind interlocutors describe as abu-abu, “grey” or “uncertain,” Sophie Chao weaves this leitmotif to offer an evocative meditation on the relationships between violence, imagination, and more-than-human relations in and around the oil palm plantations of West Papua.”—Shaila Seshia Galvin, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory “Filling her bag with Marind theory alongside carefully chosen non-Marind theorists allows Chao to collapse what she rightly identifies as the “hierarchical distinction between Western theory and non-Western cosmology” (p. 7). The result is less a Theory with a capital T than a sago bag filled with theories, theories that can also be dreams and songs, and are all the richer for it. By doing this through the manner not of the Hero or of Theory, but through a woven sago container, Chao forces her readers to see how persistence is far from passive. The book thus offers a remarkable blueprint for engaged anthropological research.”—Alice Rudge, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

in the media

In the Shadow of the Palms awarded ASAA ECR Book Prize

announcement of the 2024 Asian Studies Association of Australia Early Career Researcher Book Prize, awarded to In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua. 12 June 2024.

alcanza el lenguage para hacer justicias?

a conversation on the politics of languages and idioms in the environmental humanities, published by Revista Anfibia. With Alejandro Ponce de León. 11 June 2024.

Sydney anthropologist awarded Nautilus book prizes

a news piece on the 2024 Nautilus Gold and Special Honours awards received by In the Shadow of the Palms, published by the University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. 6 June 2024.

justicia metabólica

a podcast on metabolic justice, hosted by Humanidades Ambientales. With Lisa Blackmore and Alejandro Ponce de León. 26 May 2024.

reimagining justice

a podcast on multispecies justice and hesitant anthropology, published by OxPods and The Oxford Scientist. With Ushika Rudd. 16 May 2024.

beyond the Anthropocene

an opinion piece on the Anthropocene, published in IAI News. 8 April.

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