Click the tabs below to find out more about my current research projects.
PLANTS AND PEOPLE
Palm oil is one of just four commodities driving the majority of tropical deforestation and the second largest driver of global warming after beef production. But how is oil palm, as plant and product, understood by indigenous peoples in the places where it is introduced and cultivated? How might indigenous views of this proliferating plant shed light on larger questions about the relationship between human and other-than-human life? And how must posthumanist theory grapple with more-than-human entities, like oil palm, whose ontologies are both lively and lethal? Drawing on eighteen months of fieldwork in the West Papuan district of Merauke, this project explores how oil palm’s arrival reconfigures the landscape, interspecies relations, notions of time, and dream experiences of indigenous Marind communities. It examines the conflicting moral, symbolic, and political meanings that Marind attribute to introduced oil palm, and how these contrast with the form and attributes of native sago palm. It also situates the social and environmental transformations wrought by deforestation and monocrop expansion in the context of West Papua’s violent and volatile history of political colonization, ethnic domination, and capitalist incursion. Working with and across species categories and hierarchies, the project analyzes how the proliferation of industrial monocrops subverts the futures and relations of some lifeforms while opening new horizons of possibility for others. Its empirical grounding in indigenous experiences and modes of analysis offers a critical counterpoint to the primarily Western-centric and technoscientific focus of posthumanist studies to date. Taking oil palm as its central protagonist, this project makes a contribution to our understanding of changing plant-human relations in an age of rampant ecological destruction.
Click here to read an article on plant-human relations in West Papua
Multispecies justice, according to Donna Haraway, is inherently speculative, oriented towards the future. We seek essays and para-ethnographic artifacts that consider the promise of multispecies justice. Promises may give purpose, meaning and order to human life, but they can also perpetually postpone the realization of hopes and desires, according to Sara Ahmed. Promises can become instruments of oppression that impose certain imagined futures at the cost of others. In some situations, however, justice demands a disruption of the foundational order. In thinking about these possible disruptions we draw inspiration from Ruha Benjamin who insists that the speculative horizons of multispecies studies expand beyond technological, scientific, and material domains. This interdisciplinary project explores what it would mean to reconceptualize, reimagine and reinstitute justice through a multispecies lens. It brings together academics, activists, and artists, and seeks to move beyond anthropocentric and Eurocentric framings of justice. We are interested in the lifeworlds of Indigenous peoples and the urban poor who often live with environmental injustice—experiencing unequal suffering from biodiversity loss, resource extraction, toxic exposures, and atmospheric changes. The aim of the project is to generate diffraction patterns--glimmers of possible futures--with new and interdisciplinary knowledge in cultural theory and multispecies studies. Our aim is to contribute to a growing body of literature in multispecies studies that is informed by the situated knowledge of Indigenous peoples and postcolonial intellectuals. In doing so, we want to offer a counterpoint to prevailing approaches for reimagining and redefining what is possible in multispecies worlds, that have largely been situated in the unmarked white space of Euro-American settler colonialism. As we consider the promissory nature of justice, we will tack back and forth between descriptions of present conditions of life, and speculation about the future to come.
Click here to watch a podcast on multispecies justice
HUNGER AND CULTURE
We live in an era of troubled food systems. Climate change and increasing climate variability and extremes are affecting agricultural productivity, food production and natural resources, with detrimental impacts on food systems and rural livelihoods. Changes in the way food is produced, distributed and consumed worldwide pose different kinds of nutrition and health threats to populations across the Global North and South. After decades of steady decline, the trend in world hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – reverted in 2015. Since then, the number of people who suffer from hunger has slowly increased. Latest estimates from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that more than 820 million people in the world are still hungry and over two billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Against this backdrop, this interdisciplinary project examines the poetics and politics of hunger among indigenous West Papuan communities whose traditional foodways are threatened by large-scale deforestation and industrial agribusiness expansion. Pushing against the sanitized language of “food insecurity” in policy and biomedical discourse, the project focuses on hunger as a lived, sensory experience, imbued with contested moral, political, and affective significance for those subjected to its deleterious effects. Weaving indigenous theories of hunger with insights derived from anthropology, phenomenology, the environmental humanities, cultural theory, food studies, and Science and Technology Studies, the project seeks to reframe hunger as a multiple, more-than-human, modality of being – one no less cultural than food itself. In an age of rampant environmental destruction, the project highlights how the waning of forest ecologies gives rise to complex ecologies of hunger that speak in sensory and symbolic ways to the ambivalent effects of technocapitalist modernity on indigenous food identities, relations, and environments.
Chao, Sophie. 2020a. “A Tree of Many Lives: Vegetal Teleontologies in West Papua.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 10(2): 514 – 529. DOI: 10.1086/709505.
Chao, Sophie. 2020b. “Introducing Oceanic Societies in COVID-19.” Oceania. With Ute Eickelkamp. 90(S1): 1 – 3. DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5257.
Chao, Sophie. 2019a. “Wrathful Ancestors, Corporate Sorcerers: Rituals Gone Rogue in Merauke, West Papua.” Oceania. 89(3): 266 – 283. DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5229.
Chao, Sophie. 2019b. “The Plastic Cassowary: Problematic “Pets” in West Papua.” Ethnos. 84 (5): 828 – 848. DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2018.1502798.
Chao, Sophie. 2018a. “In the Shadow of the Palm: Dispersed Ontologies among Marind, West Papua.” Cultural Anthropology. 33(4): 621 – 649. DOI: 10.14506/ca33.4.08.
Chao, Sophie. 2018b. “Seed Care in the Oil Palm Sector.” Environmental Humanities. 10(2): 421 – 446. DOI: 10.1215/22011919-7156816.
Chao, Sophie. 2017. “There Are No Straight Lines in Nature”: Making Living Maps in West Papua.” Anthropology Now. 9(1): 16 – 33. DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2017.1291014.
Click here to read an article on hunger in West Papua