Sarah Besky

Associate Professor and Director of the South Asia Program


Sarah Besky is a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor in the ILR School. Her research uses ethnographic and historical methods to study the intersection of labor, environment, and capitalism in the Himalayas. Her work analyzes how materials and bodies take on value under changing political economic regimes and explores the diverse forms of labor that make and maintain that value.

Her first book, The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014) explores how legacies of colonialism intersect with contemporary market reforms to reconfigure notions of the value of labor, of place, and of tea itself.  Her second book, Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea (University of California Press, 2020) blends historical and ethnographic research on science, value, and the idea of quality in the tea industry to analyze efforts at economic reform in India.  Another book, How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR Press, 2019), a volume co-edited with Alex Blanchette, brings together contemporary theoretical conversations in posthumanism with classic and continually relevant questions about political economy, precarity, and the meanings of work.  

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




2020. Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea. Oakland: University of California Press.  

2019.  How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet.  Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette, editors.  Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research (SAR) Press.  

2014.  The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India.  Berkeley: University of California Press.   


Forthcoming (2021). “The Plantation’s Outsides: The Work of Settlement in Kalimpong, India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 63(2). 

Forthcoming (2021). “Teawords: Experiments with Quality in Industrial Tea Production.” American Anthropologist 123(1).  

2020. “Empire and Indigestion: Materializing Tannins in the Indian Tea Industry.” Social Studies of Science 50(3): 398-417. 

2017. “Fixity: On the Inheritance and Maintenance of Tea Plantation Houses in Darjeeling, India.”  American Ethnologist 44(4): 617-631.   

2017. “The Land in Gorkhaland: On the Edges of Belonging in Darjeeling, India.” Environmental Humanities 9(1): 18-39. 

2017. “Tea as ‘Hero Crop’?  Embodied Algorithms and Industrial Reform in India.” Science as Culture.  26(1): 11-31.  

2016. “Placing Plants in Territory” (co-authored with Jonathan Padwe). Environment and Society: Advances in Research 7: 9-28.  

2016. “The Future of Price: Communicative Infrastructures and the Financialization of Indian Tea.” Cultural Anthropology 31(1): 4-29. 

2015. “Agricultural Justice, Abnormal Justice? Fair Trade’s Plantation Problem.” Antipode 47(5): 1141-1160.  

2015. “Looking for Work: Placing Labor in Food Studies” (co-authored with Sandy Brown).  Labor: Studies of Working-Class History of the Americas 12(1-2): 19-43. 

2014. “The Labor of Terroir and the Terroir of Labor: Geographical Indication on Darjeeling Tea Plantations.” Agriculture and Human Values 31(1): 83-96.  

2008. “Can a Plantation be Fair?  Paradoxes and Possibilities in Fair Trade Darjeeling Tea Certification.”  Anthropology of Work Review 29(1): 1-9. 

Book Chapters 

Forthcoming. “Seaweed.” In Solarities: Inflections and Refractions, edited by Amelia Moore, Cymene Howe, and Jeff Diamanti. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books. 

2020. “Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives.” In Writing Anthropology: Essays on Craft and Commitment, Carole McGranahan, editor. Pp. 83-86. Durham: Duke University Press. 

2020. “Monoculture.” In Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon. Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, editors. Pp. 277-280. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books.  

2019. “Introduction: The Fragility of Work” (co-authored with Alex Blanchette). In How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet, Besky and Blanchette, editors. Pp. 1-22. Santa Fe: SAR Press.  

2019. “Exhaustion and Endurance in Sick Landscapes.” In How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet, Besky and Blanchette, editors. Pp. 23-40. Santa Fe: SAR Press.  

2018. “Subnational Occupations: Managing Darjeeling Tea.” In Darjeeling Reconsidered: Histories, Politics, and Environments. Townsend Middleton and Sara Shneiderman, editors. Pp. 197-218.  New Delhi: Oxford University Press India.  

2010. “Colonial Pasts and Fair Trade Futures: Changing Modes of Production and Regulation on Darjeeling Tea Plantations.” In Fair Trade and Social Justice: Global Ethnographies. Sarah Lyon and Mark Moberg, editors. Pp. 97-122.  New York: NYU Press. 

Selected Essays and Public Scholarship 

2020. “What’s in a Cuppa?” Queen’s Quarterly (Winter): 554-565        

2020. “Afterword: Work, Place, and the Value of Ethnography.” Anthropology of Work Review 41(2): 129-132. 

2020. “Tea Time for the Pandemic.” University of California Press blog, May 21. 

2018. “The Naturalization of Work” (co-edited with Alex Blanchette).  Collection for Cultural Anthropology’s website series “Theorizing the Contemporary.”   

2018. “Introduction: The Naturalization of Work.” In “The Naturalization of Work,” edited by Besky and Blanchette. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website. July 26. 

2018. “Sickness” In “The Naturalization of Work,” edited by Besky and Blanchette. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website. July 26. 

2017. “Monoculture.”  In “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website. June 28. 

2017. Preface to the Chinese edition of The Darjeeling Distinction. Chapati Mystery. May 16.  

2017. “Ten Questions with Sarah Besky.” Chapati Mystery. January 27. 

2016. “The Materiality of Finance: An Interview with Sarah Besky” (with Ned Dostaler). Dialogues, Cultural Anthropology website. March 17.

2016. Response to Daniel Münster’s review of The Darjeeling Distinction on Allegra Laboratory. January 25.  

2015. “Inheriting the Hill Station.” Essay on “Edge Effects.” May 19. 

2015. “Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives.” Essay in the 

“Writer’s Workshop” Series on “Savage Minds.” March 26. 

2014. “The Promise of Fair Trade for Plantation Laborers.”  For a Better World.  Fair World Project: Portland, Oregon. Issue 9 (Fall): 15-16.  

Selected Media 

BBC Radio 4. “Thinking Allowed.” December 2, 2020. 

CaMP Anthropology Interview on “Tasting Qualities.” October 23, 2020. 

Science for the People” Podcast. October 5, 2020.  

The Slowdown” June 13, 2020. 

World101x: University of Queensland MOOC module, July 13, 2017. 

Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” episode on tea plantations. December 14, 2016.  

Working Concepts.” Interview and podcast on “Edge Effects.” March 29, 2016 

New Books in South Asia.” January 14, 2015.  

BBC Radio 4. “Thinking Allowed.” October 22, 2014. 

The Farm Report.” Heritage Radio News. May 22, 2014. 

It’s Hot in Here.” WCBN Ann Arbor. January 17, 2014. 

Against the Grain.” KPFA Berkeley, CA. November 22, 2010.