Ethnography of "Development": Tania Li on Indonesia's Oil Palm Zone


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What can years of ethnographic engagement with rural Indonesia teach us about capitalism, development, and resistance? On this episode of Ethnographic Marginalia, our guest is Dr. Tania Li, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Tania tells us about three decades of research on development programs, local activism, and class formation in rural Indonesia. She talks about her own frustrations as a development practitioner led her to study development programs for the book The Will to Improve. She then describes how research over 20 years on how families’ lives changed with the introduction of capitalist relations in rural Indonesian highlands led to her next book, Land’s End. Finally, she explains the collaborative methodology behind her new book Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia's Oil Palm Zone (Duke UP, 2021), co-authored with Pujo Semedi. She talks about the insights that emerged from their different perspectives and positionality, how they used the project to inspire a whole generation of Indonesian anthropologists, and their joint efforts to avoid a colonial dynamic in their writing process.

Alex Diamond is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas, Austin. Sneha Annavarapu is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago.

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