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Adam Liebman


  • PhD, Sociocultural Anthropology, UC Davis, June 2018 expected completion date
  • MA, International Studies and Environment & Natural Resources, University of Wyoming, 2009
  • BA, Humanities and Fine Arts, University of Wyoming, 2006


Areas of interest: environment/ecology, waste/scrap, globalization, political economy, urban studies, linguistic anthropology, China, Zomia, East Asia, United States

Research Focus

Broadly speaking, my commitments as a scholar include (1) reexamining the conceptual tools on which scholars rely for describing and theorizing society-environment dynamics; (2) tracking emergent more-than-human relations and worlds; and (3) confronting environmental degradation and injustice. My dissertation research is summarized below.

Turning Trash into Treasure: Shadow Economies and Uninvited Ecologies in Southwest China

China is confronted with a “garbage crisis” resulting from rapid economic development. However, waste matter in China not only threatens the environment; it also provides the material basis of dreams to eliminate waste and create value through techno-scientific innovations, and of an informal scrap trade which thrives despite perceptions that such economic activity threatens urban aesthetics. I focus on the ways in which a fragmented collection of low-income urban inhabitants who transform and trade scrap in Kunming, China have forged shared identities. Rather than a story of rural migrants motivated by individualistic and materialistic goals, scrap trading activities foster a lively realm of collective political possibilities that is historically and materially specific to the contemporary waste-besieged Chinese city. The emergence of this realm is contingent on (1) historically-informed habits of thrift maintained and cultivated by low-income urban inhabitants; (2) the agency of rural migrants to carve out shadow economies athwart the state’s regulatory apparatus, formal economy, and middle class; and (3) the proliferation and increasing heterogeneity of post-consumer waste, which, to be transformed into the commodities colloquially called “waste-goods” (feipin), demands a considerable amount of care, appraisal, and negotiation, in addition to more typically conceived forms of labor. In this way, Kunming’s waste and the people who live off this waste have coalesced into particularly unruly collaborators which are uncooperative with the local state’s efforts to order the urban environment.

Selected Publications

In review, “Scrappiness: Making the city livable through making and trading scrap in Kunming, China”, American Ethnologist

In preparation, “Waste in Translation in Contemporary China: Making Huishou into Recycling and Recyclables into Foreign Garbage”, for submission to HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

2016    “Garbage, Waste-Products, and Value in Kunming”, Anthropology News, American Anthropological Association, June 21, 2016, part one in a series of five pieces focused on waste in East Asia, edited and organized by Adam Liebman, AN link; SEAA link


“Interview with Adam Liebman, Rappaport Prize Finalist”, Anthropology and Environment Society, Oct 24, 2017, link

“Tracking Kunming’s Trash with Adam Liebman” (昆明垃圾最终怎么了?让外国博士Adam深究了近3年), GoKunming: A New Perspective, Feature Article, July 10, 2017, English language version link; Chinese language version link


Instructor of Record (UC Davis)       

  • Cultural Anthropology (ANT 2): Summer 2014, Winter 2017
  • Culture and Political Economy in Contemporary China (ANT 148A): Fall 2015, 2016


  • UC Davis Provost’s Dissertation Year Fellowship, 2017-2018
  • AAA East Asian Anthropology Bestor Prize, best graduate student paper, 2016
  • AAA Anthropology & Environment Rappaport Prize, best graduate paper finalist, 2016
  • Wenner-Gren Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant, 2014-2015
  • UC Pacific Rim Advanced Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013-2014