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Suzana Sawyer


  • Ph.D., Anthropology, Stanford University, 1997
  • M.A., Anthropology, Stanford University, 1989
  • B.A., Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1986

Research Focus

My research has focused on controversy surrounding resource extraction. My first book, Crude Chronicles (2004), explores the conflictive intersection of indigenous politics, petroleum corporations, and neoliberalism in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It suggests that struggles over resource use are simultaneously struggles over identity and territoriality. In a country scarred by inequalities, contrary logics of resources use represented challenges to the legitimacy of an historically exclusionary state, as well as occasions for redefining the terms of nation, nature, and sovereignty in a globalizing world. Tracing the emergence of one of twentieth-century Latin America’s strongest indigenous movements, I show how hydrocarbon conflict was as much about reconfiguring national and transnational inequality—that is, rupturing the silence around racial injustice, exacting spaces of accountability, and rewriting narratives of national belonging—as it was about the material use and extraction of hydrocarbon capital.

My co-edited volume (with Terence Gomez), The Politics of Resource Extraction (2012), examines conflicts over mining and hydrocarbon projects in eight countries. In particular, the book explores how notions of indigeneity serve to both empower and debilitate indigenous initiatives engaging mega-development projects, as multinational corporations, state agencies, and multilateral institutions appropriated, normalized, and depoliticized the concept and practice of indigeneity. The volume critically engages with the unintended delegitimizing effect of an increasingly global trend to codify understandings of indigenous identity in national and international law. 

My book The Small Matter of Suing Chevron (2022) traces events that led an Ecuadorian court to render a $9 billion ruling against Chevron for contamination in 2011, and, compelled the US federal courts to delegitimize that ruling in 2016. Chevron’s impressive legal strategies have succeeded in making “corruption” the optic for viewing the contamination case in the US. This framing—with which the US federal court concurs—obscures the lawsuit’s far-reaching significance for transnational jurisprudence and environmental accountability. My book project suggests that the Ecuadorian litigation (despite its flaws) serves as an instructive socio-legal forum for reckoning near-intractable contamination disputes, and, that Chevron’s counter-lawsuit serves as a sobering moment for reckoning the legal enactment of the corporation. In a world of multiplying socio-ecological harms, this project brings careful attention to how we reconcile contamination controversies and make sense of formidable corporate challenges.

I am currently working on a collaborative project, "Mattering Elements," that explores the multiple analytic capacities that chemical philosophy and the practice of chemistry afford the humanistic social sciences when thought materially and metaphorically. It seeks to tap chemistry—a discipline long focused on volatile reactions, transmutations, and open systems—and its historically shifting methods as inspiration for thinking the complex and unstable materializations of our world. It asks: what capacities and modalities emerge when we think of the chemical as substantively, semiotically, and poetically agentive of processes far beyond the molecular?

Selected Publications



Articles and Chapters


  • Wenner-Gren Foundation Workshop Grant 2022-2023
  • UC Humanities Research Institute Short-Term Residency 2022
  • UC Davis Humanities Institute, Network-Collaboration Fellowship 2020-2024
  • American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship 2017-2018
  • UC Presidents Faculty Research Fellowship in the Humanities, 2017-2018