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Department of Social Anthropology



I am an anthropologist of infrastructure and energy in Africa and beyond. I received my PhD from Yale University in 2015 and prior to coming to the University of Cambridge taught in the department of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Since 2009 I have been conducting long-term ethnographic research in Tanzania, supported by the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Fulbright-Hayes Foundation, and American Council of Learned Societies.


At its core, my research concerns the way infrastructures and the vital flows they channel animate or call into question social orders. What happens when cash, current, carbon, or rainfall fails to arrive at its destination, or arrive as intended? How do social relations shift when such flows are waylaid or otherwise diverted?

My first book, The City Electric: Infrastructure and Ingenuity in Postsocialist Tanzania (Duke University Press, 2022) is an ethnography of a national power grid. Since the 2000s, mobile phones, televisions, and refrigerators have flooded the city of Dar es Salaam, but a mixture of drought, corruption, and market reform has made the electricity required to power them more expensive and less reliable. Residents respond by surreptitiously repairing, extending, or tapping into the state network, often with the assistance of freelance electricians or moonlighting utility employees. Based on two years of ethnographic research, I show how electricity and its economies of infrastructural piracy have become a key site for urban Tanzanians to enact, experience, and debate their social contract with the state. In the wake of a morally charged African socialism, they reason out thoughtful distinctions between tolerable and insensible forms of rent-seeking, power theft, load shedding, and meter debt.

Conceptually, this work has led me to develop a “modal anthropology” that attends to the arts and ethics of modification, to how people (and other animals) sense and test the possibility space of a shared world. Michel Serres’s figure of the parasite, a kind of uninvited guest that must be accommodated, has been a key inspiration. A series of related articles explore the aesthetics of improvisation, Piercean semiotics and exchange theory, and the anthropology of capture.

I am currently pursuing two new projects on energy and infrastructure in an era of climate change. “The Sisters Electric” explores the growing number of small hydroelectric dams owned and operated by religious sisterhoods in Tanzania, some of whom are building out minigrids and selling power to surrounding villages. I aim to trace how this decentralized model of energy provision builds on historical patterns of political authority in rural areas, and becomes folded into “Catholic Social” practices of charity and community that both align with and challenge the current trajectories of Africa’s energy futures. I am also interested in East African hydroelectricity, with its seasonal rhythms of rain and drought, as a site of encounter between Christian religiosity and ecological ethics.

My second, multi-sited project looks at the technics and politics of embodied carbon in the built environment. The construction industry is at the center of our climate emergency, accounting for a significant percentage of total greenhouse emissions worldwide. A range of experimental alternatives to glass, steel, and concrete—mycelium or algae-based bricks, cross-laminated timber, “natural buildings” of straw bale or cob—attempt to turn structures into net “carbon capture devices” and reimagine dwelling in the Anthropocene. I conceive of this project as an “ethnography of design” that tracks the cultural-political genealogies of such experiments, but also as a “design ethnography” that amplifies them, particularly through my work as a curator of the Ecological Design Collective.



Research Interests:

African studies, environmental anthropology, energy and infrastructure, socialism and postsocialism, anthropology of the state, social theory, design, dwelling and embodiment, materials.



2022.   The City Electric: Infrastructure and Ingenuity in Postsocialist TanzaniaDuke University Press.

Peer-Reviewed articles

2022. “The Flickering Torch: Power and Loss After Socialism.” Critical Times, 5 no. 2: 370–398.

2021. "Cutting Without Cutting Connection: The Semiotics of Power Patrols in   Urban Tanzania." Signs and Society, 9 no. 2: 176–203.

2020. “Air in Unexpected Places: Metabolism, Design, and the Making of an ‘African’ Aircrete.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 38 no. 2: 125–145. ttps://

2020. “Fuelling Capture: Africa's Energy Frontiers." Co-authored with Brenda Chalfin and Jamie Cross. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 38 no. 2: 1–18. ttps://

2018. “Shock Humor: Zaniness and the Freedom of Permanent Improvisation in Urban Tanzania.” Cultural Anthropology, 33 no. 3: 473–498.

2017. “La Véranda, le Climatiseur et la Centrale Électrique.” Afrique Contemporaine, no. 261-262: 103–121.

2017. “Modal Reasoning in Dar es Salaam’s Power Network.” American Ethnologist, 44 no. 2: 300–314.

Other Writings

2022. Review of Gone to Ground: A History of Environment and Infrastructure by Emily Brownell. Technology and Culture, 63 no. 2: 542–544.

2019. Review of Bottleneck: Moving, Building, and Belonging in an African City by Caroline Melly. Anthropology Quarterly, 92 no. 1: 259–262.  10.1353/anq.2019.0009

2018. "Disservice Lines." Limn. Issue 10: Chokepoints.

2018. “Becoming Infrastructural: An Interview with Michael Degani." With Scott Ross, Cultural Anthropology Website,

2017. “The Electric Fan.” Theorizing the Contemporary. Cultural Anthropology website.

2017. “Race and Electricity in Post-Socialist Tanzania.” The Corridor, Cityscapes Magazine.

2013. “Emergency Power: Time, Ethics, and Electricity in Postsocialist Tanzania.”  In Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices, Technologies. Sarah Strauss, Stephanie Rupp and Thomas Love, eds. Left Coast Press.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Anthropology
Juliet Campbell Fellow in Social Anthropology, Girton College
Senior Treasurer of CUSAS
Office hours: appointment by email
Mike Degani

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