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Department of Social Anthropology



I am a socio-political anthropologist exploring institutional creativity, political subjectivity, and indigeneity. I have done long-term fieldwork with the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia and am interested in Latin America. The main objective of my research is to understand how humans create institutions but in a way that takes seriously indigenous political projects. This work centres on exploring how a variety of indigenous social movements reinvent Latin American multicultural governance from the bottom up. I am the co-convenor of a new Indigenous Studies Group at Oxford University and am deeply interested in critical and collaborative pedagogy and conversations about symmetric anthropology.


The main objective of my research is to understand how humans create institutions? I explore this question in my ethnographic work in Amazonia, as well as in comparative anthropology, focusing on three major themes: autonomy, justice, and sovereignty. 

My doctoral research (LSE, 2017) involved extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Ecuadorian Amazonia focusing on village formation and collective selfhood as ways to explore indigenous perceptions of change and their political creativity more generally. Focused on the challenges faced by the Shuar after their relocation in sedentary villages and their appropriation of government offices, schools and development projects, my book project, ‘The Attraction of Unity: Autonomy and Government in Western Amazonia’, explores the dilemma of pursuing political independence through state formation. Closely examining the local production of ‘a new culture of government’, I focus on the micro-pragmatics of institutional creativity to better understand the oft-cited Amazonian openness to alterity. 

Whilst contributing to the political changes brought about by sedentism, schooling, and development, theoretically the book and a range of associated publications tackle ordinary dilemmas such as the extent to which formality can lead to innovation, how to balance hierarchy and equality, and whether political values can be reconfigured in one generation.  

The second theme of my research has to do with the problem of justice, specifically from an Amazonian perspective. Concretely, this means, how are local values, such as autonomy and mutuality, put in relation to wider and more abstract scales of social life? The effects can be seen specifically in practices of care, models of cooperation, and attributions of responsibility. This interest has resulted in two major co-edited contributions: ‘Governing opacity’, recently published with Ethnos which brings into conversation recent debates about ‘opacity of mind’ with longstanding topics of anthropological enquiry such as egalitarianism and state formation. Here I explore the correlations between different forms of government and regimes of legibility and intention management. The second collection on ‘The Ends of Egalitarianism’ re-examines the concept and suggests conceptual alternatives in dialogue with debates on so-called small-scale societies.  

Third, my research is profoundly concerned with sovereignty. In this field, I problematise the state form and the notion of ‘the political’.  Empirically, this is based on explorations of interethnic politics in Ecuadorian Amazonia, focusing on the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, one of South America’s oldest and most influential social movements. My aim is to flesh out the theoretical implications of taking indigenous politics seriously in re-thinking normative models of sovereignty, development, and wellbeing. I am particularly keen to explore how a variety of indigenous social movements (invested in forms of cosmopraxis) reinvent Latin American multicultural governance from the bottom up.  

I am deeply interested in critical/collaborative pedagogy and conversations about symmetric anthropology, and have participated in the development of Indigenous-led educational programmes and knowledge exchange projects in Latin America and Europe. I am the co-convenor of a new Indigenous Studies Group at Oxford University.  

Research interests 

Village formation; autonomy; social form and complexity; institutional creativity; morality and justice; intentional opacity; indigenous writing; childhood and intercultural schooling  


Edited Journal Issues

2023. (and 2021 online) (with Hans Steinmüller) Governing Opacity. Special Issue of Ethnos 88(4):677-701

2020. (with Hans Steinmüller) The Ends of Egalitarianism. Special Issue of L’Homme 236(3)


Peer Reviewed Articles

2023 (and 2021 online) Rule of Self and Rule of Law: Governing Opacity Among the Shuar of AmazoniaEthnos 88(4):749-773

2023. Competing for the Future: Play, Drama, and Rank in Amazonia. Social Analysis 66(4): 26-47

2023. (with Grégory Deshoulliere) “Inculturating the market”. Entrepreneurial Perspectives on Capitalist Predation among the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia. Terrain [Online], 78

2023. (with Grégory Deshoulliere) « Inculturer le marché » Prédations capitalistes parmi les Shuar de l’Amazonie équatorienne Terrain 78 :26-45

2021. (with Hans Steinmüller). Governing Opacity Regimes of Intention Management and Tools of Legibility. Ethnos.

2021. (with Hans Steinmüller). State and Mind Legibility in the Original political Society. Religion and Society, 12:39-55.

2020. (with Hans Steinmüller)  The Ends of Egalitarianism. L’Homme, 236:1-xxxvi. And available in French.

2020. Autonomy, Productiveness and Community: The Rise of Inequality in an Amazonian Society, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 26(1): 48-66. 

2019. (with Grégory Deshoulliere). An Indigenous Writing Boom: Cultural Experts and the Creation of a Scholarly Tradition, Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, 16(2):175-194. 

2019. (with Grégory Deshoulliere). ‘Singularity on the Margins: Autobiographical Writings among the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia’, Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America, 16(2):195-214. 

2017. On Desiring and Resisting the State’. Anthropology of this Century, 18. 

2014. ‘“La pedagogía del Arutam” o Notas Etnográficas sobre la producción académica Shuar en torno a la “cultura”’ [‘The Pedagogy of Arutam or Ethnographic Notes on Shuar Academic Production on “Culture”’]. In On documents, Cristina Burneo Salazar (ed.), Quito: Universidad San Francisco de Quito, pp. 181-194.


Book Chapters

2023. Cities of the Forest: Urbanization and Defiance Among the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia. In Urban Imaginaries in Native Amazonia: Tales of Alterity, Power and Defiance (eds) F. Santos-Granero and E. Fabiano. Tucson: The University of Arizona
Press, 123-152.

2023. (with Harry Walker). Cognitive Science. In Cambridge Handbook of the Anthropology of Ethics. (ed) J. Laidlaw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 177-204.

2016. ‘Paths to the Unfamiliar: Journeying with Children in Ecuadorian Amazonia’. In Children: Anthropological Encounters (ed) C. Allerton. London: Bloomsbury Press, pp.45-58. 


Other Publications and Media

2021 (with G. Deshoulliere, M. Suárez, and J. Nuñez). Thinking with Decoloniality: Authorship and Collaboration in Neoliberal Times.  

2021. (with Kaleidos Collective). Experiencing Covid-19 in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest

2019 (with Rita Astuti and Grégory Deshoulliere). ‘Exchange and Co-production of Knowledges: Reflections from Amazonia’, Anthropology of this Century, 24.

Teaching and Supervisions


SAN4: Ethnographic areas: South America: Ethnography of Amazonia

SAN6: Power, economy and social transformation: Politics beyond the state

SAN9: Science and environment

MRes/PhD Experiences from the field

Undergraduate supervision

SAN1 – Social Anthropology : The comparative perspective


Research supervision: 

I welcome applications from students interested in political praxis and creativity, indigeneity, social change and clashing ethico-political regimes at varied scales of social life in Amazonia and beyond.

Jessica Sainsbury Assistant Professor in Anthropology of Amazonia
Fellow and Director of Studies, Jesus College
PhD pre-field course director
Co-editor Cambridge Journal of Anthropology
Office hours: appointment by email
Dr Natalia Buitron

Contact Details

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