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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Dr Seamus Murphy

DPhil Social Anthropology, MPhil Ethnographic Research Methods, MA (with merit) Social Anthropology, BA (Join Major) Sociology and Information Studies


Seamus Murphy
Dr Seamus Murphy
Email address:
Thesis title:
CONTESTED MEANINGS THROUGH SOCIAL CHANGE; An Ethnography of Institutions, Organisations, Ideologies and Power in the Market Development of the Lake Chilwa Commons, Southern Malawi.
Year of Study:
https://twitter.com/SeamusRMurphy; https://soas.academia.edu/SeamusMurphy;
Internal Supervisors


Research interest in policy debates surrounding agrarian sectors of three regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South America. Past projects have examined the impact of development policies on community-based natural resource management, property rights, supply value chains, farming and fishing practices among upland and lakeshore communities of potato farmers, irrigation rice-farmers, migrant fishers and regional traders. With a focus on anthropology of development, these research projects ask two major questions; 'What impact have specific development and conservation policies had on the power structures, social dynamics of food security, and civil rights of rural and peri-urban communities?' and ultimately 'How relevant to and representative of marginal populations are dominant international development narratives?

PhD Research

Over the past two decades, Lake Chilwa in Southern Malawi has experienced a number of critical junctures in its ecological, economic and political history. Significantly, two major events in the ecological cycles of this shallow but highly productive lake have unfolded alongside key transitions in Malawian government. In 1995, as Lake Chilwa experienced a ‘dry-phase’ in another of its endemic lake-recessions, and as Malawi’s thirty years of one-party rule gave way to democratisation, a new framework of community-based management policies was adopted along the lakeshore. Amid such institutional developments, wider processes of economic liberalisation have emerged from a history of colonial rule and more long-term class formations. Specific to the lakeshore, the increasing commoditisation of land, labour and fish have had observable impacts on matrilineal systems of production and exchange. In this context of social change there are two critical issues examined. One, in the densely populated Lake Chilwa basin, where large groups of ‘migrant’ and ‘resident’ actors have sustained mobile livelihood strategies, there has recently been a significant rise in conflict over its economic resources. Two, in the context of a Malawian postcolonial nation-state, these contests over rights to access are becoming increasingly based on ‘citizenship’ and autochthony.

Taking lead from earlier ethnographic and historical studies in the region, this thesis presents a dialectical analysis of social change, focusing specifically on the changing systems of values among economic actors. Analyses of occupational groups among fishers, farmers and traders reveal complexly integrated social networks in which increasing competition has led to the formation of autonomies within autonomies. This work seeks to outline specific social and political conflicts from the perspective of the lakeshore’s differentiated groups, told through case studies, interviews and accounts of witchcraft. In particular, an evident increase in witchcraft accounts points to moral dilemmas surrounding wealth creation, as local discourses provide expressive discussions of economic development, emerging ideological conflicts and an ontology of ecology. Ultimately the question is asked, what can this kind of anthropological research contribute to the study of social change through market development?

PhD Publications

  • Book Chapter  (2013) – ‘Livelihood Strategies and Development Discourses; Tensions between mainland and floating communities of Lake Chilwa’ in Giovanni Bulian and Sasa Raicevich (eds), IN MARE ALTRUI; Pesca E Territorialita in Ambito Interdisciplinare, Arachne Publishing.

Unpublished Research:

  • July 2014, Consultancy for Irish Embassy, Field Visit Workshop, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Paper - 'Historical Review of Local Governance and Southern Fisheries'
  • April 2013 - (Invited Lecture) Research Society, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Paper - 'Trials and of Initial Fieldwork Experiences'.
  • MA Thesis 2010 - 'Loss of Knowledge in the Face of Agricultural Intervention in the Peruvian Andes', SOAS, University of London

PhD Conferences

  • June 2014, 'Researching Southern Africa Workshop', Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, Paper - 'Agrarian Change in Southern Malawi; Transformation of the Lake Chilwa Commons'.
  • May 2014, '13th International Conference for Africanists', Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of African Studies, Moscow, Paper - 'Fishery Policies and Migrant Livelihoods on Lake Chilwa; Southern Malawi'.
  • July 2012, '13th European Association of Social Anthropologist Biennial Conference, University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defence, Nanterre, Paris, Paper - 'An Ephemeral Fishery of Fluctuating Resources, Mobile Livelihoods and Temporary Floating Communities; The detrimental exclusion of migrant fishers in the management of Lake Chilwa'.
  • June 2011, 'Anthropology in London; Values of Knowledge', University College of London, London,Paper - 'Contests of Knowledge and Ontological Shifts in the Peruvian Andes'.


  • Research Associate, Centre for Social Research, University of Malawi, Zomba

Professional Membership:

  • United Nations Association of the United Kingdom (UNAUK) London
  • European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) London
  • International Rescue Committee, NY, United States of America