Department of Anthropology and Sociology & College of Law, Anthropology and Politics

Professor Catherine Dolan

Key information

Department of Anthropology and Sociology Professor of Anthropology Centre of African Studies Member Food Studies Centre Advisory Board
Russell Square: College Buildings
Email address
Telephone number
020 7898 4425
Support hours
Wednesday (except 31/05/23), 11:00am - 1:00pm or online by appointment.


An anthropologist by profession, I’ve directed research programmes on the moral economies of global capitalisms in relation to food, labour, informal economies, and gender.

My work has straddled more than ten African countries, with an emphasis on eastern Africa. My recent areas of interest include alternative food activism; African urbanisms; and precarity, entrepreneurialism, and inclusion. I am committed to understanding and challenging how our economic and social lives are reconfigured and threatened by climate change, racial injustice, social inequality, and political power, with the aim of thinking about how we might move towards a more liveable world. 

To this end I convene the MA in the Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability and teach courses in the Anthropology of Food and the Anthropology of Sustainability. My teaching draws directly on my research and professional experiences of working in/with development institutions, government agencies, corporations, and NGOs on forms of economic and social exclusion.

I am a member of the Steering Committee of the Anthropology of Policy and Practice at the Royal Anthropological Institute as well as co-founder of both the Oxford University Food Governance Group, which researches the politics and practices of food governance and the Centre for New Economies of Development, a network of anthropologists that seeks to establish critical frameworks for research on market-based development. Over the years I have held fellowships with Fulbright; the Social Science Research Council; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the International Center for Research on Women; Boston University’s Center for African Studies; and Oxford University’s James Martin Institute.

Prior to joining SOAS, I was a faculty member at University of Oxford; Northeastern University (USA); and University of East Anglia and served as consultant/advisor to policy-oriented bodies including the World Bank, DFID, USAID, UNIFEM, ILO, UNCTAD, and UNICEF.

Current affiliations

  • Green Templeton College, Oxford University, Research Fellow
  • Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), Fellow
  • Higher Education Academy (HEA), Fellow
  • Royal Society of Arts (RSA), Fellow

Research interests

I am an anthropologist whose research lies at the intersection of anthropology, critical development studies, geography, and business. Most of my research has been based in East Africa, where I have worked, lived, and studied intermittently since the 1990s.  Drawing on approaches from political economy and economic anthropology, my academic and professional focus has centred on how the discourses, platforms and practices of international development, multinational corporations, and NGOs shape the everyday lives of communities and individuals.  

My previous research examined the role of business as an agent of development, focusing on how global corporations and social enterprises repurposed informal economies as new sites of ethical capitalism and market expansion. Through ethnographic studies of base-of-the-pyramid (BoP), Fairtrade, inclusive markets, and CSR initiatives, this research explored how the introduction of management theory and market practices: 

  • constituted the ‘bottom billion’ as an object of development
  • shaped informal’, ‘under-utilised’ or otherwise ‘poor’ women and youth into ‘entrepreneurs’ under the banner of poverty reduction and empowerment
  • cultivated new aspirations, desires, and consumption habits among the poor, recoding everyday consumer markets as ‘ethical’

With Jamie Cross (University of Edinburgh), Dinah Rajak ( University of Sussex), and Alice Street (University of Edinburgh), I founded the Centre for New Economies of Development, and am completing a book with Dinah Rajak on how global corporations are situating entrepreneurs at the frontiers of African capitalism. 

My current research entails two new projects on African urbanisms. The first project, ‘Pressure in the City’, was co-developed with Mario Schmidt (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) and Jorg Wiegratz (University of Leeds) and examines the phenomenon and experience of economic ‘pressure’ in East African cities, which manifests in anxiety, stress, gender-based violence, suicides, ulcers, sleeplessness, and widespread mistrust. Across East Africa, the prevalence of these mental health conditions – cutting across class, gender, professions, and age groups – has increased markedly. The project tracks how pressure is unfolding across scales, from the proximate and visceral experiences of psychological and bodily distress to the culturally inflected narratives of urban pressure in media and public discourse.  Together with partner organisations in East Africa, we are launching a workshop series in 2023-2024 on the interconnections between the post pandemic political-economic situation of East African cities and the subjective experiences of pressure experienced by urban citizens. See our blog series Pressure in the City, in Developing Economics: A Critical Perspective on Development Economics.

The second project, ‘The Afterlife of Inclusion’ is a collaboration with Marco di Nunzio (University of Birmingham), Dinah Rajak (University of Sussex), Taibat Lawson (University of Lagos) and various partner organisations in Africa which examines the experience of market inclusion programmes enacted by development institutions, business, NGOs, and African states among urban dwellers in African cities.  Bringing together anthropology, geography and urban studies, this project aims to explore ethnographically the afterlife of inclusion, focusing on how the institutions, discourses, and practices of market inclusion have (re)configured the economic lives, subjectivities, and social worlds of urban dwellers in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, Lagos, and Nairobi. 

In addition to the above, I remain involved in collaborative work on the politics of food, including digital food activism, alternative food networks and agricultural labour in global supply chains. I am a co-founder of the Oxford Food Governance Group at the James Martin Institute, University of Oxford, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity (Oxford University), University of St. Gallen, and SOAS, who are interested in the politics of food distribution, sustainability, and governance of the food supply, among other topics. 

I have published widely in anthropology and critical development studies (see publications). I am co-editor of the book series, ‘Business, Finance & International Development’ at Bristol University Press, as well as of the following books: The Anthropology of Corporate Social Responsibility; Digital Food Activism, and Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System. 

PhD Supervision

Name Title
Ayisha Ahmed
Hsiao-Chen J. Lin The Divine Mountain that Protects the Nation: The Impact of the Semiconductor Industry on Taiwanese Ideas of Defence and War
Wanlin Lu Food, Migration and Everyday Eating: Chinese Professionals in London (Working titles)
Lu Qiao Chinese Cosmetic Surgery Tourism in Seoul: Body Politics, Transnationalism and Decentralised Centralism


Contact Catherine