Department of Anthropology and Sociology

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
Currently on Research Leave Term 2


    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; and
    • cultivated new aspirations, desires, and consumption habits among the poor, recoding everyday consumer markets as ‘ethical’.  

    With Dinah Rajak (Sussex University), I am completing a book on how global corporations are situating these entrepreneurs at the frontiers of African capitalism.

    My current research entails two new projects on African urbanisms. Together with colleagues in the UK and Africa, the first project examines the neighbourhood effects of the global call for inclusive cities, a narrative and set of policies enacted by development institutions, business, NGOs, and African states. Bringing together anthropology, geography and urban studies, this project explores ethnographically the afterlife of inclusion, focusing on the social worlds and economic practices of urban dwellers in Nairobi, Lagos, and Johannesburg.

    The second project, co-developed with colleagues in the UK, Germany, and Kenya, focuses on the concept of pressure in African cities. Reflecting the relationship between the somatic experiences of individuals and wider social, economic, and political currents, pressure offers a new way to understand and theorise African economic livelihoods beyond the popular frameworks of hustling, waithood, subalternity and marginality. Being ‘under pressure’ is not confined to the regions’ informal and disenfranchised poor but reflects the experiences, expectations, and aspirations of individuals across economic classes and material circumstances. We have a blog series (‘Pressure in the City) related to this work in Developing Economics: A Critical Perspective on Development Economics.

    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 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
    Wanlin Lu Food, care and the digital sphere: Community group buying (shequ tuangou) in urban China
    Lu Qiao Chinese Cosmetic Surgery Tourism in Seoul: Body Politics, Transnationalism and Decentralised Centralism


    Contact Catherine