Tania Li

Professor, Department of Anthropology
Centre for Southeast Asian Studies




Room AP 424, 19 Ursula Franklin Street




Tania Li’s early research in Southeast Asia concerned urban cultural politics in Singapore. Since then she has focused on culture, economy, environment, and development in Indonesia’s upland regions. She has written about the rise of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples’ movement, land reform, rural class formation, struggles over the forests and conservation, community resource management, and state-organized resettlement. Her book The Will to Improve (2007) explores a century of interventions by colonial and contemporary officials, missionaries, development experts and activists. Powers of Exclusion (2011) examines agrarian transition to see what happens to farmers’ access to  land in the context of competing land uses (e.g. conservation, urban sprawl, plantation agriculture). Land’s End (2014) tracks the emergence of capitalist relations among indigenous highlanders when they enclosed their common land. Her current writing project is an ethnography provisionally titled Living with Oil Palm. It explores the forms of social, political, cultural and economic life that emerge among people in the orbit of this massively expanding plantation crop. Future work will focus on the problems faced by people who are pushed off the land in contexts where they have little or no access to waged employment.

Click here to access the working papers from the Challenges of the Agrarian Transition in Southeast Asia (ChATSEA) Research Project on TSpace. 

research interests

Culture, economy, environment, and development in Indonesia’s upland regions
Rural class formation, indigenous peoples’ movements
Struggles over land, forests and conservation
Livelihoods, labour, and the problem of jobless growth


Ph.D. Cambridge University, (1987)

B.A. (Honours), Cambridge University, (1981)

awards and distinctions

Winner, President’s Impact Award, 2019
Winner, SSHRC Impact Award, 2018
Appointed University Professor, 2018
Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 2015
Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Southeast Asian Studies Center, Sydney  University, 2014
Senior Visiting Scholar, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 2014
Canada Research Chair, Tier One, 2004-2018
International Advisory Board, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2010
International Advisory Board, Journal of Peasant Studies, 2009
McArthur Research and Writing Fellowship, 2001-4
Canada Research Fellowship, 1988-1992
High-Commendation Award, Singapore National Book Development Council for Malays in Singapore: Culture Economy and Ideology,1991
Economic and Social Research Council, U.K., Ph. D. Studentship, 1982-1985
King’s College Cambridge, Senior Scholarship, 1979
King’s College Cambridge, Entrance Scholarship, 1978.

selected publications

2014   Li, T. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Duke University Press.

2011   Hall, D, P. Hirsch and T. Li. Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Honolulu: National University of Singapore Press/University of Hawaii Press.

2007   Li, T. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

2014   Li, T. What is Land? Assembling a Resource for Global Investment.Transactions of the Institute of  British Geographers.10.1111/tran.12065.

2011   Li, T. Centering Labor in the Land Grab Debate.Journal of Peasant Studies 38(2): 281-298.


Core Concepts in Social and Cultural Anthropology
Rethinking Development or the Improvement of the World
Ethnography of the University
The Politics of Distribution: Work, Welfare and Abandonment in Precarious Times


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