Susan Ellison

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Socio-cultural anthropologist whose research centers on the politics of foreign aid, democracy promotion, judicial reform, and conflict in Latin America.

Currently, my ethnographic research focuses on conflict as a window onto the entanglements between foreign aid agendas, the justice sector, and the lived experience of violence and economic insecurity in urban Latin America. I am finishing a book project based on fieldwork in foreign-funded legal aid centers, conflict resolution programs, and the criminal courts in El Alto and La Paz, Bolivia. In particular, I examine the efforts of American and European-backed “Alternative Dispute Resolution” (ADR) programs, which encourage conflict resolution outside the court system. My research reveals the complex ways that residents of El Alto relate to ADR as they seek to ameliorate economic insecurity and mounting debts among neighbors and kin. However, I situate ADR and allied democracy promotion programs within a larger national debate over who sets the terms of democracy and what justice should look like in plurinational Bolivia (that is, a multi-cultural society with a large Indigenous majority). The book examines how the unfolding (geo)politics of conflict resolution programs have become entangled with Andean kinship practices, regional political tactics, and postcolonial governance projects alike.

I offer courses in political anthropology, including anthropological approaches to NGOs, states, and transnational governance; the politics and conditions of indigeneity (Indigenous resurgence); critical development studies; anthropological approaches to crime and punishment; political ecology; Latin America and the Andes; and urban ethnography.

My research and work experiences in Latin America have shaped my pedagogical approach, which is motivated by a commitment to imparting students with an anthropological lens that they can bring to the world around them, as well as to their studies in other fields. Through course assignments, I challenge students to conduct original research, to begin developing qualitative research skills, and to integrate ethnographic data with social theory. I am particularly committed to ethnographic methods that analyze policymakers, transnational urban planning professionals, and local aid brokers alongside the people whose lives are targeted and shaped by such interventions.

Prior to becoming an anthropologist, I worked in Bolivia (2001-2005) with environmental justice and Indigenous rights movements, particularly around mining issues, water privatization, and persistent forms of socio-political exclusion affecting Indigenous Bolivians. That experience informs my teaching on urban governance, political ecology, Indigenous resurgence, and critical approaches to transnational institutions and NGOs, but it also instilled in me a concern for how ethnographers might speak to other disciplines, practitioners, and the general public about the work that they do. Additionally, I received my MTS from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on global liberation and feminist theologies, and religion and political movements.

Personal website


  • B.A, Washington University
  • M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School
  • A.M., Brown University
  • Ph.D., Brown University

Current and upcoming courses

  • This course explores major themes in the subfield of political anthropology. How do anthropologists locate “the political” and study it the ethnographically – that is, through the long-term fieldwork they conduct? Throughout this course, we will delve into anthropological approaches to power, authority, and domination; statecraft and transnational governance; everyday forms of resistance and collective action; violence and disorder; and the politics of care and abandonment, among other themes. We will consider the animating questions that helped consolidate the subfield during the 1940s and 1950s, and trace anthropology’s growing concern with (post)colonialism and global capitalism. Finally, we will explore questions of labor restructuring, activism, caregiving, and life itself in an era that is often characterized as “neoliberal.”