Michael J. Sheridan
Office
Munroe Hall 105
Tel
(802) 443-5582
Email
msherida@middlebury.edu
Office Hours
Fall Term: Mondays 9-10 a.m., Wednesdays 11-12 p.m., and Fridays 9-10 a.m., or by appointment.

My interest in anthropology began at Harvard in 1984. I decided to major in anthropology with an archaeological focus because it was about as far as I could get from the suburban lifestyle I had known until then. I did a lot of work on the reconstruction of symbolic systems from the archaeological record of mute stones and bones. After I graduated in 1988, I joined the Peace Corps as a water technician (based largely on my experiences in student theatre as a set designer). Just three weeks after commencement, a Peace Corps jeep dropped me and a backpack at my homestay in the village of Kinungi, Kenya. I adjusted to my new home with the Macharia family over that first weekend by learning to cook chapatis and to milk a cow without getting the Vaseline on my hands into the milk. I didn’t speak any Swahili yet, and my family didn’t speak much English. It was a pretty steep learning curve for all of us.

Peace Corps posted me to the town of Wundanyi, in the Taita Hills of southeastern Kenya. It was a beautiful place – 8000’ high rocky peaks with shrouds of cloud and rainforest, waterfalls everywhere, and miles of dirt roads that I got to know very well. My job was helping village water project committees to design and get funding for water pipelines. I taught myself enough hydraulics and survey techniques to do my job, and by the time I left in 1990 I had 11 designs finished and 2 projects funded and built. Peace Corps was an amazing experience that didn’t fit easily into the dichotomy of good and bad. All of the high points were exhilarating; all of the low points were devastating. It made me more intensely alive than I had ever been, and it thoroughly transformed me. But there was a problem – the two pipelines I had finished fell apart within a year after I left, because too many people installed illegal taps in the main pipeline. Water pressure fell, and the management committees fell apart. After I received letters about this from my friends in Taita, my innate stubbornness pushed me to understand why. What is ‘environmental management,’ anyway? How do African ideas of management differ from those of development planners? These questions sent me to grad school to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. I started working toward my degree in 1992, got married and moved to Vermont in 1995, did field research in Tanzania in 1997-1998, finished my Ph.D. in 2001, and got my first job at Midd the day after defending my dissertation.

My interest in resource management expanded into a theoretical interest in how localized relationships between the cultural and biophysical worlds become transformed by their incorporation into the global economic and political system. This topic requires interdisciplinary approaches because environmental change lies at the intersection of symbolic and material processes. African agriculture, for example, often merges mundane issues like soil moisture and crop yields with metaphysical concerns about gender relations and cosmology. Understanding the causes and consequences of environmental change therefore demands a methodological holism that can draw on perspectives from the social and the natural sciences. When combined, sociocultural anthropology, environmental history, biogeography, and political ecology can bridge the artificial dichotomy of nature and culture to reveal the instability and complexity of human-land relationships. By conceptualizing human ecology as a historical process characterized more by change than equilibrium, this perspective on global environmental change can explore international relations, regional political economies, and local understandings of land use in the same intellectual framework. All of these levels of analysis are linked by nested social relations of power.

I first engaged these issues through fieldwork on agriculture, community development, and land management in the North Pare Mountains of Tanzania in 1997-1998, 2004, and 2006. My work focused on development agency efforts to manage resources, and how those forms and meanings of conservation interacted with, and often contradicted, indigenous ways of doing things. I have explored this topic through irrigation management and soil and water conservation practices, but most of my recent work has involved theory-building for understanding the social and ecological contexts of sacred groves in Africa.

My most recent project expands on a detail that came up in the sacred groves work. The people of North Pare, Tanzania, use the dracaena plant to mark farm boundaries, encircle sacred sites, and symbolize peace and order. Far away in West and Central Africa, farmers do the same things with the same plant. I wanted to know why. This led me to start comparative research on Cameroon. I found some references to farmers and landowners in the Caribbean using dracaena the same way, so off I went to find out if there was a connection to Africa. What I found was that people use a different plant, cordyline, in the same ways I’d seen in sub-Saharan Africa. But their cordyline is bright screaming pink, not the dark glossy green of African dracaena. And cordyline isn’t indigenous to either Africa or the Caribbean. It’s from the Pacific. And it happens to be the most famous plant in environmental anthropology because it was the keystone species in a complex ritual for ecological management in Papua New Guinea, as documented by anthropologist Roy Rappaport. Cordyline is also prominent across the entire Pacific region as the ‘ti plant,’ and it often symbolizes property rights, sacred space, and peace – much like dracaena in Africa. And the cordyline in the Caribbean was introduced from the Pacific by botanists from the British Empire. So, I asked, why do these two species have such similar stories? How did enslaved Africans come to use an Oceanic plant in strikingly African ways? How and why do property rights institutions get elaborated into social organization and cosmological meaning?

In 2015 I threw myself into a year of multi-sited ethnobotanical fieldwork. I went to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the western Cameroonian kingdom of Oku, a fishing village on the leeward side of St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean, along the Highlands Highway in Papua New Guinea, and finally to several islands in French Polynesia. The resulting book tells the stories of how these two plants mediated landscape formation, colonial history, and cultural transformation in these five case studies. It introduces the term ‘boundary plants’ to explain how particular species mark land borders, the limits of social groups, and the boundaries of cosmological meanings about peace and order.

My major theoretical interest is the thorny issue of how the key concept of power varies cross-culturally. I argue that a more anthropological and historical political ecology must explore how environmental management in the tropics typically leads to conflict because of contradictory assumptions about power at personal, institutional, and symbolic levels of social action.

My wife Kristina Simmons and I live in Cornwall with various critters, and when I’m not doing scholarship, I like to build stuff. My favorite is the pizza oven I made with recycled marble from the Munroe Hall 3rd floor bathrooms.

Courses Taught

Course Description

Diversity and Human Nature: Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
This course introduces students to the varieties of human experience in social life and to the differing approaches and levels of analysis used by anthropologists to explain it. Topics include: culture and race, rituals and symbolism, kinship and gender roles, social evolution, political economy, and sociolinguistics. Ethnographic examples are drawn chiefly from non-Western societies, from simple bands to great agrarian states. The ultimate aim is to enable students to think critically about the bases of their own culture and about practices and beliefs previously unanalyzed and unexamined. (formerly SOAN 0103) 2 hrs. lect./1 hr. disc.

Terms Taught

Fall 2019

Requirements

CMP, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Human Ecology
Environmental issues are also cultural and political conflicts, between competing social groups, economic interests and cultural paradigms. This course introduces students to human ecology, the study of how our adaptations to the environment are mediated by cultural differences and political economy. Topics include: how ecological anthropology has evolved as a subdiscipline, with a focus on systems theory and political ecology; how ritually regulated societies manage resources; how rural communities deal with environmental deterioration; and how contradictions between environmental protection, economic development, and cultural values complicate so many ecological issues. (SOAN 0103 or ANTH 0103 or SOAN 0107 or ANTH 0107, or SOAN 0109 or ANTH 0109, or SOAN 0159 or ANTH 0159 or ENVS 0112 or ENVS 0211 or ENVS 0215 or BIOL 0140, or instructor permission) (formerly SOAN 0211) 3 hrs. lect.

Terms Taught

Spring 2020, Spring 2021

Requirements

CMP, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Africa and Anthropology: Power, Continuity, and Change
Sub-Saharan Africa has long represented primitive mysteries for Europeans and North Americans, as a ‘Dark Continent’ full of exotic people and animals. Even now, many Americans learn little about Africa and Africans except for ‘thin’ media reports of political, economic, and ecological upheaval or persistent poverty, disease, and despair. This course provides a ‘thick’ description and analysis of contemporary African conditions using ethnographies and films. We will not be exploring ‘traditional African cultures’ outside of their historical contexts or generalizing about ‘what African culture really is.’ Rather, our focus will be on understanding social continuity and change alongside cultural diversity and commonality. Topics will include colonialism, critical kinship studies, African feminism, environmental management, witchcraft and religion. Throughout the course African ideas of power – what it is, who has it, and why –unify these diverse topics as social relations. (formerly SOAN 0232) 3 hrs. lect.

Terms Taught

Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Fall 2022

Requirements

HIS, SAF, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Topics in Anthropological Theory
This course gives an introduction to some important themes in the development of anthropological thought, primarily in the past century in anglophone and francophone traditions. It emphasizes close comparative reading of selections from influential texts by authors who have shaped recent discourse within the social sciences. (SOAN 0103 or ANTH 0103 or SOAN 0107 or SOCI 0107 or SOAN 0109 or ANTH 0109 or SOAN 0159 or ANTH 0159) (formerly SOAN 0306) 3 hrs. lect.

Terms Taught

Spring 2020, Spring 2021

Requirements

SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Anthropology of Development
Is development about growing an economy or fostering justice? This course investigates efforts to alleviate poverty and build sustainable communities. Why do so many development interventions fail? Anthropologists show how aid projects are often undermined by structural, institutional, and cultural hierarchies. In this course we will examine the history of state-led and NGO development strategies and the role of anthropology in development design and evaluation. Our study of what ‘does not work’ will contrast with ‘what does’ by asking the critical social question of ‘for whom.’ Students will learn to write and present policy briefs, project proposals, and program evaluations. 3 hrs. sem.

Terms Taught

Fall 2020

Requirements

SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Prior to registering for ANTH 0500, a student must enlist the support of a faculty advisor from the Department of Anthropology. (Open to Majors only) (Approval Required)

Terms Taught

Fall 2019, Winter 2020, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Fall 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

One-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a student will carry out an independent, one-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 25-40 pages, due the last day of classes.

Terms Taught

Fall 2019, Winter 2020, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Fall 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Multi-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a senior will carry out an independent multi-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 60-100 pages, due either at the end of the Winter Term or the Friday after spring break.

Terms Taught

Fall 2019, Winter 2020, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Fall 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Independent Study
In this course, students (non-seniors) carry out an independent research or creative project on a topic pertinent to the relationship between humans and the environment. The project, carried out under the supervision of a faculty member with related expertise who is appointed in or affiliated with the Environmental Studies Program, must involve a significant amount of independent research and analysis. The expectations and any associated final products will be defined in consultation with the faculty advisor. Students may enroll in ENVS 0500 no more than twice for a given project. (Approval only)

Terms Taught

Winter 2019, Winter 2020, Winter 2021, Winter 2022, Winter 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Senior Independent Study
In this course, seniors complete an independent research or creative project on a topic pertinent to the relationship between humans and the environment. During the term prior to enrolling in ENVS 0700, a student must discuss and agree upon a project topic with a faculty advisor who is appointed in or affiliated with the Environmental Studies Program and submit a brief project proposal to the Director of Environmental Studies for Approval. The expectations and any associated final products will be defined in consultation with the faculty advisor. Students may enroll in ENVS 0700 as a one-term independent study OR up to twice as part of a multi-term project, including as a lead-up to ENVS 0701 (ES Senior Thesis) or ENVS 0703 (ES Senior Integrated Thesis). (Senior standing; Approval only)

Terms Taught

Winter 2019, Winter 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Winter 2022, Winter 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Anthropology and Climate Change
Climate change has become one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, and much of the discussion about its causes and consequences is based on the biophysical sciences and is strongly influenced by political and economic interests. Anthropology offers a wider set of perspectives on climate change. In this seminar we will examine cross-cultural case studies of past and present responses to climate change. We will look at how technological, economic, social, political, and spiritual dynamics shape the way people understand and react to climate change. Key themes will include gender and vulnerability, social-ecological resilience, climate ideologies, development policy, social scale, and ethnometeorology.

Terms Taught

Fall 2022

Requirements

CMP, CW, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

African Studies Independent Project
(Approval Required)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018, Winter 2019, Fall 2019, Winter 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Fall 2022, Winter 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Russian and East European Studies Senior Thesis
(Approval Required)

Terms Taught

Winter 2021, Spring 2021, Winter 2022, Spring 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

African Studies Senior Thesis
(Approval Required)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018, Winter 2019, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Winter 2020, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2021, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Winter 2022, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Winter 2023, Spring 2023

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Selected Topics in Sociocultural Anthropology
This course introduces students to the varieties of human experience in social life and to the differing approaches and levels of analysis used by anthropologists to explain it. Topics include: culture and race, rituals and symbolism, kinship and gender roles, social evolution, political economy, and sociolinguistics. Ethnographic examples are drawn chiefly from non-Western societies, from simple bands to great agrarian states. The ultimate aim is to enable students to think critically about the bases of their own culture and about practices and beliefs previously unanalyzed and unexamined. 2 hrs. lect./1 hr. disc./2 hrs. screen (Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018

Requirements

CMP, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Human Ecology
Environmental issues are also cultural and political conflicts, between competing social groups, economic interests and cultural paradigms. This course introduces students to human ecology, the study of how our adaptations to the environment are mediated by cultural differences and political economy. Topics include: how ecological anthropology has evolved as a subdiscipline, with a focus on systems theory and political ecology; how ritually regulated societies manage resources; how rural communities deal with environmental deterioration; and how contradictions between environmental protection, economic development, and cultural values complicate so many ecological issues. (SOAN 0103 or SOAN 0105 or ENVS 0112 or ENVS 0211 or ENVS 0215 or BIOL 0140) 3 hrs. lect. (Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Spring 2019

Requirements

CMP, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Africa and Anthropology: Power, Continuity, and Change
Sub-Saharan Africa has long represented primitive mysteries for Europeans and North Americans, as a ‘Dark Continent’ full of exotic people and animals. Even now, many Americans learn little about Africa and Africans except for ‘thin’ media reports of political, economic, and ecological upheaval or persistent poverty, disease, and despair. This course provides a ‘thick’ description and analysis of contemporary African conditions using ethnographies and films. We will not be exploring ‘traditional African cultures’ outside of their historical contexts or generalizing about ‘what African culture really is.’ Rather, our focus will be on understanding social continuity and change alongside cultural diversity and commonality. Topics will include colonialism, critical kinship studies, African feminism, environmental management, witchcraft and religion. Throughout the course African ideas of power – what it is, who has it, and why –unify these diverse topics as social relations. (Anthropology)/

Terms Taught

Fall 2018

Requirements

AAL, SAF, SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Topics in Anthropological Theory
This course gives an introduction to some important themes in the development of anthropological thought, primarily in the past century in anglophone and francophone traditions. It emphasizes close comparative reading of selections from influential texts by authors who have shaped recent discourse within the social sciences. (SOAN 0103 or SOAN 0105) 3 hrs. lect. (Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Spring 2019

Requirements

SOC

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Prior to registering for SOAN 0500, a student must enlist the support of a faculty advisor from the Department of Sociology/Anthropology. (Open to Majors only) (Approval Required) (Sociology or Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018, Winter 2019, Spring 2019

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

One-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a student will carry out an independent, one-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 25-40 pages, due the last day of classes. (Sociology or Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018, Winter 2019, Spring 2019

View in Course Catalog

Course Description

Multi-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a senior will carry out an independent multi-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 60-100 pages, due either at the end of the Winter Term or the Friday after spring break. (Sociology or Anthropology)

Terms Taught

Fall 2018, Winter 2019, Spring 2019

View in Course Catalog

Publications

2016     “Boundary Plants and the Social Production of Space in Agrarian Societies,” invited article, Environment and Society: Advances in Research 7:29-49.

2016     “The Politics of Rain: Tanzanian Farmers’ Discourse on Climate and Political Disorder,” in Anthropology and Climate Change: From Actions to Transformations, 2nd ed., Susan Crate and Mark Nuttall, eds., pp. 228-240. Walnut Creek, CA: Routledge.

2016     “Cultural Capital and Structural Power in African Landscapes:  The Social Dynamics of Sacred Groves,” in Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa, John Beardsley, ed., pp. 237-261. Washington, DC:  Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Landscape Studies Program. 

2014     “The Social Life of Landesque Capital and a Tanzanian Case Study,” in Landesque Capital: The Historical Ecology of Enduring Landscape Modifications, Thomas Håkansson and Mats Widgren, eds, pp. 155-171. Walnut Creek, CA:  Left Coast Press.

2012     “Water: Irrigation and Resilience in the Tanzanian Highlands,” in Ecology and Power: Struggles over Land and Material Resources in the Past, Present, and Future, Alf Hornborg, Brett Clark, and Kenneth Hermele, eds., pp. 168-181. London: Routledge.

2009     “The Environmental and Social History of African Sacred Groves: A Tanzanian Case Study,” African Studies Review 52(1):73-98.

2008     “Tanzanian Ritual Perimetrics and African Landscapes:  The Case of Dracaena,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 41(3):491-521, special theme issue edited by Mats Widgren and Thomas Håkansson.

2008     “The Dynamics of African Sacred Groves:  Ecological, Social, and Symbolic Processes,” in African Sacred Groves:  Ecological Dynamics and Social Change, M. Sheridan and C. Nyamweru, eds., pp. 9-41. Oxford and Athens, OH: James Currey and Ohio University Press.

2008     Co-editor (with Celia Nyamweru), African Sacred Groves:  Ecological Dynamics and Social Change.  Oxford and Athens, OH:  James Currey and Ohio University Press.

2006     “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love:  The Peace Corps as Adventure,” co-authored with Jason Price, in Tarzan was an Eco-tourist: The Anthropology of Adventure, R. Gordon and L. Vivanco, eds., pp. 179-196.  New York: Berghahn Publishers.

2004     “The Environmental Consequences of Independence and Socialism in North Pare, Tanzania, 1961-88,” Journal of African History 45(1):81-102.

2003     “Representing Environments in Flux: Case Studies from East Africa,” co-authored with Lindsey Gillson and Dan Brockington. Area 35(4):371-389.

2002     “‘An Irrigation Intake is like a Uterus’:  Culture and Agriculture in Precolonial North Pare, Tanzania,” American Anthropologist 104(1): 79-92.