Elizabeth Cullen Dunn


My work focuses on the effects of large bureaucratic systems during periods of cataclysmic social change. Looking at industrialized humanitarianism, business management, and the government regulation of agriculture, I ask how people both use, modify and circumvent rationalized managerial systems as they rebuild their lives after disaster or large-scale social transformation.

My current project focuses on humanitarianism and displacement. Using a theoretical lens derived from Alain Badiou and Jean-Paul Sartre, I look at the effects of international aid among internally displaced people (IDPs), victims of ethnic cleansing who have been forced to become refugees in their own countries. Between 2009-2012, I conducted 16 months of fieldwork in IDP settlements in the Republic of Georgia, where nearly 30,000 people were ethnically cleansed during a 2008 war with Russia. A forthcoming book, Unsettled: Humanitarianism and Displacement in the Republic of Georgia, has emerged from this work, as well as articles in Humanity, Slavic Review, American Ethnologist, and Antipode. I have also conducted research among the family and friends of the Boston Marathon Bombers, who were part of a community of Chechens displaced to Kyrgyzstan. Articles from that project are forthcoming in Ab Imperio and American Ethnologist.

In the past, I have looked at another cataclysmic change: the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. My first book, Privatizing Poland, looked at what happened when a multinational corporation took over one of the first Communist-run factories to be privatized after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Using a Foucauldian approach, I looked at how neoliberal management practices sought to remake workers as individuals of varying qualities–and how workers resisted being deemed as nothing more than low-value labor. I have also looked at the ways that standards and regulations in the food industry label entire countries as low-value, contaminated or disease-producing, and how those standards are used as non-tariff trade barriers to keep farmers from reaching European and American markets.