Dr Sophie Chao Awarded 2020 John Legge Prize

Congratulations to SEI researcher Sophie Chao for winning the 2020 John Legge Prize for Best Thesis in Asian Studies for her work with Indigenous Marind communities of West Papua.

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Postdoctoral Research Associate and SEI member Dr Sophie Chao has been awarded the 2020 John Legge Prize for Best Thesis in Asian Studies for her doctoral dissertation In the Shadow of the Palms: Plant-Human Relations Among the Marind-Anim, West Papua (Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University).

Sophie’s thesis is based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the Indonesian-controlled region of West Papua and examines how Indigenous Marind communities experience, conceptualise and contest the adverse social and environmental impacts of large-scale deforestation and agribusiness expansion. Her research interweaves theoretical insights derived from environmental anthropology, the environmental humanities, political ecology, science and technology studies, and plant science, to explore how the arrival of a foreign cash crop – oil palm – is reconfiguring the lifeworld of Marind through its effects on the landscape, on time, on Marinds’ relations to plants and animals, and on Marinds’ dreams. By giving centre stage to plants and their ambivalent relations to humans, her work provocatively invites us to rethink capitalism and violence beyond the human in an age of radical ecological destruction.

The John Legge Prize is awarded by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, the Association promotes and supports the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. This year’s John Legge Prize selection panel members (Robin Jeffrey (La Trobe), Tamara Jacka (ANU), Melissa Crouch (UNSW)) described the thesis as, “Beautifully written, theoretically sophisticated, and deeply empathetic”. They also noted that the “thesis is extremely ambitious in its conceptual and theoretical aims and required a high degree of political and ethical sensitivity in the associated fieldwork. It has emphatically delivered on all fronts. It seems destined to inform and provoke productive debate over sustainable environmental, economic and social systems, in Indonesia and elsewhere.”

Sophie Chao’s thesis also received the Australian Anthropology Society Best Thesis Prize and the Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation in 2019. Sophie is currently developing collaborative research projects on the themes of nutrition, health, and culture with colleagues at the Charles Perkins Center. She is also involved in research projects on multispecies justice, both with the Sydney Environment Institute and with the support of a Discovery Project grant she received in 2019.


Find out more about Sophie’s applied and academic work.

Read Sophie’s latest short essay on multispecies stories and human rights, Multispecies stories: Why do they matter for human rights? published in Right Now.

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford and a PhD (Cum Laude) from Macquarie University. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies.

For an interview with the author, contact Sophie Chao at

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