Portrait of Dr Judith Bovensiepen

Dr Judith Bovensiepen

Reader in Social Anthropology
Academic Head Social Anthropology


Dr Judith Bovensiepen is a social anthropologist with an interest in island Southeast Asia, especially Timor-Leste, where she has been carrying out fieldwork since 2005. She joined the University of Kent in 2011, after spending one year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Judith received a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), a BSc in Anthropology from University College London (UCL), and has also studied in France at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

Research interests

Dr Bovensiepen’s research focuses on the complex and, at times, fraught relations of humans with their environment in periods of rapid social and historical change. Her first period of long-term fieldwork took place in the Idaté-speaking highland region of Timor-Leste (2005-2007), only three years after the country officially regained independence from occupation by the Indonesian military. Judith examined how people remade their lives after more than two decades of violence and forced dislocation. 

Dr Bovensiepen found that, rather than specifically addressing past injustices and conflicts in narrative form, people engaged with the past by reinvigorating their relations with the ancestral landscape. Her analysis of highlanders’ changing relations with place led to an examination of a whole range of other social phenomena, including the dynamics of separation and exchange, contested knowledge practices, relations with sacred powers, historical inequalities, contestations over status and power, and changing mortuary practices. 

This research culminated in the publications of a number of journal articles and book chapters, as well as her first monograph entitled The Land of Gold: Post-Conflict Recovery and Cultural Revival in Independent Timor-Leste, published by Cornell University Press in 2015. 

Dr Bovensiepen’s research on the tremendous potency attributed to the natural environment in Timor-Leste led to her next large research project focusing on the ongoing implementation of an extensive oil infrastructure project along the south coast. So far, this research has resulted in a co-edited special issue in TAPJA on Megaprojects and Development Models in Timor-Leste and an edited volume, entitled The Promise of Prosperity: Visions of the Future in Timor-Leste (ANU Press, 2018). To explore the impact of oil development on rural people in Timor-Leste, Judith examines the transformation of animist practices, the increase of political conflict and inequality and the reconfiguration of gender relations in a largely matrilineal region. 

Paying attention to the contradictions of development planning and capitalist production, Dr Bovensiepen also investigates the dynamics of strategic ignorance within the oil industry, both in the present and in the colonial past. In this context, Judith is currently preparing a special issue on ‘Willful Blindness’, bringing together research from a number of diverse political and economic contexts. This is part of a broader interest in how we can draw on anthropological approaches to knowledge and ignorance in order to study the dynamics of natural resource extraction and the relations between energy and society.  


  • SE301: Introduction to Social Anthropology
  • SE309: Violence and Conflict in the Contemporary World
  • SE547: South East Asian Societies
  • SE550: Anthropology of Gender
  • SE587: Ethnographies II
  • SE589: Advanced Social Anthropology II


Dr Bovensiepen welcomes applications from prospective candidates who wish to do a PhD in Social Anthropology and would like to work on projects related to her research themes including: the anthropology of place; customary land tenure and land conflict; exchange and gender; animism and religious transformations; indigenous epistemology; natural resource extraction; development planning; and post-conflict reconstruction. Judith accepts candidates wishing to carry out long-term fieldwork in a range of geographical locations, including, but not limited to, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. PhD candidates will need to have a previous degree in social or cultural anthropology. 

Current PhD students

  • Carolina BoldoniMaterialisation of memories: cultural landscape in Timor-Leste. [PhD student CRIA ISCTE-IUL/FCSH, Portugal, Anthropology: Politics and Display of Culture and Museology funded by FCT] (co-supervised with Professor Nélia Dias)  
  • Laura Burke (ESRC-funded): Reaping the demographic dividend: reproductive governance and agency in Timor-Leste's post-conflict boom.
  • Haiying Ni (Vice-Chancellor's Research Scholarship)How the Chinese Cultural Cosmopolitanism and Mahayana Buddhism Practice Virtue


  • Dr Viola Schreer (completed in 2016): Longing for prosperity in Indonesian Borneo. [Funded by the Studienstiftungdes des Deutschen Volkes]
  • Dr Eve Houghton (ESRC-funded): Courting disputes: the materialisation and flexibility of a dispute forum network in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea.
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