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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Esther Leemann

Esther Leemann, Dr.

  • Senior Researcher and Lecturer
  • Coaching and Mentoring PhD
+41 44 634 90 19
Room number
AND 5.08

Research interests

political ecology, development, displacement, land conflicts, territoriality, indigenous rights, rural livelihoods, disaster management, post-disaster recovery, housing

Regional specialization

Southeast Asia, in particular Cambodia and Vietnam, Central America, in particular Nicaragua

Short bio

Dr Esther Leemann is a social anthropologist with more than 20 years of research experience in Central America and Southeast Asia. Her research interests range from social, economic, cultural and political dimensions of indigenous territoriality and displacement over rural livelihoods and development policies to post-disaster reconstruction and housing. Her teaching focus on political ecology, economic anthropology, development, disaster studies and research methods for enabling her students to look critically into contemporary global and local issues as social anthropologists.

Dr Leemann’s current research focuses on displacement of the indigenous Bunong by large-scale plantations and its implications for affected communities in Cambodia (funded by SNSF). She conducted ethnographic research on the drastic social, cultural, political and livelihood processes caused by land loss and displacement. She investigated and documented the stresses caused by dislocation, the disruption of complex material and social networks and processes that constitute everyday life, and the re-articulation of sense of place, belonging, cultural and political identity, and routine culture of individuals and communities. She worked on indigenous understandings of place and territoriality and the individual and organized struggle for securing land and compensations. She has been involved in various local efforts on issues relating to land-rights, livelihood restoration and education. Esther also produced and co-authored an ethnographic documentary (funded by BAK, Zürcher Filmstiftung and Filme für eine Welt), which follows a displaced family over a two-years period and documents the interconnections between individuals’ life stories and the larger political economic context.

In an effort to bring anthropology in general and her insights in particular into classrooms of Swiss school children, she engaged in a science communication project in 2014-2016 (funded by SNSF) and she gives workshops at the University of Teacher Education Zug on lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples in the 21st century.

Esther's interest in development forced displacement and resettlement goes back to 2006, when she critically looked into disaster management and housing reconstruction policies and directed a research subproject on the impact of international aid on post-disaster recovery processes and community responses in Nicaragua (funded by SNSF and SDC).

Her early work focused on rural livelihoods and state policies. In 2000, she went to Nicaragua to conduct fieldwork for her PhD thesis (2005) on subsistence farmers’ livelihood strategies and adaptation to an extremely hazardous environment (funded by ETH Zurich). Her scientific interest in rapid changes of rural livelihoods in Southeast Asia brought her to Vietnam in 1997, where she conducted fieldwork for her MA thesis on state policies, institutional change and peasants’ livelihoods (1999).

Dr Leemann is senior researcher and teaching staff at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies and has been teaching on political ecology and economic anthropology for 20 years at the Universities of Zurich, Lucerne, and Berne. She continuously expanded her expertise on processes of economic and social change, development, sustainability of livelihoods, conflicts over land and other natural resources, indigenous political struggles, socio-cultural dimensions of disaster management and post-disaster recovery processes. Esther’s teaching is research based and she involved a number of her BA and MA students in the various research projects. She also teaches classes on research methods for MA and PhD students and is coaching and mentoring the department’s PhD candidates.

Esther is the coordinator of the Swiss Graduate Program in Anthropology, which is organized as a unique cooperative project by all universities in Switzerland with programs in Social/Cultural Anthropology, bringing together the PhD students from the French and German parts of the country. She serves as the representative of the Graduate Program on the Board of the Society of Swiss Anthropological Association and is member of Interface Commission for Engaged Anthropology. She is member of the editorial board of ZANTHRO.

Office hours

By appointment: Please send me an e-mail to meet in my office (room AND 5.08) or via TEAMs or Zoom.