Sarah E. Vaughn is a sociocultural anthropologist working at the intersection of environmental anthropology, critical social theory, and science and technology studies. She received her B.A. in 2006 from Cornell University, majoring as a College Scholar with a focus in Anthropology, Sociology, and Inequality Studies. She was awarded a Ph.D. in 2013 from the Department of Anthropology, Columbia University. She is affiliated with the Center for Science, Technology and Medicine, The Program in Critical Theory, and the Program in Development Engineering.
Vaughn’s research agenda entails developing an ethnographic approach and critical social theory of climate adaptation. Over the past decade she has conducted archival research and ethnographic fieldwork of experts and ordinary citizens implementing climate adaptation projects throughout the Caribbean. This research has primarily focused on Guyana and Bermuda. She is particularly interested in the way climate adaptation addresses the politics of potentiality in cultures of engineering, wetlands and coastal-scapes, and historical narratives of settlement. Her research is based around two questions: 1) How do people imagine and confront their vulnerability to climate change? 2) How does technology mediate people’s experiences of climate change and valuation of environments? She takes a posthumanist and new materialist perspective on climate adaptation to address these questions. More broadly, she is interested in the ways technology has become an important, and at times taken for granted, object of intervention in climate adaptation projects.
Vaughn’s early research addressed these concerns by examining the social networks of accountability that inform climate adaptation projects. Her first book Engineering Vulnerability: In Pursuit of Climate Adaptation (2022), examines climate adaptation against the backdrop of ongoing processes of settler colonialism and the global climate change initiatives that seek to intervene in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. She offers the case study of Guyana, where the efforts of engineers, military personnel, alongside those of farmers and squatters are at the center of the book’s analysis of the adaptation of the country’s earthen dam system. In many instances, questions about race and racism become important to how people account for climate adaptation’s competing knowledge practices. Yet, the book also emphasizes the subtle ways in which the state’s appeals to ‘racial equality’ fall short of fully addressing why people come to recognize climate adaptation (with its emphasis on technological innovation) as a complex lived experience of hope, frustration, and indifference. In this respect, Vaughn offers a critical analysis of climate adaptation as unsettling familiar racialized concepts, tropes, and political orders, thereby offering people an opportunity to reimagine modes of accountability to each other. Engineering Vulnerability has been awarded the Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award.
Vaughn’s interests in technological innovation and climate adaptation have informed her second book project, Planetary Incarnations (in preparation) which asks what technology offers and does for mapping the current conditions of crisis brought on by climate change. The dynamics of technology and the climate crisis also inform her current research and third book project, The Aesthetics of Corporate Resources: Databases, Climate Change and Insurance in Bermuda which examines how database development for climate risk modeling becomes a cultural and aesthetic tool of place-making for the insurance industry. This research is supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Archeological and Ethnographic Fieldwork Grant (2022-2024).
Vaughn’s research and writing have been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), The National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.
Recent descriptions of Vaughn’s work can be found here:
Massachusetts Review, “10 Questions for Sarah E. Vaughn” (Author Interview): https://www.massreview.org/blog/10%20Questions(link is external)
IAS Spotlight/Ideas: https://www.ias.edu/ideas/scholar-spotlight-sarah-e-vaughn(link is external)
Cultures of Energy Podcast, episode 205--“Intersectional Ecologies”: https://cenhs.libsyn.com/205-intersectional-ecologies(link is external)
Under Revision. "Unavoidable Slips: Historical Criticism and Accountability in the Anthropocene."
Forthcoming. "The Limits to Computational Growth: Digital Databases and Climate Change in the Caribbean." NatureCulture.
Forthcoming. “Erosion by Design: Rethinking Innovation, Sea Defense, and Credibility in Guyana.” Comparative Studies in Society and History.
Forthcoming. Baker, Janelle and Rosa Ficek [first authors], Paulla Ebron, Karen Ho, Renya Ramirez, Zoe Todd, Anna Tsing, and Sarah E. Vaughn [et al., equal authorship]. “From Devastation to Wonder.” In The Long 2020, edited by Richard Grusin and Maureen Ryan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Forthcoming. “Soft Lines: A Photo Essay on Coastal Life and Future World-Making.” Roadsides.
Forthcoming. Commentary on “Flooded City: Affects of (Slow) Catastrophe in Post-Harvey Houston.” Current Anthropology.
2021. “On Watermarks and Fakes.” The Massachusetts Review: A Quarterly of Literature, the Arts, and Public Affairs. Winter: 823-833. Special Issue, “Climate Crisis,” edited by Roy Scranton.
2021. “Ecotourism’s Ethics: Self-Organization and Care in Urban Guyana.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 5(2): 976-994.
Vaughn, Sarah E. and Daniel Fischer. 2021. “Introduction: Witnessing Environments.” Special Section, “Witnessing Environments.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 11(2): 387-394.
2021. “Gridlock: Vigilance and Early Warning in the Shadow of Climate Change.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 11(2): 506-520.
Vaughn, Sarah E., Bridget Guarasci, and Amelia Moore. 2021. “Intersectional Ecologies: Reimagining Anthropology and Environment.” Annual Review of Anthropology 50: 275-290.
2021. "The Aesthetics and Multiple Origin Stories of Climate Activism." Forum in Social Anthropology 29(1): 213-15.
Baker, Janelle, Paulla Ebron, Rosa Ficek, Karen Ho, Renya Ramirez, Zoe Todd, Anna Tsing, and Sarah E. Vaughn. 2020. "The Snarled Lines of Justice." Orion: People and Nature (Winter): 14-21.
2020. “Caribbean Technological Thought and Climate Adaptation.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 24(2(62)): 110-121.
2019. "Vulnerability." In Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon. Edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, pp. 517-521. New York: Punctum Books.
2019. "Inundated with Facts: Flooding and the Knowledge Economies of Climate Adaptation in Guyana." In Unmasking the State: Politics, Society, and Economy in Guyana 1992-2015. Edited by Arif Bulkan and D. Alissa Trotz, pp. 479-500. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
2019. [Reprint]. "Disappearing Mangroves: The Epistemic Politics of Climate Adaptation in Guyana." déjà lu 32(2): 441-467.
2018. "The Political Economy of Regions: Climate Change and Dams in Guyana." Radical History Review 131: 105-125.
2017. "Imagining the Ordinary in Participatory Climate Adaptation." Weather, Climate, and Society 9(3): 533-543.
2017. "Disappearing Mangroves: The Epistemic Politics of Climate Adaptation in Guyana." Cultural Anthropology 32(2): 441-467.
2012. "Reconstructing the Citizen: Disaster, Citizenship, and Expertise in Racial Guyana." Critique of Anthropology 32(4): 359-386.
2022. Engineering Vulnerability: In Pursuit of Climate Adaptation (Duke University Press)