Department of GeographySarah 2010 cropped
McGill University,
805 Sherbrooke Street West,
Montreal, QC H3A 0B9
Telephone: (514) 398-4955

 Research Focus

My research on livelihoods argues that if we study how people make a living in a specific cultural and social environment – say, Muslim, Bugis small-scale traders in eastern Indonesia, or highland Hmong ethnic minority semi-subsistence farmers in Northern Vietnam – we find that people’s decisions are not always what outsiders, be they local government officials, aid agencies, or academics, think they would or should be. Yet these choices are often entirely rational to local people because of their own understandings of what success and development are, and their precise knowledge of the local context. If outsiders in their capacities as government policy makers, directors of aid programmes, or academics informing the former do not understand and come to acknowledge this, there are serious implications for the very people we aim to understand, document and support. My research therefore strives to anchor development thinking and practice in the day-to-day realities and aspirations of local people who often find it difficult to ‘have a voice’ given their own political, cultural or economic positions.

Development geography; Southeast Asian geographies; upland minorities in peninsula Southeast Asia and southwest China; Hanoi small-scale traders and street vendors; Eastern Indonesia entrepreneurs; livelihood studies; everyday politics and resistance; commodity chain approaches; agrarian change; innovative qualitative methods. 

Foci 1: Highland Livelihood Dynamics and cross-border trade in northern Vietnam and southwest ChinaP1140956
I concentrate on upland livelihoods in northern Vietnam and southwest China to help us to better comprehend the activities, interactions and power relations that occur among highland minorities such as Hmong and Yao, Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) and Han Chinese. This work is currently situated in three northern highland provinces in Vietnam and two prefectures in Yunnan, China, all on the Sino-Vietnamese border. This research is creating a foundation of longitudinal research regarding highland marketplaces and cross-border trade, achieved by combining information found in French colonial archives, with that from in-depth interviews and oral histories. It provides an understanding of how upland ethnic minority residents have adapted their livelihoods and trade patterns during what were often highly antagonistic political circumstances, from imperial rule, through colonial (Vietnam) and socialist rule, and finally to post-socialist market conditions today, while also negotiating the particularities of an international border. Work on contemporary market integration focuses on the everyday politics of making a living in the uplands.

Foci 2: Food Security and Environmental Decision Making amongst Upland Ethnic Minorities  P1140726
I undertake research examining food security and environmental decision making in Vietnam’s northern highlands and southwest China. This research attempts to advance our understandings of culturally based conceptualisations and practices towards food security and the use and protection of the environment by ethnic minority groups. This research is working to develop our understanding of the traditional knowledges and practices of these uplanders and how these can be put to use in the formation of sustainable food security approaches and the protection of the environment, and to help the State design appropriate, sustainable upland policies. I am also interested in how these groups adapt to, rework and resist outside development policies that are linked to claims of improving food security.

Foci 3: Small-scale Enterprises in Urban Southeast AsiaDSC01456
I study the socio-economic and political processes that shape the ‘informal sector’ (that part of the economy where activities often take place without official recognition and record) in urban Southeast Asia. This work is currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam, with previous studies in Malaysia and Indonesia. The research focuses on how small-scale traders in marketplaces, street-vendors and small-scale entrepreneurs make a living while taking into consideration – at the local, national and global levels – political, social and economic forces that impact upon their livelihoods. Such studies combine research on how, at the macro scale, different Southeast Asian countries (with radically different politics – democratic and socialist) have been increasingly incorporated into the global economy, and at the micro scale, how these numerous processes have impacted upon and in turn been operationalised by individual traders. This research takes an ’emic’ actor-oriented approach, aiming to find out from the perspective of the traders themselves how they deal with their immediate world.

Read more in the McGIll Reporter: ‘Notes from the field – Doing Geography the Hmong way