Sarah E. Vaughn

Job title: 
Associate Professor

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 circum-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?; and 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 Inaugural Duke University Press Scholars of Color First Book Award (2021) and the 2022 Julian Steward Award. The award is presented annually by the Anthropology & Environment Society of the American Anthropological Association for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology.  

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 Re-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 (2022-24).

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) and The National Endowment for the Humanities, among others. She also serves as a senior board member of the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology & Environment Society and as a Board Member of the Association of Members Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton).