Phone: (919) 962-8092

Fax: (919) 962-1613

Office: 305B Alumni Bldg.

Areas of Interest

Urban anthropology; political anthropology; anthropology of the state; class, race, ethnic and gender inequalities; global systems and transnationalism; the urban commons; Chinese in Southeast Asia; China; the southern U.S.


Ph.D. in Anthropology, Stanford University, 1983.

Professional Background

I am a sociocultural and historical anthropologist specializing in the study of class formation, racial inequality, state formation, social movements, and the commons in Southeast Asia and the United States. Before coming to UNC Chapel Hill, I taught at the Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, New York City.

Ethnographic and Historical Research

Malaysia, the southern U.S., Australia

Current Research

My current research project is on the urban commons, which draws from Marxist political economy, the study of social movements and interdisciplinary literature on the commons to investigate urban commons around shared urban resources of housing and green/farm spaces.   It is particularly concerned with the politics of scale, and its theorization within anthropology. It will be based upon historical and ethnographic case studies from Europe, the U.S., Southeast Asia, and China.

My current research project arises from my reflections on two recently published books. In 2015, I published “Getting by”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia (Cornell University Press). This book is based on long-term ethnographic and historical research on class, citizenship and ethnic politics among urban Chinese in Malaysia. In the course of research for this book, I began to wonder why it was that urban commons among Chinese in Malaysia took the fleeting form that they did by challenging secular state power through religious processions and the temporary occupation of space. My interest in urban commons, and their connection to class and racial inequality, social movements, urban space, and control over crucial city resources was deepened by my research and analysis for my 2014 edited book, A Companion to Urban Anthropology, Blackwell Publishers, for which I wrote the Introduction and the chapter on anthropological approaches to food provisioning in cities.

My interest specifically in urban-based movements and activism has also quickened in response to my 2009-2015 research as PI of a multi-sited ethnographic project on the alternative agrifoods movement in the southern U.S. and led to the publication of my 2013 article,   “The ‘Local Food Movement’ and the Anthropology of Global Systems,” in the American Ethnologist, 2013. My broader interest in the commons came out of my research several years previously for my edited book on contemporary forms of the commons and the challenges these face under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism: The Global Idea of “The Commons,” Berghahn Press, 2007.

I also have a long-term research project on contemporary corporate states as they are implicated in processes of urban restructuring, and redefining state sovereignties under the conditions of neoliberal globalization.

I regularly teach courses on Urban Anthropology (Anth 567), The Chinese Diaspora of the Asia Pacific (Anth 578), Anthropology and Marxism (Anth 449), Political Anthropology (Anth 491),  and  Alternative Economic Systems (Anth 466).  I have offered graduate seminars in urban anthropology, critical theories of power, globalization and transnationalism, and Marxist anthropology.

Selected Publications:

Books (Refereed)

“Getting By”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia. Cornell University Press, 2015. (See podcast with Nick Cheesman, Australian National University, see )

A Companion to Urban Anthropology, edited by D. Nonini.  London/New York: Blackwell, 2014.

The Global Idea of ‘the Commons,’ edited by Donald Nonini.  Critical Intervention Series, 10.  Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2007

Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests and Private Politics,  by Dorothy Holland, Donald Nonini, Catherine Lutz, Lesley Bartlett, Marla Frederick McGlathery, Thaddeus Guldbrandsen and Enrique G. Murillo.  New York: New York University Press, 2007. Winner of the Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Prize for the Best Book in the Critical Study of North America, 2008-2009

 Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism, edited with Aihwa Ong. New York: Routledge, 1997

British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957 (Monograph Series, 38.)   New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1992

Selected Journal Articles (Refereed)

“At That Time We Were Intimidated on All Sides”: Residues of the Malayan Emergency as a Conjunctural Episode of Dispossession. Critical Asian Studies, 47, 3:337-358, 2015 

The “Local Food Movement” and the Anthropology of Global Systems,” American Ethnologist 40,2: 267-275,  2013

“Is China Becoming Neoliberal?”  Critique of Anthropology, 28, 2: 145-176, 2008

“Processes of State, Class and Ethno-racial Formation in Urban Malaysia: Geo-spatial Transformations and Regime Shifts 1970-2000,” Anthropologica 50, 2: 255-268, 2008

“Grounded utopian movements: Subjects of neglect,” by  Charles Price, Donald Nonini and Erich Fox Tree, Anthropological Quarterly 81,1: 187-218, 2008

“Indonesia Seen by Its Outside Insiders: Its Chinese Alters in Transnational Space” Social Analysis 50, 1, 214-225, 2006

“The dialectics of ‘disputatiousness’ and ‘rice-eating money': Class confrontation and gendered imaginaries among Chinese men in Peninsular Malaysia,” American Ethnologist 26, 1: 47-68, 1999

Selected Book Chapters (Refereed) 

 “Introduction.”  In A Companion to Urban Anthropology, edited by D. Nonini, pp 1-12. Oxford: Blackwell, 2014

“Food and Farming.”  In A Companion to Urban Anthropology edited by D. Nonini, pp. 394-413. Oxford: Blackwell, 2014

“Theorizing Transnational Movement in the Current Conjuncture: Examples from/of/in the Asia Pacific,” in Migration in the 21st Century: Ethnography and Political Economy, edited by Pauline Gardiner Barber and Winnie Lem, pp. 64-88.  New York and London: Routledge, 2012

“The Chinese diaspora.” In Encyclopedia on Race and Racism. 3 Vols., edited by John H. Moore.  Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.    Volume 1, pp. 304-307, 2008

“Introduction: The Global Idea of ‘The Commons’,” in The Global Idea of the Commons, edited by D. Nonini,   Critical Intervention Series, 10.   Oxford:  Berghahn Books,  pp. 1-25, 2007

“Reflections on  intellectual commons,” in The Global Idea of the Commons, edited by D. Nonini. Critical Intervention Series, 10.   Oxford:  Berghahn, pp. 66-88,  2007

“Toward A (Proper) Postwar History of Southeast Asian Petty Capitalism: Predation, The State, and Chinese Small Business Capital in Malaysia,” In Alan Smart and Josephine Smart, eds., Petty  Capitalists and Globalization: Flexibility, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, Albany: SUNY Press,  2005, pp. 167-200

“Diasporas and Globalization,” in Carol Ember, Melvin Ember and Ian Skoggard, eds.   Encyclopedia of Diasporas.  New York: Kluwer/Plenum, 2005, 559-570

“Spheres of Speculation and Middling Transnational Migrants: Chinese Indonesians in the Asia Pacific,” in Brenda S.A. Yeoh and Katie Willis, eds, State/ Nation/ Transnation: Perspectives on Transnationalism in the Asia-Pacific, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 37-66

“American Neoliberalism, ‘Globalization’ and Violence: Reflections from the United States and Asia,” in Jonathan Friedman, ed., Globalization, the State, and Violence, Altamira Press (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), 2003, pp.  159-197