Deborah Thomas

R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology; Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography

University Museum Room 335


Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  She is also core faculty in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, holds a secondary appointment with the Graduate School of Education, and is a member of the graduate groups in English, Africana Studies, and the School of Social Policy and Practice.  Prior to her appointment at Penn, she spent two years as a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas at Wesleyan University, and four years teaching in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.  She is the author of Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation:  Entanglement, Witnessing, Repair (forthcoming), Exceptional Violence:  Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica (2011), and Modern Blackness:  Nationalism, Globalization, and The Politics of Culture in Jamaica (2004), and is co-editor of Globalization and Race:  Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (2006).  She is also co-director and co-producer of two films:  BAD FRIDAY:  RASTAFARI AFTER CORAL GARDENS (with John L. Jackson, Jr. and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn), a documentary that chronicles the history of violence in Jamaica through the eyes of its most iconic community – Rastafari – and shows how people use their recollections of the Coral Gardens “incident” in 1963 to imagine new possibilities for the future; and FOUR DAYS IN MAY (with Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and Deanne M. Bell), an experimental documentary that juxtaposes archives related to the “Tivoli Incursion” in May 2010, when Jamaican security forces entered West Kingston to arrest Christopher Coke, wanted for extradition to the United States, and killed at least 75 civilians.  Thomas is also the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness:  Four Days in West Kingston, which opened at the Penn Museum in November 2017.  Thomas has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals across the disciplines. 

As someone who has been interested in the afterlives of imperialism, in what new forms of community, subjectivity and expectation are produced by violence, and in how these are expressed and mapped, Thomas is currently working on three projects that continue to probe these issues, though in very different ways.  The first concerns efforts to develop a local cadre of forensic pathologists by one of the coroners who took part in the team of international observers in the wake of the 2010 Tivoli “Incursion.”  Here, she is interested in how this emergent phenomenon might be positioned in relation to long-standing anthropological and Africana Studies approaches to rituals oriented toward tarrying with the dead.  Thomas is also working with undergraduate students on a project having to do with human rights and sexuality in Jamaica.  They are interested in how legal and civil society organizations have mobilized alongside queer Jamaicans to create secure spaces within the context of a homophobia that is generalized through both political and popular culture, and in the ways these forms of activism are supported locally and internationally.  Finally, Thomas has been exploring contemporary Chinese investment in Jamaica, and is interested in how China’s growth throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean must be seen in relation to broader shifts away from a taken-for-granted dominance of the West.  

Prior to her life as an academic, Thomas was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women, a company that is committed to using art as a means of addressing issues of social justice and encouraging civic engagement, and that brings the untold stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community.  Thomas was also a Program Director with the National Council for Research on Women, an international working alliance of women’s research and policy centers whose mission is to enhance the connections among research, policy analysis, advocacy, and innovative programming on behalf of women and girls.  She is the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, and was editor of the journal Transforming Anthropology from 2007-2010.  She currently also sits on the Editorial Committee of the Caribbean-based journal Social and Economic Studies.  Thomas has contributed to a number of professional associations, having been a member of the Executive Council for the Caribbean Studies Association from 2008-2011, and of the board of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (2012-2017).  She was also the Secretary of the Society for Cultural Anthropology from 2010-2014.


Ph.D. New York University 2000

Research Interests

Political Anthropology; Sovereignty; Violence; The Afterlives of Imperialism; Transnationalism and Diaspora; Race and Gender; Performance and Popular Culture; Culture and Political Economy; Popular Culture; the Caribbean.

Selected Publications





Selected Articles:

2016.  “Time and the Otherwise:  Plantations, Garrisons and Being Human in the Caribbean.” Anthropological Theory 16(2).

2015.  “Cox’s America:  Caste, Race, and the Problem of Culture.”  Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 39(3):364-381.

2013.  “The Problem with Violence:  Exceptionality and Sovereignty in the New World.”  Journal of Transnational American Studies 5(1).

2013.  “Globalization and Race:  Structures of Inequality, New Sovereignties, and Citizenship in a Neoliberal Era.”  Annual Review of Anthropology 42:305-325 (with Kamari Clarke).

2013.  “Caribbean Studies, Archive Building, and the Problem of Violence.”  small axe 17(2):27-42.  

“The Violence of Diaspora: Governmentality, Class Cultures, and Circulations.”Radical History Review 103:83-104 (2009).

“Caribbean Studies, Anthropology, and U.S. Academic Realignments,” with Karla Slocum. Souls 10(2):123-137 (2008).

“Gendering Diaspora: Transnational Feminisms, Diaspora, and its Hegemonies,with Tina M. Campt, Introduction to Special Issue of Feminist Review,“Gendering Diaspora,” 90:1-8 (2008).

“Walmart, ‘Katrina,’ and Other Ideological Tricks: Jamaican Hotel Workers in Michigan.” Special Issue of Feminist Review (Co-Edited with Tina M. Campt),“Gendering Diaspora,” 90:68-86 (2008).

“Blackness Across Borders: Jamaican Diasporas and New Politics of Citizenship.” Identities 14(1-2):111-133 (2007).

“Public Bodies: Virginity Testing, Redemption Songs, and Racial Respect in Jamaica,” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 11(1):1-31(2006).

“Rethinking Global and Area Studies: Insights from Caribbeanist Anthropology.”American Anthropologist 105(3):553-565, with Karla Slocum (2003).

“Democratizing Dance: Institutional Transformation and Hegemonic Re-Ordering inPostcolonial Jamaica.” Cultural Anthropology 17(4):512-550 (2002).

Courses Taught

ANTH002 The Anthropological Study of Culture

ANTH116 Caribbean Culture and Politics

ANTH334/634 Feminist Ethnography

ANTH587 Race, Nation, Empire

ANTH617 Contrmporary Approaches to the Study of Culture and Society

ANTH640 Race, Diaspora & Critique

ANTH655 Methods and Grantwriting for Anthropological Research


Anthropology Department Faculty; Secondary Appointment, Graduate School of Education; Affiliated Faculty, Africana Studies; Core Faculty, Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies; Graduate Group Member, Department of English; Graduate Group Member, School of Social Policy and Practice.

American Anthropologist

Center for Experimental Ethnography



Faculty Status