Catherine L. Besteman

Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology

Office: Diamond 302 [ campus map ]
Box 4702

Phone: 207-859-4702
Fax: 207-859-4425
Mailing Address:
4702 Mayflower Hill
Waterville, Maine 04901-8847
Besteman, Catherine L.


B.A. Amherst
M.A.; Ph.D. University of Arizona

Areas of Expertise

  • carcerality and abolition
  • security, insecurity, violence, militarism
  • Africa, South Africa, southern Somalia, US
  • border crossing
  • engaged anthropology
  • visual anthropology

Courses Currently Teaching

CourseCourse Title
AY112 CCultural Anthropology
AY346 ACarcerality and Abolition

Professional Information

I am interested in the intersection of race, mobility, security, neoliberalism and carcerality, with a goal of exploring pathways toward abolition. My most recent book, Militarized Global Apartheid (2020), takes up these themes to detail the emergence of iterating security regimes that police and control mobility for the benefit of capital in ways that mirror South Africa’s former apartheid regime. Militarized Global Apartheid was recognized with the Public Anthropologist Prize for 2022. The larger concern is to analyze the emergence of 'security' as a guiding concern and its effects on border regime militarization, algorithmic technologies to assess risk, and carcerality.

I have studied these issues ethnographically in South Africa, Somalia, and the U.S. After conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Somalia in the late 1980s, I reunited with my former neighbors from Somalia when they began moving to Maine as resettled refugees in 2006. Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine, chronicles their journey from war-torn Somalia, to Kenya’s massive refugee camps, and, finally, to Lewiston. Previous books include Transforming Cape Town (2008) and Unraveling Somalia (1999), and the edited volumes Life by Algorithms (2019), The Insecure American (2009), Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong (2005), and Violence: A Reader (2002).

I am passionate about the power of the public humanities, having organized statewide collaborative public humanities initiatives, including, most recently, Freedom & Captivity in 2021, which promoted abolitionist visions for Maine through exhibitions, webinars, performances, workshops, classes, and podcasts.

A past President of the Association of Political and Legal Anthropologists and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, my work has also been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, Wenner Gren, The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Philosophical Society, Sigma Xi, School of Advanced Research, Tinker Foundation and the Institutes for Advanced Study at Stellenbosch and Durham.

Current Research

Carcerality and Abolition. Mass incarceration, fueled by security rhetorics, white supremacy, fear, and profit-seeking corporations, is a scourge of our time. Carcerality prioritizes punishment and harm over repair and healing. It fails to offer effective and successful pathways toward justice and accountability while contributing to intergenerational trauma and deepening poverty. We have to find a better way of addressing harms in our society. With a focus on Maine, I am engaged in several initiatives to envision alternative ways to envision justice and support repair. One is Freedom & Captivity, a statewide public humanities initiative to explore abolitionist futures in Maine. Another is the Colby Across the Walls program, an annual suite of courses in which students and faculty on campus and in Maine prison co-create learning environments founded in abolitionist pedagogies.

Migration and Borders. The Somali civil war sent millions of Somalis across borders as refugees, precipitating one of the largest refugee movements at the time. For the past two decades I have studied how borders, nationalisms, statecraft, neoliberalism, and militarism shape mobilities and migratory routes. Some of this work has been ethnographic and focused on the trajectories and experiences of Somalis I have known since the late 1980s, as in Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine. Other work analyzes structural and systemic dimensions at the global level, as in Militarized Global Apartheid, published in 2020.

Security, Militarism and Militarization. As discourses of security and risk continue to feed militarization, anthropologists need to be attentive to their effects. My edited series at Duke University Press, Global Insecurities, showcases ethnographic work on security and insecurity, and my 2020 book, Militarized Global Apartheid argues that a new form of security imperialism is producing a racialized global order maintained by interlinked militarized efforts by the global North to control mobility and labor. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists critically analyzes militarism and militarization in our 2020 book: Militarization: A Reader (Duke University Press). My co-edited volumes The Insecure American (University of California Press, 2009) and Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses are Reshaping our World (University of Chicago Press, 2019) analyze permutations of risk and insecurity across a range of domains in contemporary American life.

Experimental, Speculative, and Engaged Anthropology. In addition to teaching and writing op-eds, I’m acutely interested in exploring ways to bring anthropological critiques and perspectives outside the academy through other registers, such as websites, films, art exhibitions, co-learning communities, and fiction. One example is Post-COVID Fantasies, a collection of speculative essays. Another is Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks, Pathways, an exhibition and statewide calendar of events I curated with artist Julie Poitras Santos. The co-edited volume Why America's Top Pundits are Wrong (University of California Press, 2005) features accessible essays by anthropologists who are challenging predominant narratives in the media about the post-Cold War world.


Militarization: A Reader offers a range of critical perspectives on the dynamics of militarization as a social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental phenomenon.

Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses are Reshaping Our World
brings together leading ethnographers to produce a portrait of the impact of algorithmic automation across many domains of contemporary American life, from public education to pork production to ubiquitous surveillance.

Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine
How do people who have survived the ravages of war and displacement rebuild their lives in a new country when their world has totally changed? This book follows the trajectory of Somali Bantus from their homes in Somalia before the onset of Somalia’s civil war, to their displacement by violence to Kenyan refugee camps, to their resettlement in cities across the United States, to their settlement in Lewiston, Maine as “secondary migrants” grappling with the struggles of xenophobia, neoliberalism, and grief. Tracking their experiences over three decades of mobility from refugee camps to places of refuge in the US, the book asks what humanitarianism feels like to those who are its objects and what happens when refugees move in next door. The competing and contradictory responses by Lewiston’s residents to the unexpected arrival of thousands of refugees illuminates contemporary debates about economic responsibility, moral responsibility, security and community that immigration provokes.

The Insecure American, coedited with Hugh Gusterson, University of California Press, 2009, features essays by nineteen leading ethnographers who analyze why Americans are feeling insecure and how they are responding. The essays map the impact of a fraying safety net, the 'war on terror', the labor market's race to the bottom, the 'war on drugs', mass incarceration, and more.

Transforming Cape Town, University of California Press, 2008 (Leeds Honor Book Award, Society for Urban, National, and Transnational Anthropology, 2009) analyzes how and why apartheid-era inequalities continue to define social realities in Cape Town and discusses anti-racism and anti-poverty projects that seek to challenge the enduring inequalities left in place after the dismantlement of legal apartheid.

In Why America's Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back (University of California Press 2005), coedited with Hugh Gusterson, anthropologists challenge the portrait of the post Cold War world promoted by some of American's foremost commentators.

Violence: A Reader (Palgrave Press and New York University Press 2002) is a collection of significant theoretical and ethnographic studies of violence by social scientists.

Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press 1999)argues that Somalia’s violence must be understood in the context of late 20th century sociopolitical transformations, such as colonialism, Cold War alliances, and postcolonial neoliberal development interventions, that had fundamentally altered Somali social relations and political identities.

The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War Behind the War (Westview Press and Haan Publishing 1996), edited with Lee V. Cassanelli, analyzes the historical factors that contributed to the patterns of violence in southern Somalia during the civil war.

Selected Recent Journal Articles

2019 "A New Manifesto?" American Ethnologist 46(3).
2019 "Refuge and Security Panics." Public Anthropologist 1(1): 41-61.
2019 "Militarized Global Apartheid." Current Anthropology 60(S19).
2019 "Hostile Charity: Somali Refugees and Risk in a New Security Age." In Erica Caple James, ed., Governing Gifts, Faith, Charity, and the Security State. Santa Fe, NM: School of Advanced Research Press.
2017 "Experimenting in Somalia: The New Security Empire." Anthropological Theory 17(3): 404-420. 2014 "On Ethnographic Love." In Roger Sanjek, ed., Mutuality. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
2014 "Refuge Fragments, Fragmentary Refuge." Ethnography 15(4).
2013 “Three Reflections on Public Anthropology.” Anthropology Today 29(6).
2013 “Somali Bantus in a State of Refuge.” Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 12: 11-33.
2012 “Translating Race Across Time and Space: The Creation of Somali Bantu Ethnicity.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19(3): 1-18.
2010 "“In and Out of the Academy: The Case for a Strategic Anthropology.” Human Organization 69(4): 407-417.
2009 “A Refuge Odyssey: A Story of Globalization and Somali Bantu Refugees.” Anthropology Now 1(2): 96-108.
2009 “Counter Africom.” In The Counter-Counter Insurgency Manual, or Notes on Demilitarizing American Society. Network of Concerned Anthropologists Steering Committee. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, p. 115-135.


The directory information is for individual use only, it may not be retransmitted or published for any reason. It is not to be used for mass solicitations by email, mail, phone, or other means. Sale or other distribution of this document is prohibited by College policy.