Programme Overview

Critical sustainability engagements: anthropological perspectives on theory and practice


This Summer School targets students from sociology, anthropology and interdisciplinary social science programmes from the Universities of Geneva, Lucerne and Zurich. 


Critical theoretical and activist engagements on topics such as human rights, gender violence, global pandemics, coloniality, racism and environmental sustainability are hot topics in both social science research and change-making across the world. This Summer School, a pilot initiative supported by the partnership between the Universities of Geneva, Zurich and Lucerne, in collaboration with the Interface Commission of the Swiss Anthropological Association (SAA), seeks to ground such topics by shedding light and enabling learning on the multiple methodological, epistemological and political challenges involved in such terrains of research. We aim thereby to open up discussion on new forms of engagement, multi-modal expressions and student participation.

This Summer School offers a unique space for creating mutual learning between critical theory and analysis, on the one hand, and critical engagement on the other. Hosted by the Centro Incontri Umani in Ascona, the pilot initiative draws upon critical scholars and practitioners from the Universities of Zurich, Geneva and Lucerne as well as the SAA Interface Commission. We aim for grounded learning on critical readings and engagement for a selected group of students from different levels (advanced BA, MA, PhD and post-doctoral).

In advance, students will be requested to present a particular sustainability topic of interest or an on-going engagement of their own. The idea is that these student topics would be further developed in dialogue with the topics and insights from the Summer school.








  1. Deepen understanding of critical theory and what it brings to sustainability thinking and practice;
  2. Learn from scholars through a deep dive into specific lessons from engaging on multiple terrains;
  3. Engage participants in a process of reflection upon and presentation of their own action and research; encourage and equip participants to adapt concepts, tools and experiences into their own spheres of analysis and practice.



Critical sustainability thinking is an increasingly concern for students and plays a central role in the research and teaching of professors and associated researchers at the departments of anthropology in Zürich and Lucerne, and the department of sociology in Geneva. This innovative pilot initiative bridges faculty from these universities in a unique setting at the Centro Incontri Umani in Ascona, co-organized in cooperation with the SAA’s Interface commission (

The merit and value of critical sustainability thinking ranges from the need to rethink consensual discourses such as the SDGs (Larsen et al., 2022[1]) towards empowering students to engage with critical perspectives from feminist theory and political ecology, to decoloniality and multimodal approaches. Training a new generation of scholars and practitioners to take up the deepening sustainability challenges is not only about transmitting individual skills and analytical competencies. It is also about creating a community of practice, where students are encouraged to form networks and lasting partnerships.



A central aspiration of the project beyond the immediate learning objectives listed above is that of nurturing a community of practice with students committed to mutual learning and exchange around critical sustainability thinking. The workshop not only encourages collective reflection and presentation, it is also inspired by the Interface Commission’s approach to student participation, which includes write-ups and film (see the Interface Commission’s collective student forum:



This Summer School targets students from sociology and anthropology as well as interdisciplinary social science programmes from the Universities of Geneva, Zürich and Lucerne. Additional learning and a limited number of places will also be made available to participants from other universities.

Students from Universities of Zurich, Geneva and Lucerne are fully exempted of the tuition. Free full-board accommodation and transport (up to CHF 100) to and from the location.

Free full-board accommodation included. Transport to and from the location are at the expense of the student.

External students: CHF 250 (subject to availability)

Application deadline: 15 March 2023


Organizing group: Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Geneva, Department of Anthropology / ISEK of University of Zürich, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Lucerne, The Interface Commission

Course Director:

Dr. Peter Bille Larsen (Universities of Geneva/ Zürich & Interface Commission)

Peter Bille Larsen lectures in sustainability, critical approaches and international governance and currently acts as President of the Interface Commission ( Current research projects address heritage, development and environmental defender issues. He has worked extensively with international organizations, NGOs and community-based organizations seeking to deepen anthropological analysis of institutions and practices.



Dr. Doris Bacalzo (University of Lucerne & Interface Commission)

Doris Bacalzo studied biology and the social sciences. She received a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Lucerne for research in Papua New Guinea on the social positioning of children of interethnic marriages in the context of rapid socio-economic changes, migration, and tendencies to police social boundaries and the rights associated with kin-based groups. For postdoctoral research, she returned to Papua New Guinea following the lives of young people, women, and their families as they negotiate their entanglements with large-scale international extractive and plantation industries. For her MA (University of the Philippines Diliman), she did an ethnography with a Mangyan indigenous group focusing on customary law and gender relations. As an anthropologist, she promotes the bridging capabilities and insights of the discipline within and beyond academia, as in her current practice with the Interface Commission.


Dr. Annuska Derks (University of Zurich)

Annuska Derks is Associate Professor and co-director of the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. She is a social anthropologist specializing in Southeast Asia, in particular in Vietnam and Cambodia. Her research interests include issues of development and social transformation, migration, labor bondage, gender, global spice chains and the social lives of everyday things. Her newest research focuses on energy and the making of innovation in Vietnam.



Dr. Florence E. Babb (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Florence Babb is a cultural anthropologist specializing in gender and sexuality as well as race and class in changing contexts in Latin America. Before coming to Carolina in Fall 2014, Babb taught at Colgate University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Florida. Her courses in Anthropology and Latin American Studies include such areas as gender, race, and sexuality; cultural politics; feminist ethnography; travel and tourism. She is active and currently serves as Co-Chair in the Anthropology Department’s Concentration in Race, Difference, and Power.

Babb’s latest two book projects consider gender and race in Andean Peru, based on her decades of research in the region. Women’s Place in the Andes: Engaging Decolonial Feminist Anthropology (U of California Press, 2018) examines feminist debates centering Andean women from the 1970s forward–debates in which Babb herself engaged and now reconsiders in relation to decolonial projects in feminist and world anthropologies. She puts her past writings in conversation with those of others in order to reopen questions of durable inequalities, even as Peru rebrands itself as a modernizing nation. Now Babb is at work on another book, Scaling Differences: Place, Race, and Gender in Andean Peru, which is a multi-sited ethnography based on research she has conducted in an Indigenous rural community, a small Andean city, and among Andean migrants living in Lima. She is interested in the ways racialized and gendered geographies shape perceptions of difference. In these social landscapes and mobilities across them, gender and race relations are frequently the ground where intense struggles are waged.


 Dr. Jenny Bentley (University of Zurich)

Jenny Bentley (PhD, she/her) is an associated researcher at the ISEK University of Zürich. She completed her PhD titled The Guardians of the land and Water. Ritual, Indigenous Belonging and Vulnerability based on research in India (Sikkim and West Bengal) and Nepal (Ilam) that stretched from 2008 to 2014. Currently, she is working on an engaged anthropology research project on Lepcha storytelling, empowerment, and language learning in collaboration with the University of Toronto. In the past she has collaborated on several engaged research projects based around Indigenous knowledge transfers, such as ecotourism-based work, interpretations centres, animations.


Dr. Esther Leemann (University of Zurich & Interface Commission)

Esther Leemann is a senior researcher and lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Zurich, Switzerland with more than 20 years of research experience in Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua. Her current research concerns everyday politics and resistance among indigenous communities in Cambodia, territoriality, displacement and re-articulation of sense of place and identity, and the broader impacts of agrarian change in frontier locales. She has worked on the social, economic, cultural and political dimensions of displacement, resettlement and post-disaster reconstruction.


Dr. Marlyne Sahakian (University of Geneva)

Marlyne Sahakian is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Geneva, where she brings a sociological lens to consumption studies and sustainability. She coordinates research projects on energy, food, and wellbeing, often working with interdisciplinary teams. She co-founded SCORAI Europe in 2012, a network for sustainable consumption research and action, and is an active member of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network on Consumption. She is co-editor of the Consumption & Society journal.


Dr. Marylène Lieber (University of Geneva)

Marylène Lieber is a Full Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Geneva. Sociologist, she is a specialist of both gender violence in public places and Chinese migration. She has an international experience as Scholar in France (University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin), in Switzerland (Universities of Neuchâtel and Geneva), and in the Chinese world (People’s University, Beijing; CEFC, Taipei and Hong Kong). Among other things she published Genre, violences et espaces publics, la vulnérabilité des femmes en question (Paris, Presse de Sciencepo, 2008); Les théories en études de genre, (with E. Lépinard, Paris, La Découverte, 2020)


Dr. Eda Elif Tibet (University of Bern & Interface Commission

Eda Elif Tibet is an award winning documentary filmmaker and visual anthropologist. She is a postdoctoral researcher at UniBern where she leads her own independent applied research initiative "Animating the Commons'' hosted at the Critical Sustainability Unit.Forming unorthodox coalitions by building alliances Eda supports and consults changemakers and organizations working towards common good, in various capacities. Eda holds a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) funded PhD in Social Anthropology from UniBern (2019), an Mphil from the University of Kent (2013/UK). She is recognised to be a trailblazing engaged anthropologist by the Swiss Anthropology Association’s Interface Commission.


Dr. Claire Vionnet (University of Bern and Interface Commission)

Claire Vionnet studied Social Sciences at the University of Lausanne. She wrote a PhD on the creation of gesture in contemporary dance, combining Anthropology and Dance Studies. Her current postdoctoral research explores the phenomenon of intimacy in contact improvisation and contemporary dance in a transcultural analysis (Montreal, Paris and Dakar). As a dancer, she works creatively with dance communities, transferring anthropological reflection into society. Articulating dance practice and theoretical thinking, she attempts to engage Anthropology beyond Academia.

Report-Ascona INTERFACE Summer School 2021-by Sarah Helena Keller:

"Building diverse sustainable networks and alliances has been recognized as being of utmost importance for all stages of anthropological work. Such networks support the anthropologist to profit from the already existing knowledge bases cultivated by multiple others who have already been in the field or engaged in similar work."