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Research Interests

Legal anthropology,  national and international institutions, human rights, global governance, social movements, new information technologies, indigenous peoples, environment and conservation, displacement and resettlement, ethnographic methods, hunter-gatherers.

Research Area(s)
Sub-Saharan Africa, with particular emphasis on southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia) and global organizations (i.e. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and other UN bodies).


Maria Sapignoli is a social anthropologist and a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in the Department of Law and Anthropology.

She received a BA in Cultural Anthropology and an MA (Laurea Specialistica) in African Ethnology (cum laude) from the University of Bologna, Italy. She completed her doctoral degree in Sociology at the University of Essex, England, in March 2012.

Over the last few years Sapignoli has been visiting fellow and lecturer in several universities including the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the University of London, and the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Recently, she has been a visiting fellow and instructor in the Department of Anthropology at the Faculty of Law at McGill University in Montreal. In January 2016 Sapignoli was awarded an O'Brien Fellowship in Residence in the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, in the Faculty of Law at McGill University.

In her earlier work Sapignoli has investigated social movements aimed at promoting indigenous and minority rights (e.g., San movements, African indigenous movements, and global indigenous movements). Her doctoral dissertation analyses a set of legal cases involving the state-sponsored removal of San and Bakgalagadi peoples from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana.

More recently her research in Botswana has shifted towards the ethnography of globalized processes and the ways in which international institutions are in dialogue with local groups who articulate their identities and rights claims at different levels and scales. At the local level, this work is an extension of her doctoral research, focusing primarily on emerging phenomena associated with indigenous peoples and minority rights claims in sub-Saharan Africa, including present-day conditions of dispossession and challenges related to globalization, land grabbing, extractive industries, and environmental conservation. More broadly, her work addresses the ways in which local people are affected by and have an impact on global institutions. This aspect of her work includes ethnographic inquiry into these global institutions themselves. Her exploration of the wider parameters of institutional engagement with rights claims and the production of knowledge has involved fieldwork at a variety of levels, from the local (communities in central and north-western Botswana) to the national (state offices and courts in Botswana), to the international (United Nations agencies, including the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII), the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs (DESA), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)). At the same time, she has been involved in development-related work in southern Africa, and worked with a number of different international and indigenous organizations on issues related to mining, environmental conservation, and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Sapignoli has also begun to expand her research to encompass a wider regional scope in southern Africa. Her first step in this direction is comparative ethnographic work in Namibia on legal aid NGOs and the ways lawyers and anthropologists work with local claimants and beneficiaries of rights and justice processes.

Why Law & Antropology?

"The combination of law and anthropology is central to my research because anthropology in the era of human rights and more recently of indigenous peoples’ rights faces the challenge of understanding how global concepts of rights and identities are experienced and shaped in practice by those who are the subject of rights."

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