Human Response to Environmental Change in Cambodia


The proposed research seeks to understand the process of becoming urban at a critical time in Cambodian history. Combining traditional and distributed ethnographic methods, our team will explore and analyze the lived experiences of migrants from rural villages to urban centers; the economic, environmental and social factors that drove the decision to migrate; and the changing connections to place, space and people that result from becoming urban. Ultimately, we aim to produce a deeper understanding of the lived experience of migrants and a better account of their transformation from villagers to urbanites.

Major Research Questions and Contributions to Scholarship 

  1. What are the rural changes that drive urbanization and what are the important rural-urban linkages that facilitate migration? How are these linkages formed over time to support sustained connections of family members, who have separated through migration?
  2. What are the environmental factors driving people to migrate, including climate change, agro-industrial development, deforestation, and dam construction? How do people respond to environmental change and is migration to cities perceived to be a short-term or long-term response?
  3. How do rural migrants make their place in the city? How do they use and navigate urban space and the distinctly urban relations they form?

The Need for a Collaborative Approach 

The promise of the project lies in bringing together scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds and different ways of approaching the topic. Our team consists of a cultural anthropologist, a social anthropologist, an environmental economist, a geographer, and a sociologist, all with experience in various methodologies, including qualitative, quantitative and humanistic social science. We bring different perspectives and approaches to bear on the topic of becoming urban. We also bring together various areas of expertise that did not exist in the prior research by Kolata and Shaikh. Proposed team members have studied the process of urbanization in different regions of the developing world—including Southeast Asia broadly, Africa, and Latin America—and at different historical moments. Together, we aim to produce an integrated account of environmental and social transformation, beginning with a “thick description” of the various processes at stake, rural and urban, ecological and sociological.

Anticipated Results 

The project will add to what we know about the process of urbanization in Phnom Penh. It will connect urbanization to other processes, particularly migration, rural breakdown, and environmental degradation. It will consider ecological factors—a dimension that has been largely overlooked by the urbanization literature in the social sciences. Our study will build on and extend the literature on urbanization in the Global South, and extend the research of the Kolata and Shaikh team, which has not considered the post-migration transformation of people. It will examine the process in the context of historically new developments, economically, geopolitically, and environmentally. By revisiting the question of becoming urban, it will extend urban theory. Our findings will be of interest to a broad audience; urbanists and area experts, no doubt, but also scholars in both the social and natural sciences given the interdisciplinary nature of our investigation.

The project is an inductive one at core, and therefore “success” will not be measured by the confirmation or disconfirmation of hypotheses. Success will be realized by the provision of better knowledge about the situation of Cambodian migrants and a deeper understanding of their lived experience. Better knowledge consists of (1) better data in the form of thicker descriptions and a more comprehensive identification of the various factors involved and (2) a better accounting of the transformations underway in their economic, environmental, sociological, and cognitive aspects. A deeper understanding will be reflected in a greater capacity to appreciate the situations migrants find themselves in in the terms of their own experience. It also means being able to specify what these individual experiences add up to; the larger process they describe. These aims can only be achieved through an ethnographic accounting of the lived experience of migrants.

The Distinctive Impact of Neubauer Support 

The impact of Neubauer support on our project is unmistakable. The idea for this project originated in the Neubauer-sponsored workshop on Cambodia in the spring of 2019, when we identified the limits of the scope of the existing work. In that work, team members Kolata and Shaikh found evidence of rapidly increasing rural to urban migration, mainly in response to rural environmental change and the subsequent loss in rural livelilhoods. The Neubauer-sponsored workshop allowed the team to engage other researchers, focused more on migration and urbanization. In the course of the workshop, we came to recognize that the existing project failed to address a crucial aspect of these processes; namely, the changing experience of the migrants themselves and particularly the process of their “becoming urban.” In the six months following the workshop, we continued to discuss these issues on a regular basis. The proposed project hatched directly out of these conversations and depends entirely on Neubauer funding. Thus, Neubauer support not only has been but continues to be essential to our collaboration.