Christopher Duncan

Christopher Duncan


chris.duncan [at]

Office Location

Hill Hall 622

My research explores a variety of topics in the anthropology of religion, the anthropology of violence, and issues of indigenous rights. My work is based primarily on the island of Halmahera in eastern Indonesia, but I have also worked in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Sulawesi, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

A major focus of my research has been on the role of religion in communal violence and post-conflict dynamics. Since 1999 I have been examining a religious conflict in the eastern Indonesian province of North Maluku. My research moves beyond current approaches that focus on elite-based and event driven explanations of collective violence in Indonesia. Instead, I focus on the ways in which participants framed the conflict as a matter of religious difference and how this framing influenced subsequent acts of violence. I also explore how religious interpretations of the violence have influenced the post-conflict situation through an examination of peace and reconciliation initiatives, local efforts at memorial building, and the re-integration of forced migrants.  One result of this research is Violence and Vengeance: Religious Conflict and Its Aftermath in Eastern Indonesia  (Cornell University Press, 2013) that examines the 1999-2000 communal violence in North Maluku.

Another research interest focuses on social change among the Forest Tobelo, a group of forest-dwelling foragers who live in the interior of the island of Halmahera. This work, which I began as a graduate student, explores how conversion to Christianity and government-sponsored resettlement has affected the Forest Tobelo, their notions of cultural and ethnic identity and how they interact with the state. In particular, it examines the reasons behind Forest Tobelo decisions to convert to the evangelical Christianity preached by missionaries from the American-based New Tribes Mission. I explore changes and continuities in post-missionary Forest Tobelo society by looking at how this process of religious change has influenced intra-group relations, re-shaped Forest Tobelo understandings of their own history, and changed their place in regional political dynamics. I also examine the missionary efforts of the Forest Tobelo themselves, who beginning in the late 1990s, set up their own mission stations among Forest Tobelo communities who had not converted to Christianity. These indigenous missionary efforts combined the spread of evangelical Protestantism with issues of social activism and placed an emphasis on indigenous rights, as well as on the Gospel. Alongside my interest in missionization and social change, my work on the Forest Tobelo has also looked at the effects of government policies for development (forestry, mining, resettlement, etc.) on the Forest Tobelo and on ethnic minorities throughout Indonesia and elsewhere. One result of this research has been an edited volume about government policies for the development of ethnic minorities throughout Southeast Asia titled Civilizing the Margins (Cornell University Press, 2004). The National University of Singapore Press published an updated version in 2008.

I am also currently working on a new research project that looks at the rise of indigenous rights discourse in eastern Indonesia alongside a period of rapid development in the region. This project, which ties into my interests in the intersection of indigenous rights and government policy, explores how the concept of “indigenous peoples” and the idea of indigenous rights has developed in eastern Indonesia in response to government sponsored migration, the expansion of large scale mining projects, and the spread of oil palm plantations. Local communities in eastern Indonesia have been losing their land to large-scale government development projects since the 1970s, but only since 2010 have there been significant efforts by communities and regional activists to protest these land seizures or the environmental impact of these projects. The rise in resistance stems in part from the democratization of Indonesia that began at the turn of the century, but it is directly connected to the arrival and adoption of the international language of indigenous rights. This project will explore how communities use the concept of indigenous rights to organize, both at the local and international level, to protest, and in some cases, to actively resist efforts to take their land. I am interested in exploring who gets to claim status as indigenous people in local discourse and which groups, if any, take precedence. How do local understandings of indigeneity mesh with international ones? How do national and multinational corporations involved in these projects deal with claims based on indigeneity?

I am also involved in a collaborative project that was funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Program on Global Security and Sustainability that looks at the environmental impact of rural-rural migration in Vietnam and Indonesia. Along with my co-PI, we are exploring how some migrants make more environmentally sustainable management choices than others, and the cultural, economic, and policy environment that is needed to make these better choices. We are also comparing the agricultural practices and resource use patterns of migrants with indigenous people to examine their differing impacts on local environments.

Before I began teaching at Rutgers University-Newark, I taught Religious Studies and Global Studies at Arizona State University for ten years. I have also held fellowships at the Australian National University, Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and KITLV (the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) in the Netherlands.