Sarah Phillips

Sarah Phillips

Professor, Anthropology


  • Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002
  • M.A., Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1998
  • B.A., Anthropology and Russian, Wake Forest University , 1993

About Sarah Phillips

I have been conducting anthropological research in Ukraine since 1995. My broad research interests have been to track the variable effects of socialist collapse on people’s lives, especially in terms of gender formations, health, social inequalities and social justice, and changing citizen-state relations. Areas of major inquiry have included the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster on health and healing strategies, the symbolic fallout of Chernobyl, the role of women in Ukraine’s civil society, and, most recently, the politics and poetics of disability. My work has research applications beyond Eastern Europe, especially as I seek to extend understandings of civil society processes and changing citizenship regimes in contexts of political and social change.

My early fieldwork in Ukraine (1995-1996) focused on the myriad effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. (See an article on my Chernobyl research and teaching at I used ethnographic methods to analyze representations of Chernobyl in academic and popular discourse, literature, and museums, arguing that Chernobyl symbols serve as a set of resources: they produce memory, and they are the grounds for making a new society. I have also researched the various practices of “alternative” medicine that have become pervasive in the post-Chernobyl era, especially the use of substances known as “radioprotectors” to flush radioactive particles from the organism. My research has shown how using radioprotectors allows persons to establish particular class identities in the invention of their postsocialist, post-Chernobyl selves. Other health-related research includes the production of an ethnographic video on Ukrainian folk healing, “Shapes in the Wax: Tradition and Faith among Folk Medicine Practitioners in Ukraine.” The video is a useful tool to introduce students to ethnographic research methods and fundamental concepts in medical anthropology. Companion articles to the video have been published in English and Ukrainian, which further strengthens the instructional power of this work.

My recent research has focused on women, social activism and civil society (1998-2003), and the Ukrainian disability rights movement (2002-present). In both projects my major lines of inquiry have included the following: 1) Tracking the development of new forms of political self-awareness and assertion; 2) Exploring the effects of a changing political consciousness on personal identity formation; and 3) Examining the unexpected and far-reaching effects of establishing new social contracts in postsocialist societies.

Following from this, I seek to provide an analysis of how emerging discourses of social worth, rights, and needs after the collapse of socialism in Ukraine and other Eastern European states motivate persons and collectives to conceptualize themselves as new kinds of citizens. In my investigations of women’s civil society initiatives and the disability rights movement, I strive to understand the complex ways that historical processes, local conditions, and transnational interventions intersect to change people’s self-perceptions, mobilize collective strategies for social and political change, and create new social hierarchies. My work has furthered anthropological debates about gender, development, civil society, and NGOs in Eastern Europe, especially analyses of the unintended consequences of particular “democratizing” interventions. My research shows civil society to be much more complex than is commonly assumed; it is not a force to be measured, but rather a site of debate, intrigue, and myriad inequalities.

Gender and class differentiation in Ukrainian civil society is the focus of my first book, Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation (2008, Indiana U Press). In this ethnography of the lives of eleven women NGO leaders in Kyiv (whom I followed over a two-year period during 1998-99), I examine the unexpected and ambiguous effects that social activism has produced for Ukraine’s women as they take up the “housework of politics.” In Ukraine, as men have dominated in positions of political power, in the face of social welfare reform and the scaling back of the social safety net, it is women who have been left as leaders of service-oriented NGOs and mutual aid associations to care for the marginalized and destitute, with little or no support from the Ukrainian state. This calls into question the supposed “empowering” effects of NGO activism, and also reveals how entire categories of people (the elderly, large families) are falling through the cracks in the new Ukraine.

A major contribution of the book is the exploration of the notion of “differentiation” (an indigenous term in Ukraine that drives social politics reforms) to explain and track the sharpening of social inequalities after socialism. These women’s lives and the stories they tell reveal the NGO sector to be a key site for postsocialist differentiation of citizens, as criteria for productive citizenship are reworked, and the rights and needs of various categories of citizens redefined. Yet even as some activists and their constituents have been ignored by the state and development programs and left to fend for themselves, other women NGO leaders have been able to propel themselves into prestigious careers in business and government. These women have succeeded in tapping into lucrative social networks, and they have also taken up powerful neoliberal narratives of self-sufficiency, development, and self-realization to understand and construct themselves as a new kind of postsocialist subject. In the book I delineate three major sites of differentiation: state rhetoric and especially welfare policy; international development programs and NGOs; and differentiation as an interpersonal phenomenon driven by peoples’ changing perceptions of their own personal and social worth and that of others. By placing informants’ experiences in the broader context of social change, social welfare reform, and international development programs, I investigate the intertwining processes of differentiation as certain types of claims, organizations, and NGO leaders are privileged over others, sharpening social inequalities in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Similar concerns—the emergence of new citizenship regimes, the inner worlds of civic activism, and the organizing power of narratives in everyday life—drive my current research on the politics and poetics of disability in postsocialist Ukraine. I have conducted eight months of ethnographic research in Ukraine for this project, which is one of the first humanistic, comparative examinations of the politics of disablement in the former Soviet Union. I am writing a book manuscript based on this work, tentatively titled Mobile Citizens: Disability, Citizenship, and Civil Society in Postsocialist Ukraine.

In the research I interrogate the intersection of health/disability politics and citizenship debates in Eastern Europe, a literature that heretofore has been dominated by discussions of Chernobyl and other environmental issues. I investigate a range of issues pertaining to the lived experience of disability after socialism, including masculinity and disability; disability, education, and work; and transnational NGO activism. My research on disability and citizenship adds to our knowledge of postsocialist subjectivity and the complex transformations in personal and collective identity wrought by socialist collapse and subsequent globalizing processes. The work has practical applications as well, since a fine-grained analysis of this important social movement provides insight into the prospects for NGOs and other grassroots organizations to effect change and empower citizens. Likewise, the research can suggest ways that foreign and transnational advocacy organizations might best make an impact in the postsocialist milieu.

Based on participant observation with disability rights groups; more than 90 personal interviews with Ukrainian activists (including 15 life history interviews), government officials and foreign advocates; and an analysis of Soviet and post-Soviet legislation, I am examining how the meaning of disability as a political and subjective category after state socialism is transforming. The project focuses on persons with mobility disabilities (i.e. wheelchair users) as a group that has recently been targeted by a range of state and international interventions. I follow the development of new disability identities (or the rejection of a disability identity) as persons and groups accesses different narratives of and strategies for empowerment. I relate the narratives of a range of persons inside and outside the movement to explore how disability intersects with other trajectories of identity, especially class, gender, and ethnicity.

A major focus of this project is to track the contradictory notions of citizenship that exist within the Ukrainian disability rights movement, and to understand how these are shaped variously by Soviet legacies vis-à-vis disability politics, local and national dynamics of change (grassroots organizing, expanding labor markets, welfare reform) and globalizing discourses on human rights, democracy, individualism, and empowerment. I seek to identify certain “spaces of convergence” where the international, national, and local intersect to facilitate greater empowerment of the citizen. These spaces of convergence—which include, for example, structured programs for “active rehabilitation,” and accessibility campaigns—reveal that rights activists have managed to variously adapt transnational empowerment narratives to local contexts, and in the process stake an array of claims to active citizenship in the transforming Ukrainian state. Such engagements show that, in today’s world, it is not necessary to be physically mobile to be a “mobile citizen” nevertheless. In this sense, globalization is driving processes that are fundamentally new in the postsocialist region. On the other hand, the disability rights movement is plagued by a range of disconnects that are instructive as to the uneven democratization of Ukrainian society, the continued prevalence of corruption, and the ongoing marginalization of certain groups of citizens.

My interests in medical anthropology have informed this approach to civil society, and this interest in the social contexts of health also drives my research on post-Chernobyl health and healing. My research on Chernobyl has focused on the meaningful symbolic interpretations of the 1986 nuclear disaster, and on how such interpretive acts translate into social action. I argue that Chernobyl produces a kind of sixth sense in that it attaches to people's bodies-literally in some cases-and it structures perception of the social world. Consequently, Chernobyl symbolizations serve as a set of resources: they produce memory, and they are the grounds for making a new society. Accordingly, my Chernobyl research examines the creative strategies that post-Chernobyl citizens employ to deal with Chernobyl effects. I am interested in new forms of healing and health maintenance after Chernobyl , as reflected in my 2002 article on post-Chernobyl eating strategies in Food and Foodways . This interest also led me to document the recent revival of rural-based folk strategies of healing in an ethnographic documentary, Shapes in the Wax: Tradition and Faith among Folk Medicine Practitioners in Rural Ukraine (produced with Timothy D. Miller).

My current research project is an examination of the burgeoning disability rights movement in Ukraine . This includes a comparative analysis of disability legislation and official and popular perceptions of physical disability in Ukraine during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. I am juxtaposing "official" (state-produced) histories with ethnographic data to highlight the contradictory range of discourses and experiences connecting persons and socialities to different aspects of disability politics. This work is based on archival research, surveys of disability rights activists in Ukraine , and personal interviews. I am especially interested in the ways in which models of disability have transformed during the transition period from state socialism, and the international networks that drive these transformations. A major focus of this project is to examine the contradictory notions of "citizenship" that exist within the Ukrainian disability rights movement, and to understand how these are shaped by globalizing discourses on democracy, individualism, and empowerment.

The focus on globalization, states, and social justice struggles that propels my research also inspires my teaching.

Selected Publications

2009. "Civil Society and Disability Rights in Post-Soviet Ukraine: NGOs and Prospects for Change.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 16(1):275-291. 

2009. “‘There Are No Invalids in the USSR!’ A Missing Soviet Chapter in the New Disability History.” Disability Studies Quarterly 29(3). Available at

2008. Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.