How anthropology provides insight into resolving contemporary issues

Wars embedded in cultural, religious or ethnic conflicts arise throughout our world, but their complexity makes settling them exceptionally difficult for outsiders. Research in anthropology, with its sensibility to such cultural issues, provides a critically significant way for both the general public and policymakers to understand how other parts of the world work. Without such an understanding, it is not possible to propose relational solutions to such conflicts and bring them to an end. Dr. Thomas Barfield, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, studies various societies and political structures to understand their cultural and political formation and transitions. A renowned academic contributor of the work on nomadic peoples, Dr. Barfield is also one of the world's experts on Afghanistan, and has been invited to consult at the White House, US State Department and international agencies on the problems in that country. He grounds strong empirical research with theory to gain a deeper understanding of our world’s history, many of which are relevant to current international disputes.

Reaching across disciplinary boundaries, Dr. Barfield is a published author of many award-winning books that encompass a wide number of fields. His widely cited The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (1989), now translated in Chinese, Korean, and Russian, outlines a model for explaining the rise and fall of nomadic empires as well as foreign dynasties that ruled China over a period spanning 2000 years. He has also produced an award-winning study, Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture in 1991. In the 2000s, he conducted a variety of new studies on customary law for the United States Institute of Peace and assisted in founding of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies, of which he is currently president. In 2010, he published a best selling book, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, that has become one of the most widely cited in the field. Over the next five years, he hopes to see his major writing project on the concept of Shadow Empires to final research, writing and publication, in addition to continuing his work on Afghanistan and related issues like the rise of ISIS today. Ultimately, his goal is to bring a cross-cultural and historical perspective to a number of different topics in ways that are both innovative and empirically grounded, to present ideas that will inspire others.

Current research includes:

  • New Research in Afghanistan: Dr. Barfield continues to shed light on Afghanistan that crosses anthropology, history, and political science and hopes to support his Ph.D. and post doctoral students who can potentially help form a research team in this field. With the knowledge he has already expanded, Dr. Barfield wants to educate his students to develop further relationships and tools.
  • Comparative Nomadic Societies: Dr. Barfield continues to study ethnographic characterization of nomadic people, where he originally started his research. Having made many contributions, Dr. Barfield hopes to bring deeper understanding to the parallels between nomadic societies.
  • Exploring shadow empires: In a 2001 essay, “The Shadow Empires,” Dr. Barfield suggests that empires come in two basic types. The first, primary empires such as the Roman, Persian, Chinese or Ottoman, grew out of internal developments and were self-sustaining on their own resources. Secondary or shadow empires came into existence as a response to primary imperial state formation elsewhere and could not exist except in interaction with them. Some examples of the shadow empires were the Xiongnu, Turks and Mongols, rising and falling in tandem with the primary empire, China. Such shadow empires depended on China to supply them with the wealth needed to sustain their centralized political structures that were otherwise unsustainable among people who were high dispersed, mobile and dependent on a subsistence pastoral economy for their domestic needs. Dr. Barfield hopes to expand on the four main categories of the Shadow Empires in his next writing project, drawing conclusions to compare historical empires with the “empires” of today. The categories include --

    • Mirror Empires: Established by horse riding nomads such as the various empires established by the Xiongnu, Turks and Mongols, the mirror empires sustained themselves by using military force to extract revenue from China. Dr. Barfield proposes that the nomads' primary aim was almost never conquest, but to gain access to the resources from China they lacked themselves -- if not by trade, then by raiding. They rose when China united into a single polity and fell when China fell into civil war and economic collapse. 
    • Vulture empires: Created by “barbarian” leaders of frontier provinces or client states who turned the tables on their imperial masters in times of political and economic distress by seizing control of parts of the old empires. The irony was that, by successfully restoring order, they laid the groundwork for their own replacement when the primary state recovered. The pattern was particularly pronounced in north China, where almost all of the foreign dynasties that ruled it for so many centuries emerged out of such frontier conditions. 
    • Maritime Trade Empires: In his new writing project, Dr. Barfield hopes to explore the dynamics of maritime trade empires that held the minimal amounts of territory needed to extract economic benefits from other states rather than rule over them. By focusing their investments on ports and strong navies, they attempted to profit from trading goods rather than producing them. Historical examples include classic Mediterranean powers such as imperial Athens, Carthage and Venice. While vulnerable to rival naval powers, their greatest threat were existing land based empires that were powerful enough to either destroy their trade networks or target their centers for elimination, as when Rome destroyed Carthage. 
    • Empires of Nostalgia: Explaining that when a big empire like Rome or China falls, there is a desire to bring it back, Dr. Barfield argues that political leaders often attempt to way themselves an imperial tradition and outward trappings of an extinct empire as a way to create a new one. While Charlemagne's medieval Holy Roman Empire is a classic medieval European example, recent political developments show the tenacity of this model. Both the ISIS attempt to recreate the Caliphate and Vladimir Putin's proclamation of a distinct Russian Orthodox civilization follow the logic of an empire of nostalgia. Understanding their history would not only educate the general public, but also help policy makers understand what drives such movement. 
    • Dr. Barfield is also interested in examining how such shadow empires occasionally morphed into true primary empires, such as the Mongols under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan that conquered most of Eurasia, the British in India who established a worldwide colonial empire, and the Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China for two centuries.


Dr. Thomas Barfield’s current research focuses on problems of political development in Afghanistan, particularly on systems of local governance and dispute resolution. He has also published extensively on contemporary and historic nomadic pastoral societies in Eurasia with a particular emphasis on politics and economy.

Dr. Barfield conducted ethnographic fieldwork in northern Afghanistan in the mid-1970s as well as shorter periods of research in Xinjiang, China, and post-Soviet Uzbekistan. He is author of The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan (1981), The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (1989), and The Nomadic Alternative (1993), co-author of Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture (1991), and editor of Blackwell’s Dictionary of Anthropology (1997). Dr. Barfield received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 that led to the publication of his newest book, Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History (2010).
He is the past director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization and currently serves as president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies.

At ages 16 and 17, Dr. Barfield was part of a Smithsonian led archaeological excavation on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. At age 21 as an undergraduate, he hitchhiked from Amsterdam to Istanbul and then traveled east to Afghanistan. During this intense traveling experience when he walked into the mountains into Afghanistan, Dr. Barfield encountered fascinating situations and individuals, and decided that if he ever became a researcher, he wanted to focus on Afghanistan. This he did in 1973 when he returned to do a doctoral dissertation on the nomadic peoples in northern Afghanistan. Working with a little known group of Persian speaking Central Asian Arabs, his participant observation involved making two migrations to their summer camps, the second with his late wife Donna Wilker who did much of the photography for the study. Because such field ethnographic research depends on such participant observation, his two years there was a life changing experience of being socialized into a very different way of looking at the world and trying to make sense of it. To this day, he continues to study the nomadic people of Afghanistan, to understand where they come from and where we, as a global community, are headed.

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In the News

Compromise in Kabul

The Cairo Review of Global Affairs. October 19, 2014.

Afghanistan's Ethnic Puzzle

Foreign Affairs. Augugust 31, 2011.

Is Afghanistan 'Medieval'?

Foreign Policy. May/June 2010.


Outstanding Academic Title in Middle East & North Africa, 2011

American Library Association for Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Guggenheim Fellowship, 2006 - 2007

Outstanding Academic Book in Art and Architecture, 1993

American Library Association for Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture

Fellow of the American Anthropological Association, 1993