Postdoctoral Researcher 'Vital Elements and Postcolonial Moves'

Postdoctoral Researcher 'Vital Elements and Postcolonial Moves'

Published Deadline Location
29 Sep 27 Oct Amsterdam

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Job description

Are you curious about the ways present day migration is connected with enduring (post)colonial relations? Are you interested in exploring the materialities of these connections through studies of extractivism and pollution? Do you have affinity, interest, or experience with ethnographic research based in Tunisia? Are you familiar with or curious about Science and Technology Studies (STS) and material semiotics? Do you enjoy working in a team of spirited researchers?

The Department of Anthropology is currently seeking a postdoctoral researcher for the project ‘Vital Elements and Postcolonial Moves: Forensics as the Art of Paying Attention in a Mediterranean Harbour Town’ – led by Prof. Amade Aouatef M’charek. This project is funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.

The Department of Anthropology is one of the departments at the University of (UvA) Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG). The position is located in the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) programme group Health, Care and the Body.

What are you going to do?
You will conduct a detailed ethnographic study focused on one of the two materialities – so- called vital elements – that are listed below. Briefly, the project Vital Elements relates the problem of migration and in particular, migrant death in the Mediterranean, not so much to European deadly borders that kill, but to resources for live and livelihood.

Take the following example of an ethnographer in Zarzis:

It is 16 July 2019. I call Mohsen Lihidheb, an artist and friend, to go for a walk and talk. It is still early, so I take a book to pass the time on the beach. As I approach, I notice an unusual gathering of cars and a truck on the beach. My legs tremble as I get out of the car. I walk towards the crowd and see two police officers towing a body from the water. More policemen are further out in the water, diverting a body away from a stretch of beach popular with tourists. Two weeks earlier, on the night of 4 July, a ship carrying 89 people from Libya to Europe had sunk off Tunisia’s southern coast. Only four people were rescued by fishermen; 85 drowned. All washed up on the long shore of Zarzis on that horrible day.

The bodies of drowned migrants have been washing ashore in Zarzis since the 1990s. But this was the first time the bodies were attended to forensically. Given their number, the bodies were transported to the nearby city of Gabes to be examined by the forensic pathologist.

A few days later, we are burying the bodies in a provisional cemetery. Standing outside the burial site, I see what appear to be glistening white mountains in the distance. It is salt. The French company Cotusal harvests it from the saline flats of Zarzis, purchased for rates set in the colonial era. Trucks carrying the salt make the trip to the port of Zarzis several times each day. While the bodies we buried were stopped on their journey to Europe, the salt moves easily into EU territory.

While in Europe people who are adrift may be seen as evidence of a “migration crisis,” from the African side of the Mediterranean they point to the chronic, (neo-)colonial depletion of livelihoods. To map how life is enduringly made unliveable, this program develops the method of forensics as the art of paying attention to ethnographically study the complexity of, and the relations between, vital elements – resources crucial for fostering life and livelihood – and the ways they impact on living and dying. Our cases include: the extraction of phosphate, the fishing of sea sponges, the cultivation of tomatoes, the extraction of water, and the leaving behind of industrial waste.

To better understand the complexity of, and material semiotic relations between, vital elements, we focus on Zarzis as a nodal point. This will make it possible for team members to visit each other’s sites and to work together in a Method Lab as well as to collaborate with local artists who will help to sensitise us to local concerns in a Vital Elements Atelier.

What are your tasks
  • You will conduct ethnographic research on one of the following two topics: the extraction of water and the leaving behind of industrial waste.
  • You will be part of a research team consisting of three PhD candidates, two Postdoctoral researchers and the Principal Investigator. This team will be made up by people working at the University of Sousse and the University of Amsterdam.
  • Your main task will be to develop your own postdoctoral research within the framework of the overall project, including:
    • conducting ethnographic field research in the south of Tunisia;
    • publishing within four years with respect to the project;
    • participating in conferences, workshops, seminars and other scholarly activities.
  • Next to that, you will be tasked with be co-managing the project, including:
    • participating in, and co-coordinating project meetings;
    • co-supporting and mentoring PhD students;
    • co-coordinating partner collaboration (including management and preparing and writing of reports and papers);
    • co-organising workshops and conference panels (co-writing call for papers,
    • coordinate paper selection, logistics);
    • co-coordinating collaborative publication projects of team members.
  • Next to working on your own research within the framework of the overall project, you will contribute to collaborative aspects of the project. This will include collecting data for jointly written publication(s), and lending respective (language) expertise to team members.
  • Mentoring and support to prepare for your next career steps will be available and facilitated.
  • In the final year of your appointment, you are expected to live in Amsterdam and take active part in team meetings and the research environment at the AISSR.


University of Amsterdam (UvA)


You have:
  • a PhD with a relevant specialization within the social sciences or humanities. Social and Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, History, Human Geography, Middle Eastern and North African Studies are preferred academic backgrounds. The degree must have been obtained by the time of application;
  • excellent oral and written communication skills in English;
  • oral and written skills in French or Arabic (or are willing to take language training funded by the project);
  • relevant (ethnographic) fieldwork experience, ideally in the region and on related topics;
  • a strong academic record with relevant publications;
  • relevant work experiences, in particular management of research projects, logistics around conferences and publications.

You preferably have:
  • affinity with the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and material semiotics;
  • familiarity or interest in creative methods (including audio, visual and other methods).

While the working language for the project is English, candidates who demonstrate the ability to collect data in Arabic or French will be preferred. Candidates who have basic fluency in Arabic or French and are willing to take language training (funded by the project) are also encouraged to apply.

Finally, candidates should available from 1 January 2024 and free to travel to Zarzis from mid-January to mid-February 2024.

Conditions of employment

The position concerns temporary employment of 30,4 hours per week for a maximum term of four years. The initial employment is for one year and will start on 1 January 2024. Following a positive assessment and barring altered circumstances, this term will be extended by a maximum of three years. We will put together a curriculum which will also include the opportunity to attend training courses and both national and international events.

For this position the University Job Classification profile ‘Onderzoeker’ applies. Depending on your relevant work experience and qualifications, the minimum salary is €4,332 and the maximum salary is €5,929 gross per month based on a 38-hour working week, in keeping with salary scale 11, as per the Collective Labour Agreement of Dutch Universities. We additionally offer an extensive package of secondary benefits, including 8% holiday allowance and a year-end bonus of 8.3%.

The UvA offers excellent possibilities for further professional development and education.

What else do we offer

To work at the University of Amsterdam is to work in a discerning, independent, creative, innovative and international climate characterised by an open atmosphere and a genuine engagement with the city of Amsterdam and society.


Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

The University of Amsterdam is the largest university in the Netherlands, with the broadest spectrum of degree programmes. It is an intellectual hub with 39,000 students, 6,000 employees and 3,000 doctoral students who are all committed to a culture of inquiring minds.

A challenging work environment with a variety of duties and ample scope for individual initiative and development within an inspiring organisation. The social and behavioural sciences play a leading role in addressing the major societal challenges faced by the world, the Netherlands and Amsterdam, now and in the future.

Want to know more about our organisation? Read more about working at the University of Amsterdam.


  • Postdoc
  • Behaviour and society
  • max. 38 hours per week
  • Doctorate
  • 12173


University of Amsterdam (UvA)

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