Sara Friedman

Sara Friedman

Professor, Anthropology

  • (812) 856-4595
  • Student Building 158
  • Office Hours
    By Appointment Only


  • Ph.D., Anthropology, Cornell University, 2000
  • M.A., Anthropology, Cornell Univeristy
  • B.A., East Asian Studies, Yale University


My research to date has examined the connections between large-scale political processes and intimate life, with particular attention to the place of state power and citizenship in gender identities, intimate relationships, and bodily practices of dress, labor, and sexuality. These interests reflect my interdisciplinary training in sociocultural anthropology, gender studies, and East Asian studies. They also emerge from my experiences living and working in China and Taiwan since the late 1980s.

My first book, Intimate Politics: Marriage, the Market, and State Power in Southeastern China (Harvard UP 2006), is based on two years of fieldwork in a coastal community in rural Fujian Province. It argues that efforts to transform citizens’ intimate lives and relationships have been critical to solidifying and expanding state power in socialist and late-socialist China. Spanning the period from the high tide of socialism in the 1950s to the reform era of the 1990s, the book examines the experiences of women from eastern Hui’an County, a region known for unusual social and cultural practices (especially with regard to marriage and gender roles) that undermined a clear ethnic status for local residents. The book shows how state actors, in responding to these atypical features, strove to build a new socialist society at the village level through revolutionizing intimate aspects of women’s lives. It finds, however, that official models of progress and civility were often challenged by the diversity of regional practices and the active commitments of eastern Hui’an residents. These politicized entanglements generated what I call “intimate politics,” a form of embodied struggle in which socialist visions of progress and civilization have been formulated, contested, and transformed through the bodies and practices of local women.

A second major strand of my research looks at how cross-cultural analyses of intimacy and sexuality challenge norms rooted in Euro-American cultures. This body of work also investigates the consequences of different models of intimacy for individuals whose private lives might not conform to dominant societal norms. I have questioned the portrayal of rural Chinese society as ruled by conservative sexual mores and an exclusively reproductive model of sexuality institutionalized through near-universal marriage rates. I have also examined the role of film in constructing models of same-sex intimacy that may or may not be associated with sexual identities.

My recent work builds on my longstanding interest in the historical and contemporary relationship between Taiwan and China. Whereas much research has examined cross-Strait relations from the perspective of high-level politics or economic flows, I have sought to understand how these ties shape the intimate lives of individuals who marry across the Strait. Through studying these marriages in their broader political and social contexts, I seek to understand changing definitions of citizenship, sovereignty, and national identity on both sides of the Strait. By focusing on Chinese spouses’ efforts to acquire residency and citizenship in Taiwan and their interactions with government bureaucracies and NGOs, I show how intimate relationships and emotional investments infuse the practices of Taiwanese bureaucrats as they regulate immigration and make claims to national sovereignty.

I recently published a book based on this research titled Exceptional States: Chinese Immigrants and Taiwanese Sovereignty (University of California Press, 2015). I also co-edited two volumes related to my recent research. Wives, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage and Sexuality in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Urban China (Stanford, 2014), with Deborah Davis, compares changing patterns of intimacy, marriage, and sexuality across the region. Migrant Encounters: Intimate Labor, the State, and Mobility across Asia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), with Pardis Mahdavi, charts gendered migrations and migratory labors of intimacy and care across Asia.

Courses Taught