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Maan Barua, DPhil

University Lecturer in Human Geography

Maan is an environmental and urban geographer whose research focuses on the economies, ontologies and politics of the living and material world. It fosters new conversations between political economy, posthumanism and postcolonial thought, developed through four arenas of inquiry: urban ecologies, urban surrounds, biocapital and postcolonial environments.

Maan leads a major ERC Horizon 2020 Starting Grant (2018-2024; £1.23 million) on Urban Ecologies, involving multiple partners and a research team across two continents. This work has culminated in his recent monograph Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology, published by the University of Minnesota Press (2023). His second book Plantation Worlds, interrogating planetary transformations through critical engagements with colonialism and race, will be published by Duke University Press (August 2024). His work is in dialogue with cognate disciplines, especially anthropology.

Maan’s research has been enabled by numerous research grants (including from The British Academy, Wellcome Trust, Leverhulme Trust) and international collaborations (SciencePo, Paris; Freie University, Berlin). He has a close association with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, where he has been a long-term adjunct faculty and through which he develops research capacity in India. He has a strong commitment toward environmental policy, contributing to the latter as a member of the IUCN/SSC’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

Prior to joining Cambridge, Maan was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford, where he also read for a DPhil and an MSc. In 2022, Maan was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize for his contributions to urban and environmental geography.

At present, Maan’s focus is on the metabolism of cities. He is working on a short book on urban wetlands and the politics of carcerality (provisionally titled “An Amphibious Urbanism“), drawing upon recent ethnographic work in Guwahati, northeast India.


Four key areas of Maan’s research are premised upon developing new understandings of the economies, ontologies and politics of the living and material world:

I: Urban Ecologies

How might we reformulate what is a city if we start with the premise that their inhabitants are not solely humans? This research theme, developed through an ERC Horizon 2020 Starting Grant (‘Urban Ecologies‘; 2018-2024), aims to rethink urban theory and develop new grammars and methods for conceptualizing urbanicity.

Empirical research, currently underway in London (UK), New Delhi and Guwahati (India), develops novel ethnographic and ethological methods to specify how the urban might be reconceptualized as an ecological formation. Going beyond “multispecies” studies, this work aims to formulate a mode of inquiry that is attentive to the assemblages and meshworks within which urban lives unfold. This research has culminated in Maan’s recent monograph, Lively Cities: Reconfiguring Urban Ecology, published by University of Minnesota Press (2023).

The Urban Ecologies team, comprising of Postdoctoral Researchers and PhD scholars, examines the material and ecological lives of other-than-humans through: the cultivated (urban livestock, poultry), the feral (street dogs, parakeets), and the wild (urban macaques and foxes). As ecologies of comparison, tracked in ordinary and spectacular cities, in those of the Global North and South, they provide insights for developing a number of conceptual themes:


In what ways does infrastructure furnish conditions for urban life? And how do infrastructures modulate other-than-human lifeworlds? The Urban Ecologies project attends to the relations between infrastructure and the politics of city-making through a number of different avenues, from infrastructural design, its repurposing in informal settlements to human-animal collaborations in the urban margins.


This theme critically examines metabolism at a number of scales, from material flows to other-than-human bodies.


In what ways does the regulation of other-than-human life have bearings upon urban governance? This strand of research re-envisions urban governance to be a hybrid of biopolitical and vernacular practices, that are not always rooted in models of biopolitics associated with European modernity. Furthermore, this work critically interrogates “Western” formulations of urban nature to show how natures in metropoles such as London can be postcolonial.

II: Urban Surrounds

A further aspect entails looking at urban life in the margins and its relations to the surrounds. This work has a more overt humanistic focus. It looks at the ways in which material and atmospheric environments, and the politics of everyday dwelling, forge what it means to be human in urban worlds that are increasingly about inhabitation amidst the eviscerating effects of capitalism and amidst colonial ruins. A particular focus here is Maan’s recent work on urban wetlands, which looks at the vernacular as a site of urban environmentalism, the aesthetic politics of wetland management, and conditions of carcerality that fix metropolitan futures. The wider ambit of this work is to develop the idea of “the amphibious” in order to engage with the ambiguity of city-making.

III: Biocapital

This theme pertains to developing a lively political economy, re-envisioning the economic to be a set of ecological practices. Engaging historical-material traditions in political economy/ecology and subjecting some of its concepts to postcolonial and posthumanist critique, it explores how vital processes and nonhuman agency has bearings upon capitalist accumulation. Lively political economies are developed through concepts of ecological, affective and metabolic labour to highlight the role of animal bodies in configuring productivity and social reproduction. It then turns to rethinking commodity geographies and circuits of capital, especially when other-than-human potentials configuring their ambit are taken into account. This work develops concepts of lively capital, nonhuman labour and encounter value as alternatives to overtly economistic and cultural categories previously deployed in the production of nature thesis.

IV: Plantations and Postcolonial Environments

Another major strand of Maan’s work is to develop critical perspectives on postcolonial environments and decolonial alternatives to grand narratives of planetary change, notably those associated with the Anthropocene. For over 15 years, Maan has conducted sustained ethnographic work with a tea plantation labour community in Assam, northeast India. This has culminated in a forthcoming monograph Plantation Worlds (in production for Spring 2024).  Assam, which remained a colonial hinterland even after Indian Independence, not only prompts critical engagements with environmental thought associated with the Anthropocene, it also provides openings for developing alternatives to more established forms of South Asian theory. Maan’s interventions in these debates are in close dialogue with other disciplines, including anthropology. As part of his Philip Leverhulme Prize, Maan will be working with a plantation labour community to understand lives after the closure of mines in Assam.

Two broad sets of thematics underpin this research. The first pertains to the role of colonialism and race in the upheaval of landscapes, including the rise of postcolonial fauna, and repercussions for plantation life. The second set of themes pertain to the politics of biodiversity conservation, developing social science insights into wildlife corridors, charismatics and conflicts between people and wildlife. Maan works closely with ecologists and conservation NGOs in order to develop more just forms of conservation. He is a member of the IUCN/SSC’s Asian Elephant Specialist group, and contributes to their social science expertise.


Maan’s research has been enabled by a number of grants from major funding bodies (£2.06 million so far). Selected grants include:

  • 2018 – 2024: Principal Investigator, European Research Council (ERC) Horizon 2020 Framework Programme Starting Grant for research project entitled ‘Urban Ecologies: governing nonhuman life in global cities’ (uEcologies). €1,441,361.
  • 2021 – 2022. Co-Investigator. British Academy Knowledge Frontiers Seed Fund for project entitled ‘Plantationocene Futures‘ (with R Ibanez Martin & M Achtnich). £4,000.
  • 2017 – 2018: Principal Investigator, Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Humanities and Social Sciences for research project entitled ‘Urban animals, human livelihoods and health in the global south: a trans-species approach’. £49,845.
  • 2015 – 2017: Principal Investigator, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship for research project entitled ‘Political animals: rethinking Indian modernity’. £ 299,232.
  • 2014 – 2016: Principal Investigator, University of Oxford John Fell Fund for research project exploring the geographies of Lively Capital. £ 6,700.
  • 2008 – 2011: Principal Investigator, Harold Hygham Wingate Foundation grant for research project on The Political Ecology of Human-elephant Interactions in India. £ 15,000.

Prospective students

Maan welcomes enquiries from prospective PhD students and MPhil in Geography and MPhil in Anthropocene students, with a strong social science background, on these themes: urban ecologies, metabolism, biocapital and postcolonial environments. Please look at his current research interests and then get in touch with your ideas about research topics that he might be able to supervise. A short proposal would be helpful for having a conversation.


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Public engagement


  • Geography Tripos Part II: Political Geographies of Postcolonialism
  • Geography Tripos Part II: Environmental Knowledges and the Politics of Expertise
  • Geography Tripos Part II: Political Ecology of the Global South

External activities

  • Adjunct Faculty, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, India (2014-Present)
  • Member, IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group (2017-Present)