Rahul Oka

Associate Research Professor, Anthropology and Keough School of Global Affairs


B.A., Lawrence University, 2000
M.A., University of Illinois Chicago and Field Museum, 2001
Ph.D., University of Illinois Chicago and Field Museum, 2008

Prof. Oka is an economic anthropologist and his research interests include the anthropology of urbanism, social network analysis, the development of complex socio-economic systems, applications of agent-based simulation modeling techniques to anthropology and archaeometry/materials analysis.  He focuses on the impact of trade, commerce, and traders on social, political, and cultural infrastructures. These impacts are explored through 1) Archaeological and historical analysis of trade in the Indian Ocean, ca. 1000 BCE – 1800 CE, history, and 2) Ethnographic and network analysis of trade and consumption in unstable political environments such as conflict zones and refugee camps and displaced peoples’ settlements.    

Previous and Ongoing Research Projects:

Urban decline in the Indian Ocean:

  • Archaeological excavations in port cities in India (Chaul) and Kenya (Mtwapa).  
  • Archaeometric research on trade ceramics (Imported Glazed Wares, Porcelains, and Celadon/Stoneware) using LA-ICP-MS (Laser-Ablation-Inductively Coupled Mass Spectrometry) and XRD (X-Ray Diffraction) to determine provenience, authenticity, and distribution.
  • Ethnohistoric and Ethnographic research on trading communities in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. 

Current Research Projects:

  1. Social Economies of Refugee Camps and Host Communities. Based in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana County, Northern Kenya, this project examines the complexities of refugee lives under the conditions of encampment and their interactions with their host communities.  The interactions range from friendly to violent and affect the daily lives of both groups as much as the hardship of living with scare resources. The project collects data on social relationships and networks within and between the groups, the commercial economy in goods and real estate, and on the health outcomes of living lives as refugees and hosts in marginalized landscapes and harsh conditions. The study on health outcomes of refugee-host life entails collection of data on energy status and psychosocial/physiological stress, and is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Lee Gettler and graduate students Rieti Gengo, and Jelena Rankovic. This research has previously been funded by ISLA, the Seng Foundation, and the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and more recently by the World Bank and UNHCR-Kenya.   
  2. Trader Network Dynamics, Cartel Formation, and Crony Capitalism. In collaboration with Dr. Nitesh Chawla and the Inter-Disciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA), this project investigates the causes, consequences, and complexities of trader behaviors and the effects of external forces (political stability, trade friendliness, and business opportunity) on trader network transformations in India, Kenya, and South Sudan. Using ethnography, oral history, and Social Network Analysis, they are modeling the effects of political connectivity and social networks on human behavior in economic exchange relationships that can be used to understand how different types of trader networks affect local and regional economies.  Data on traders in Pune (India), Mombasa and Nairobi (Kenya), and Juba (South Sudan are collected using a) qualitative ethnography and oral history of individual traders and their relationships, and b) quantitative network analyses of these networks over 20 years.  The aim is to develop descriptive, explanatory, predictive tools for the emergence and resilience of cartel formation and crony capitalism at various scales of economic activity.  This research project is funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS#1260638). 

Developing and New Projects

  1. Modeling Development and Relief Landscapes:
    a.     Relief Programs and their Efficacy: How do refugees and other groups that receive aid in form of vouchers (for food) use these instruments of relief? One major concern for organizations that distribute such vouchers is the issue of diversion, when some or all of the value of a voucher is diverted by the user for unsanctioned purposes. With funding from the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, US State Department, and in partnership with the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD), the team wil examine and model voucher diversion among refugee communities in Kenya, Egypt, and Bangladesh. This research will take place between September 2016 and July 2017.
    b.     Understanding Local Dynamics for Development: How do local dynamics affect development? Can connecting local actors to their own resources result in better development outcomes? The team consisting of ND researchers and AVSI-USA are part of the Local Systems Practice consortium led by LINC to "assist USAID missions and local actors in using systems based approaches to address complex development challenges." This project will take place between January 2017 and January 2020 and is funded by localworks-USAID.
  2.  Modeling Markets, Inequality, and Conflict:  Cross-cultural and historical study of the emergence of institutions such as armies/war groups, markets, and hierarchy in human societies.

Curriculum Vitae


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