Sophia Balakian

Sophia Balakian

Sophia Balakian

Assistant Professor

Migration and borders, humanitarianism, securitization, kinship and family, East Africa, the Horn of Africa, North America

Sophia Balakian is a sociocultural anthropologist and a scholar of forced migration. 

Her book, Unsettled Families: Refugees, Humanitarianism & the Politics of Kinship,” forthcoming with Stanford University Press, examines the post-9/11 securitization of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and the ways in which people from Somalia and DR Congo navigate bureaucratic systems and security technologies that structure humanitarian programs today. The book centers the role of kinship and family in refugee resettlement programs, and how policy definitions intersect with the ways in which people rebuild families and communities in the aftermath of displacement. The book is based on long-term ethnographic research between Nairobi, Kenya and Columbus, Ohio.

Balakian’s new research project investigates the ways in which people originally from east Africa navigate U.S. policies and practices around caregiving, especially childcare. How do people re-imagine what constitutes good care in new social and economic environments? 

Balakian's research has been funded by the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, The Social Science Research Council, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, among other institutions. From 2019-2020, and 2022-2023, she was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. She has published in the journals Ethnic and Racial Studies, Anthropologica, and African Studies Review, and in the edited volume, Global Perspectives on the United States.

Selected Publications

Balakian, S. 2023 "Of Aunts & Mothers: Refugee Resettlement, the Nuclear Family, and Caring for 'Other' Children in Kenya." Ethnic & Racial Studies 46(2):213-232. 

Balakian, S. 2020 “Navigating Patchwork Governance: Somalis in Kenya, National Security, and Refugee Resettlement.” African Studies Review 63(1):43-64.

Balakian, S. and V. Dominguez. 2019 “The Promise and The Lost City of Z: Diasporas, Cinematic Imperialism, and Commercial Films.” Anthropologica 61(1):150-61.

Balakian, S. 2016 “‘Money Is Your Government’: Refugees, Mobility, and Unstable Documents in Kenya’s Operation Usalama Watch.” African Studies Review 59(2):87-111. 

Grants and Fellowships

2022-23 Academy Scholar

Harvard Academy for International & Area Studies

2019-20 Academy Scholar

Harvard Academy for International & Area Studies

2016 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship,

        American Council of Learned Societies

2016  Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (declined),

        Woodrow Wilson Foundation

2013 Dissertation Fieldwork Grant,

        The Wenner-Gren Foundation                       

2013  International Dissertation Research Fellowship,

         Social Science Research Council


PhD, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Anthropology

BA, Cornell University, Anthropology, summa cum laude

In the Media

2020 “Refugee Families in the Era of Global Securitization.” Interview with Chris Gratien. Ottoman History Podcast. July 29.

2017 “What Does Refugee Vetting Look Like on the Ground?” Expert Viewpoints. March 21.

2016 “Risk, Refugees, and the Politics of Blame: the U.S. After the Paris Attacks.” Unstratified. January 25.