Zachary Sheldon

  • Visiting Assistant Professor

I am a cultural and linguistic anthropologist studying the intersection of migration, conflict, and social reproduction. I am joining Pitt having completed a two-year Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship at the University of Chicago in 2022.  Over the past decade, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork with Iraqi refugees in Jordan and North America. My scholarship analyzes displaced peoples' ordinary practices and moral tropes to illuminate emergent forms of care and exploitation in the wake of war. My current book project draws on Marxist, feminist, and Islamic epistemological frameworks to highlight the techniques and insights that Iraqi migrants use to establish refuge within Jordan’s illicit wartime economy. Studying migrant labor in Jordan also led me to consult for international humanitarian organizations. More recently, many nights spent playing cards and dominos in Iraqi teahouses have pointed me towards a second research project on games and play. I am also passionate about pedagogy and have published on my experiences teaching world systems and Marxist theory.


Degrees and Education

PhD, University of Chicago, 2020

Research Description

In general, my research examines the relationship between subjective insights and complex systems, asking how ordinary people illuminate and influence the obscure structures that govern their lives. My 2021 article in The Anthropology of Work Review showed how Iraqis' epistemological standpoints on bureaucratic timelines can provide a more inclusive and effective critique of humanitarian logics, and my current book project elaborates this approach to address Jordan's illicit economy of refuge. This project recasts the study of displacement from its margins through a critical perspective on the multiple social totalities in which refugee life is suspended. Today, about 80% of global refugees live outside of camps and beyond the reach of humanitarian intervention. Yet most anthropologists of displacement continue to operate within the ambit of humanitarian professionals. Meanwhile, Iraqis in Jordan must learn to navigate a shadow economy of undocumented labor and illicit finance if they hope to sustain their shared form of life. How might the ordinary practices and everyday talk of displaced Iraqis illuminate the otherwise unseen cultural, political, and economic forces that shape refugee life in the present? To find out, I conducted two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the kitchens, construction sites, and factories where displaced people find work in Jordan. There, I collected data on the technical know-how and persuasive tropes that Iraqis use to avoid detection, navigate conflict, and transverse borders. Drawing on Marxist-feminist theories of social reproduction and an Islamic ontology of emanation, I find that these ordinary practices illuminate refuge as an encompassing matrix from which individual and collective agency can emerge in the absence of legal rights or recognition. However, these zones of refuge are themselves encompassed within the exploitative structure of the wartime economy. Thus, contemporary refuge renders the ethical imperative of caring for one’s kin existentially dependent upon practices of deception that these same refugees recognized as morally corrupting. Yet from within the heart of this contradiction, Iraqis’ own moral claims to economic rights suggest ways to this troubling trend.

My recent experimental publication on war games in Roadsides presages a second project that will trace the cultural diffusion of military simulations from American imperial strategists to Iraqi youth video gamers. During the 2019 uprisings in Iraq, that country’s parliament banned popular online games for their purported negative influence on youth. Yet decades before gaming become an unavoidable feature of post-invasion Iraqi life, games were the characteristic tool of American military strategists and recruiters. My next project therefore traces the cultural diffusion of specific game forms, namely the mass multiplayer online battle game (like Player Unknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite) from their U.S. imperial genealogies to their controversial prominence among Iraqi youth. In preparation for this project, I am currently developing an original theoretical approach through a working paper about jaakaaroo, a popular boardgame in the Middle East, to analyze games as semiotic forms which use a syntactical logic of combination to generate experiential qualia of wholeness and presence.



Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Language, Culture, and Society
Games: Theory, Practice, and Experience


Recent Publications

Peer Reviewed:

2022 “How to Play Logistics Command: An Archaeology of the Ludic Imagination.” In Roadsides 7:15-20, co-authored with Jack Mullee. []

2021 “Managing the Humanitarian Workplace: Capitalist Social Time and Iraqi Refugees in the United States.” In The Anthropology of Work Review 42(1):35-46 []

2017 “Refuge, Market, and Garden: Tropes of Jordanian Stability among Amman’s Iraqi Residents” in POMEPS Studies 25:66-69 []

General Audience:

2022 “Teaching Time and Labor, from the Factory Act to Prop 22.” Exertions: The Web Publication of the Society for the Anthropology of Work (

2018 “Nationality, Class, and Iraqi Migrants in Jordan.” The Blog of the American Center of Oriental Research (

2017 “The World in the City and the City in the World: Reading the Janet Abu-Lughod Library.” Jadaliyya (