Welcome new faculty member, Dr. Darren Byler
The School for International Studies is pleased to welcome Dr. Darren Byler as our newest Assistant Professor! Byler is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research is centered around the dispossession of stateless populations in China, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. He is a leading expert on the crisis facing the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people in Northwest China and a powerful advocate for their ongoing struggle against oppression from the Chinese government.
Byler comes to SFU with nearly 20 years of experience researching and learning about the Uyghur people. His interest sparked while he was an undergraduate at Kent State University studying history and visual journalism. Training to be a photojournalist, Byler was drawn to the vibrant street life of Xinjiang and fascinated by the way the Uyghurs translated their traditional cultural practices, that they called “yerlik,” or “of the land,” into the contemporary world.
“These practices ranged from making tools and building housing, to baking and herbal medicine treatments. I was really interested in how this knowledge was passed on from generation to generation and how it helped Uyghurs to protect their society.”
Byler was drawn to explore Uyghur culture deeper and longer-term than the typically rapid cycles of the journalism industry would allow; and so, he turned to the field of anthropology—sociocultural anthropology in particular, which employs ethnography, a research method involving a period of long-term field work where the researcher learns the local language, conducts interviews and builds real relationships within the community. According to Byler, this work went beyond analyzing a population’s cultural practices, and instead involved a deeper kind of learning from the Uyghur people about ways of addressing issues of global concern.
“For me, social science scholarship is not only about analyzing phenomena in the world, it is also about uplifting the voices of marginalized people, understanding that they are carriers of knowledge. It also means centering research on difficult problems like the unfinished project of decolonization and the harmful effects of social inequality.”
When Byler first started studying the Uyghurs, the discrimination they faced was much less intense. This started to change as their homelands became the site of an internal settler colony, and they started to migrate to Ürümchi, the Han Chinese majority capital of the region in search of work. When Byler eventually started his doctoral research he studied this displacement, and as time progressed his focus shifted to how China has used digital surveillance technologies like data harvesting and facial recognition to blacklist and detain as many as a million Uyghurs.
“I studied how the migrants tried to protect each other from police, how they tried to integrate with the settler economy, and how they used digital technology to find jobs and become members of the global Muslim world. In the end, though, many migrants I met were detained as the government built a system of digital surveillance, or dataveillance, and internment camps as part of what they called a war on terror.”
“State officials said the system would teach Uyghurs to speak Chinese and to follow new counter-terrorism laws,” Byler continues. “I found though that the system criminalized normal Islamic practice, and the camps it turned out were actually more like very-overcrowded and lawless prisons. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are still missing as a result of this system.”
Byler’s research has culminated in two new books which will be published within several months of each other near the end of 2021. In the first, a shorter book titled In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony, Byler tells personal stories from real people connected to Xinjiang to illustrate how new technological surveillance tools are being adapted to create forms of unfreedom for vulnerable people around the world. The second, a more academic book called Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City looks at how media infrastructures, the state’s enforcement of “Chinese” cultural values, and the influx of Han Chinese settlers contribute to Uyghur dispossession and their expulsion from the regional capital of Ürümchi.
Byler is currently collaborating with Guldana Salimjan, a researcher in SFU’s department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and other scholars on the Xinjiang Documentation Project. This multi-disciplinary research project which, much like his book, aims to give a platform to share the lived experiences of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of Northwestern China.
“We teach student researchers how to archive key historical documents, create teaching tools that explain how and why the system was built, and also promote solidarity with those who are affected by it and similar systems.”
Byler says he’s excited to be teaching at SFU and likes the way that that the school engages with the broader community and doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.
“The School for International Studies is an exceptionally good place to study issues confronting peoples around the world.”
In Spring 2022 semester, Byler will be teaching IS 319, a course on surveillance capitalism in global contexts and IS 419, in which students will explore China’s global presence as a field of power.