Mats Utas

Short presentation

Mats Utas is a cultural/social anthropologist specialised primarily in conflict studies, and secondly urban studies. He is currently working on two projects, one focusing on post-gangs and the other on research brokers in conflict studies. Projects are funded by EU and Swedish Research Council.

Mats Utas is Head of the Department


  • africa
  • child soldiers
  • civil wars
  • conflict research
  • democratization
  • election violence
  • ex-combatants
  • gender and conflict
  • human security
  • liberia
  • post war socities
  • radicalisation
  • sierra leone
  • social marginalisation
  • social marginality
  • urban poverty
  • urban violence
  • west africa
  • youth and marginality


Mats Utas has primarily researched the civil wars and the post war societies in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He has conducted fieldworks in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Dubai. He has spent several years in Liberia and Sierra Leone, for instance living and researching in Monrovia and Ganta in Liberia (1997-1998) and two years in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the near aftermath of the civil war (2004-2006). Utas has predominantly focused on people on the margins of society, the young and poor men (more often boys) picking up arms, the girlfriends of the fighters, the street dwellers of poor and dysfunctional post war cities, but he has also researched affluent Somali businessmen in Nairobi, Kenya and in Dubai who is making a good living on the war in their home country. He has furthermore done research on former rebel generals in the Liberian civil war and their roles in post war society.

Utas is on the editorial board for Africa, Journal of the International Africa Institute, and African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review. He is also advisor for Zed books Africa series. Several times a year he peer review manuscripts for top journals and publishers and frequently writes endorsements on books. Utas has also been on evaluation committees for both the Swedish and the Norwegian research councils. He has given public lectures on four continents for instance at Yale, Oxford and Tokyo Universities.

Utas teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in anthropology. He also teaches special courses in visual anthropology, anthropology of the senses and public anthropology. Utas is keen to involve students in the planning and also in finding new avenues for teaching and examination. He has for instance examined students’ blog presentations and is encouraging visual and graphic forms of work for academic examination and distinction. Utas is running a popular blog and is an avid photographer. He has produced the photographic exhibition “Economy of the Street” and an ethnographic film centring the research he conducted in Sierra Leone. He has also managed a Sierra Leonean hip-hop crew and produced a record with them.


Externally funded research projects placed at the department since 2015:

Silencing and Marginalization of Facilitating Researchers from the Global South: Analyzing the role of Academic Institutions and Norms

Project funded by the Swedish Research Council 2023-2025

Mats Utas, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Swati Parashar

There has been an upsurge of interest in questions around research ethics in field-research in recent years, some of which touch upon the role and situation of what we in this project term “facilitating researchers”, otherwise referred to as “local research assistants” in the Global South. Yet, this literature is mainly descriptive, written by contracting researchers of the Global North, with limited analysis of the wider institutional structures reproducing a continued silencing and poor working conditions of facilitating researchers. Building upon insights from a recently completed project, which included facilitating researchers in three settings (DR Congo, Sierra Leone and Jharkhand, India), this project aims to contribute to further knowledge about the role that academic institutions, mainly but not only, in the Global North play in the silencing and poor working conditions of facilitating researchers. It includes an analysis of research funding bodies, ethics committees, universities and publishers in Sweden, the UK, France and India, focusing on the role of knowledge, prejudice, academic conventions and administrative rules and regulations. The project draws on insights both from the wider literature on inequalities in North-South knowledge production as well as literature addressing organization, incentives and conventions in academia more generally. It will be conducted through a combination of a correspondance experiment, in-depth interviews and text analysis.

Thugging it out: growing old in a gangland

Project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020, 2019-2024

This project is a follow up on my previous work on gang-like groups in postwar Sierra Leone. In the aftermath of the Sierra Leonean civil war groups of ex-combatants and other youths gathered in the city. Making do in the city without proper work and often with frail social ties was something close to an art form. Joint forms of informal organization was often pivotal for economic survival and protection. In many ways this organization was gang-like. 20 years have passed since the end of the civil war. The young people I followed during two years in Freetown are today middle-aged men. In this follow-up study I focus on the possibilities and problems of growing old in a gangland.

This research is part of a larger project headed by Dennis Rogers called Gangs, Gangsters, and Ganglands: Towards a Global Comparative Ethnography. The five-year project, which started in January 2019, has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 787935).

Exploring the Research Backstage: Methodological, Theoretical and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Role of Local Research Brokers in Insecure Zones

Project funded by the Swedish Research Council 2019-2021.
Mats Utas, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Swati Parashar

This research will provide novel and much needed insights into the dynamics that shape the triangular relationships between researchers, research brokers and research data in insecure zones by attending to the experiences of both brokers and researchers. Better knowledge about the role and situation of local research brokers appears particularly urgent at this point of time as many research institutions in Europe and the US are increasingly regulating and restricting the fieldwork access of their staff due to security concerns, in turn potentially leading to more outsourcing to local research assistants. Such developments form part of a general concern over the increasing risks posed to various humanitarian actors, journalists and NGOs in precarious and violent settings.

While local brokers, such as research assistants, interlocutors and a variety of fixers play a crucial role in most research contexts, they tend to be particularly important in violent theatres and in relation to highly sensitive topics (e.g. corruption, human rights abuses in authoritarian states). Not only do they have the in-depth knowledge that enables them to gather data on sensitive topics, they are also crucial in enabling the researcher to navigate safely through “dangerous fields”. From dealing with reluctant state agents to fostering sufficient trust to gain access to isolated groups, from the management of perceptions of the researcher to obtaining updated information on the security situation: local brokers are key resources, gatekeepers, and crisis managers. Yet, the role of certain brokers - such as research assistants - goes much further than merely facilitating research or gathering certain data. They often become the eyes and ears of researchers, thus exercising a large influence on the latters’ grids of intelligibility, shaping not only the way in which they make sense of certain phenomena, but also what they see in the first place. Hence, local assistants could be considered as full-blown ‘co- authors’ of research even when not writing a single word.

This multidisciplinary project is carried out in cooperation with the Department of Government at Uppsala University and Global Studies at Gothenburg University. The project is co-researched with local research brokers and is conducted in several countries in Asia and Africa.

Circular Nomadism: Youth and labor in Sierra Leone and Ghana

Funded by: Swedish Research Council 2015-2018
Researchers: Mats Utas and Emy Lindberg

This project is partly picking up where many current studies on African youth have left off: at wars end. Where demographic studies simply use abstract statistics to identify youth bulges and give woeful predictions of renewed conflicts driven by armies of disenfranchised youth, this study concretely investigates how young people make a living in one of the poorest countries in the world; Sierra Leone. Youth in Sierra Leone fought ten years of civil war. Socio-economy remains much the same after the war - poor remain poor. But does this mean that history will repeat itself, or will we see change?

At the same time, another image of the young Africa is projected; that of the new African growth, where young entrepreneurship is regarded as the key to the future. This picture is frequently painted when Ghana, the second country of this study, is presented to an international audience. Yet, even there social and economic injustices are ubiquitous, and most importantly, there are not enough jobs around.

Through in-depth studies and long-term engagement in these two countries this project answer questions such as: How are labor structures manifested, and how do they change? How do young people find work and what does this mean for the societies they are part of? In particular, what impact do labor market experiences and the mechanisms for finding employment have on longitudinal, post-colonial structures/relationships of dependence? This project aims to explore youths´ navigation of employment trajectories, and more particularly the role of young labor migration in the functioning of labor markets in Sierra Leone and Ghana. By adding a gender perspective and a special focus on the experiences of young women we will also give space to a social group that has often been ignored in contemporary studies on African youth.

The research project aims to make several critical contributions. First, it will contribute to theories on youth labor and labor migration by developing a theoretical framework suitable for exploring how labor structures manifest and change. Second, it will add important empirical material on youth and labor in Sierra Leone and Ghana, which will broaden our understanding of (African) youth in search for work in post-conflict and postcolonial structures of dependencies with large young populations. Third, methodologically, it will show the usefulness of adding a qualitative and ethnographical perspective to an area that has been dominated by a statistical focus on unemployment. Finally, this project will contribute to current policy debates and help to improve development projects focusing on issues of youth and labor.


personal hompage


Recent publications

All publications






Mats Utas