Dr Seb Rumsby

Dr Seb Rumsby

Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology
Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

Contact details

School of Social Policy
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Seb Rumsby is an interdisciplinary scholar with a wide range of interests including everyday politics, labour exploitation, undocumented migration, ethno-religious politics, grassroots development and non-national histories. Seb unites these diverse themes with an empirical focus on Southeast Asian worlds and people. Seb undertook his PhD at University of Warwick’s department of Politics and International Studies and has lectured on Southeast Asian Politics at Queen Mary University of London before starting at University of Birmingham. He has recently published his first monograph, Development in Spirit: Religious Transformation and Everyday Politics in Vietnam’s Highlands, with University of Wisconsin press. He has also published articles in Journal of Peasant Studies, Social Anthropology, Journal of Rural Studies, Asian Studies Review and Qualitative Research.


Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

  • HEA Fellowship for teaching excellence 2023
  • PhD in Politics and International Studies 2020
  • MA in South East Asian Studies 2014
  • BA in Vietnamese and Development Studies 2010


Seb Rumsby undertaken rigorous interdisciplinary research combining political science, social anthropology, and human geography over the past eight years. He received an AHRC research preparation scholarship for my MA at SOAS, enabling me to conduct original research on millenarian movements in South East Asia. His ESRC-funded PhD at University of Warwick exploring the intersections between religious conversion, market expansion and state-led development in upland Vietnam through extensive interviews, focus groups and participant observation with over 200 research participants. 

Since completing his thesis, he secured further ESRC funding to embark on an ‘Impact Innovation Fellowship’ at Warwick, during which Seb engaged with non-academic partners in South East Asia to co-create a grassroots development initiative to empower marginalised farmers, based on his PhD research insights. After this, he was awarded an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellowship to conduct a pilot study about recent Vietnamese migration to the UK. From 2022-23 Seb was based at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Politics and International Relations, where he convened the Politics of Southeast Asia module as well as teaching on Introduction to IR and Colonialism, Capitalism and Development.

Postgraduate supervision

  • South East Asian Politics/Sociology/Anthropology
  • Religion and International Development
  • Ethno-religious politics
  • Transnational labour migration


Research interests

Seb primarily interested in how ‘normal people’ experience, are affected by, and engage with, the inequalities and power relations of the global capitalist system. This may be termed ‘everyday political economy’, which he applies to the realms of religious transformation and rural development in my PhD. However, this concept has far wider-reaching applications, as he plans to demonstrate during his Leverhulme fellowship at Birmingham. His empirical expertise is focused on Southeast Asia in general, and Vietnamese speakers in particular. 

Current project: “The everyday politics of undocumented Vietnamese migrant lives in the UK”

On 23rd October 2019, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated lorry trailer in Essex, temporarily bringing the plight of undocumented Vietnamese immigration to the news headlines. While this tragic episode has been largely forgotten amidst the tumultuous events of 2020- 21, the migration networks and journeys have not disappeared. Estimates of the number of irregular Vietnamese immigrants in the UK vary massively from 20,000-70,000, most of whom end up working for Vietnamese employers in nail salons, restaurants or illegal cannabis farms. Yet we still know very little about this dynamic and expanding community, which has remained ‘under the radar’ and largely isolated from the more established UK Vietnamese diaspora (descendants of the ‘boat people’). 

Informed by my previous research, this fellowship will allow me to undertake the first ethnographic study with undocumented Vietnamese migrants in the UK. It will explore how migrants navigate and respond to home office threats and state bureaucracy, informal labour and exploitation, changing gender divisions of labour and conflicts within the Vietnamese community. The aim of this research is to gain an in-depth understanding of the aspirations and lived experiences of precarious Vietnamese migrants, which breaks new empirical ground within a politically sensitive context as well as providing an illuminating case study with which to contribute to theoretical discussions of migration and exploitation. 

Other activities

In 2018 Seb co-founded Hmongdom, a grassroots rural development organisation utilising excellent visual material to empower, encourage and equip impoverished farmers from marginalised rural areas of South East Asia to diversify their livelihoods and improve their income. 

In addition to his work in academia, Seb has professional experience working in the third sector (international development, homeless charities) and am fluent in Vietnamese language, having previously worked as a translator, interpreter and language tutor.


Recent publications


Rumsby, S 2023, Development in Spirit: Religious Transformation and Everyday Politics in Vietnam’s Highlands. New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin Press. <https://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/6105.htm>


Rumsby, S 2024, '‘Freedom within the framework’? The everyday politics of religion, state repression and migration in Vietnam’s borderlands and beyond', Religion, State and Society. https://doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2024.2353950

Rumsby, S & Gorman, T 2023, 'Alternative development trajectories? A quantitative analysis of religion as a vector of mobility and education among the Hmong in upland Vietnam', Journal of Rural Studies, vol. 101, 103057. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2023.103057

Rumsby, S & Eggert, JP 2023, 'Religious positionalities and political science research in ‘the field’ and beyond: Insights from Vietnam, Lebanon and the UK', Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/14687941231165884

Rumsby, S 2022, 'Historical Continuities and Changes in the Ethnic Politics of Hmong-Miao Millenarianism', Asian Studies Review, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 234-253. https://doi.org/10.1080/10357823.2021.1948969

Rumsby, S 2021, 'Hmong Christian elites as political and development brokers: competition, cooperation and mimesis in Vietnam’s highlands', Social Anthropology, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 701-717. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-8676.13090

Rumsby, S 2019, 'Rumours, sects and rallies: the ethnic politics of recent Hmong Millenarian movements in Vietnam’s highlands', Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 46, no. 7, pp. 1347-1367. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2018.1525362

Rumsby, S 2015, 'Methods of manipulation: Propaganda, ethnicity and representation in vietnamese water puppetry', Asian Affairs, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 304-308. https://doi.org/10.1080/03068374.2015.1037169

Review article

Rumsby, S 2021, 'Hmong Christianisation, the will to improve and the question of neoliberalism in Vietnam’s highlands', European Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 57-82. https://doi.org/10.1163/15700615-20211005

View all publications in research portal


Migration, Vietnam, Southeast Asia, ethno-religious politics, international development

Media experience