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Dr Hugh Williamson

Research Fellow

Byrne House SF6

Social anthropologist of digital agriculture and plant and animal biology. Ethnographic research on rural transformation in Romania and Eastern Europe.

I am currently Research Fellow in responsible innovation for digital agriculture as part of DIGIT Lab (Business School, University of Exeter). In this role, I am conducting a study of the potential uses and governance of phenomics, the use of digital sensing and imaging technologies for biological analysis, in livestock breeding in the UK. From 2019 to October 2022 I was Research Fellow on the Alan Turing Institute-funded project "From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage"

Research interests:

  • Plant, agricultural and ecological sciences
  • Plant and animal breeding and biotechnology
  • Quantitative genetics and its interaction with new data technologies
  • Agroecological conservation, rural development and participatory methodologies
  • Governance of science and common resources in a transnational context
  • Romania and post-socialist Europe 

Open access volume Towards Responsible Plant Data Linkage: Data Challenges for Agricultural Research and Development, co-edited with Sabina Leonelli, out now with Springer.



Research group links

Research interests

I am an anthropologist of digital agriculture and plant biology. I have also conducted ethnographic research on rural politics in Romania, and have a broader interest in rural transformations in post-socialist Eastern Europe and Asia.


My work draws on science and technology studies (STS) and philosophy of science to understand the social shaping of science and technologies, their societal implications, and questions of best practice and responsible practice. In recent years I have conducted qualitative research on how data circulates and is governed in plant biology and agricultural science, and its implications for agricultural development.


I am especially interested in the intersection of older traditions of quantitative genetics with new techniques for data collection and analysis in plant and animal breeding, and how these seemingly mundane technologies are contributing to significant shifts in the scale, pace and organisation of breeding. I am also interested in new methods of data-driven environmental characterisation and classification in the plant sciences, their implications for adapting agriculture to climate change, and their intersection with agroecology and sustainable agriculture movements. In addition, I have conducted work on the challenges and opportunities facing the implementation of AI and machine learning in plant biology and agriculture.


Previously, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork in an agroecological conservation zone in Transylvania, Romania, looking at dynamics of rural development and cultural politics. This research focused especially on how younger Romanians were navigating social, technical and economic changes in the countryside relative to Romania’s post-socialist transition and entry into the European Union. I retain a significant interest in rural transformation in the region, including in neighbouring former Soviet states such as Moldova and Ukraine relative to ongoing political events.


I hold a BA in Anthropology from Durham University (2013), an interdisciplinary course which encompassed anthropology's social, medical and biological subfields. I subsequently studied at the University of Cambridge, where I received an MRes (2014) and PhD (2018) in Social Anthropology. At Exeter, I am Research Fellow on the Alan Turing Institute-funded project ‘From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage’ (2019-2022). I am based at Egenis, the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences.

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