Nicholas Farrelly

UTAS Home Professor Nicholas Farrelly

Nicholas Farrelly

Head of School, Social Sciences

Social Sciences , Sandy Bay Campus

+61 3 62262317 (phone)

For Professor Nicholas Farrelly, academic life is about making a positive difference in society, whether that be in regional Tasmania or the villages of Myanmar. His approach is to accumulate knowledge from the ground up, and then use those insights to inform and influence change in governments, business and major institutions.

Professor Farrelly’s academic background is multi-disciplinary. While his three dissertations, including his Oxford University D.Phil, were supervised by anthropologists, his initial academic focus was on history and languages. His time at Oxford included coursework in politics and economics, and on returning to Australia he worked in strategic studies and international relations. “I often get tagged as a political scientist, but my research orientation is grounded in the deep study of local issues on their own terms, as befits an ethnographic style of work.”

His skills as a researcher were honed through many years living and working in Asia, and particularly Myanmar and Thailand. Since January 2020 he has been in a new environment as Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, but the experience in Asia remains invaluable and relevant.

“Appreciating the dynamism of our social systems is one of the compelling parts of what we do as Social Scientists. I have learned that our social worlds are defined by complex stories of interaction, sometimes of deprivation but also of future possibility. As a university, we want to be an active contributor to positive social change. When our skills as researchers and teachers can make a meaningful difference, there’s just nothing better than that.”

Professor Farrelly’s interest in Asia was originally sparked by a primary school teacher-librarian in suburban Canberra who inspired students when he returned from volunteering in Indonesia. In the 1980s, the Hawke and Keating Governments were awakening in Australians the realisation that Asia will be critical to our future. Professor Farrelly invested heavily in his own language skills. He speaks fluent Thai and has also studied Indonesian and Burmese.

It is then no surprise that Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia took centre stage as his academic career evolved. “I studied Myanmar from the ground up, back when it was a military dictatorship of the worst kind, and then kept returning as it changed abruptly. Over the past fifteen years. I ended up spending a lot of time in Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, and got to know it up close.”

He saw Myanmar move from an era of outrageous human rights abuses to embrace new possibilities. “While the current reforms have not all gone according to plan, the changes have pulled large numbers of people out of serious poverty, given greater space for political discussion and for the free flow of information, and for a nascent albeit still unsatisfactory democratic system to emerge.”

From his perspective, there is a role for academic knowledge in helping shape such fundamental changes. “There was a great deal of collaboration between Myanmar’s universities, other academic institutions and foreign partners as they went about building up local capabilities. Along with many colleagues I sought to play a constructive role in those exciting processes.”

He believes that Social Science knowledge needs to make itself available for strategic, political and diplomatic decision-making as a key contribution to improving people’s quality of life. This approach was outlined in a book he co-edited with colleagues from the Australian National University, aptly named Muddy Boots and Smart Suits. “Some find this approach to be too uncritical of the inequalities, structural injustices, the monumental failings, of our institutions. But without engaging the powerful, wealthy and well-connected, we don’t as academics have much chance of moving conversations in more productive directions. And that has been my approach since the beginning.

“In universities we have immense privilege and with that should come a genuine responsibility to be tackling the big, challenging, difficult questions.”

While his personal research interests remain with Asia, including its global influence and the twists and turns in Australia’s engagement with the region, Professor Farrelly is focussed on building on the solid foundation in place in the School of Social Sciences. “Our disciplines put great emphasis on the needs of the communities that we serve. We have strengths through a range of different conceptual areas and our work has impressive practical outcomes. The relationships we enjoy, whether they are with the Tasmania Police or a wide range of socially focused organisations, means that we can build partnerships of enduring value. The students that we teach go on to do so many important things here in Tasmania, across Australia and around the rest of the world.”

He says the School’s next phase will be to play to its comparative advantages, finding ways to use the great cultural, social and political uniqueness of the Tasmanian experience to drive debates in the disciplines as a way of contributing to the health, prosperity and success of Tasmanian communities. “We want to share our experiences widely, engage collaboratively with partners from near-and-far, and build relationships that are going to provide long-term opportunities for our students.”

Nicholas Farrelly is Professor and Head of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, where he leads a vibrant, multi-disciplinary academic team. He specialises in the study of political and cultural issues, with an emphasis on rapidly changing Asian societies. As an academic leader, he works closely with a wide range of Australian government, industry and community organisations to help meet their needs for high-quality social science input.


After graduating from the Australian National University in 2003 with First Class Honours and the University Medal in Asian Studies, Nicholas completed his M.Phil and D.Phil at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He has undertaken field research in East, South and Southeast Asia.

In 2006, while a graduate student, Nicholas founded New Mandala, a website which has gone on to become the preeminent public forum in Southeast Asian Studies. In 2010, after returning to Canberra from Oxford, he was appointed Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security. From 2011, Nicholas held a number of key academic positions in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, including as convenor of the PhB program and as Deputy Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He also served as Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre, an institution he helped establish in 2015.

In his final ANU role from 2017-2019, Nicholas was the Associate Dean in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific responsible for development and impact initiatives. In this role, he led the College’s engagement across government, business and civil society.

Nicholas is currently the State Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship in Tasmania. He also sits on the Westpac Scholars Trust National Selection Panel for the Future Leader and Research Fellow schemes and convenes the Leadership Development Program for Westpac’s Asian Exchange program. He works closely with a number of other Australian businesses to support the quality of their engagement with Asia.

His primary academic focus is the study of political conflict and social change in mainland Southeast Asia. He has examined these themes across the borderlands where Myanmar rubs against India, Bangladesh and China. While studying these areas, Nicholas has continued to research, write and lecture about Thailand, a country at the heart of some of his oldest academic interests.

Nicholas is a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD) and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).

Career summary


  • Doctor of Philosophy: Spatial control and symbolic politics at the intersection of China, India and Burma, University of Oxford, UK, 2010
  • Master of Philosophy: Finding space for development: Kachin politics on Burma’s fringe, University of Oxford, UK, 2007
  • Bachelor of Asian Studies: Focus on the Tai village: Thai interpretations of the Shan along the Thai-Burma Border, Australian National University, 2003

View more on Professor Nicholas Farrelly in WARP

Fields of Research

  • Government and politics of Asia and the Pacific (440807)
  • Sociological methodology and research methods (441006)
  • Public policy (440709)
  • International relations (440808)
  • International economics (380110)
  • Sociology of culture (441008)

Research Objectives

  • Expanding knowledge in human society (280123)
  • Political systems (230203)
  • International political economy (excl. international trade) (230304)
  • Trade policy (150103)
  • Government and politics (230299)
  • Other culture and society (139999)


Total publications


Journal Article

(2 outputs)
2020McCarthy G, Farrelly N, 'Peri-conflict peace: brokerage, development and illiberal ceasefires in Myanmar's borderlands', Conflict, Security & Development, 20, (1) pp. 141-163. ISSN 1467-8802 (2020) [Refereed Article]

DOI: 10.1080/14678802.2019.1705072 [eCite] [Details]

Citations: Scopus - 8Web of Science - 4


2020Simpson A, Farrelly N, 'The Rohingya crisis and questions of accountability', Australian Journal of International Affairs, 74, (5) pp. 486-494. ISSN 1035-7718 (2020) [Refereed Article]

DOI: 10.1080/10357718.2020.1813251 [eCite] [Details]


Chapter in Book

(6 outputs)
2018Farrelly N, 'Explaining Naypyitaw under the National League for Democracy', Myanmar Transformed?: People, Places and Politics, ISEAS Publishing, J Chambers, G McCarthy, N Farrelly, C Win (ed), Singapore, pp. 181-198. ISBN 978-981-4818-55-1 (2018) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1355/9789814818551-012 [eCite] [Details]


2017Farrelly N, 'Reflections on Political Cultures in Thought and Action', Muddy Boots and Smart Suits: Researching Asia-Pacific Affairs, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, N Farrelly, A King, M Wesley, H White (ed), Singapore, pp. 28-39. ISBN 9789814459792 (2017) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1355/9789814459792 [eCite] [Details]


2017Farrelly N, 'Myanmar: Religion, Identity, and Conflict in a Democratic Transition', Peacebuilding in Deeply Divided Societies: Toward Social Cohesion?, Palgrave Macmillan, FD Cox, TD Sisk (ed), United Kingdom, pp. 137-174. ISBN 978-3-319-50714-9 (2017) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-50715-6_6 [eCite] [Details]


2017Farrelly N, Wesley M, 'Internationalizing Minimal English: Perils and Parallels', Minimal English for a Global World: Improved Communication Using Fewer Words, Palgrave Macmillan, C Goddard (ed), United Kingdom, pp. 95-112. ISBN 978-3-319-62511-9 (2017) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-62512-6 [eCite] [Details]


2017Farrelly N, Win C, 'Disciplining democracy: Explaining the rhythms of Myanmar's first Hluttaw, 2011-2016', Public Policy in the 'Asian Century': Concepts, Cases and Futures, Palgrave Macmillan, S Bice, A Poole, H Sullivan (ed), London, pp. 87-117. ISBN 978-1-137-60251-0 (2017) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-60252-7_5 [eCite] [Details]


2017King A, Farrelly N, 'Muddy Boots and Smart Suits: Practical Considerations for Research in the Twenty-first Century', Muddy Boots and Smart Suits: Researching Asia-Pacific Affairs, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, N Farrelly, A King, M Wesley, H White (ed), Singapore, pp. 185-198. ISBN 9789814459792 (2017) [Research Book Chapter]

DOI: 10.1355/9789814459792 [eCite] [Details]


Grants & Funding

Funding Summary

Number of grants


Total funding



University of Tasmania $100k 151018 (2020)$100,000
Department of State Growth (Tas) ($100,000)
Contract Research
Administered By
University of Tasmania
Research Team
Farrelly NS

Research Supervision




PhDThe Effects of US Ballistic Missile Defence on Nuclear Deterrence and Regional Security: A comparative case study analysis of Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrence, and the effects of BMD2020
PhDComing Out Later in Life and Help-seeking: Exploring the experiences of older lesbian and bisexual women2020