Deborah James is Professor of Anthropology at LSE.
Tell us about your background and how you arrived at LSE?
I was born in South Africa, did my PhD at Wits University in Johannesburg, and taught in the Anthropology Department there for 15 years before coming to LSE.
At a time when universities have become increasingly managerial, LSE has remained remarkably democratic. It has given me and my fellow anthropologists a really supportive – and gender-aware - space in which to pursue our research careers.
Tell us about your career?
The major part of my research, cast in the crucible of South Africa’s infamous system of apartheid, has documented, first, the lives of the country’s black migrant population as they weathered the storms of that regime, and, second, the effects on them of attempts to eradicate forms of injustice leftover following its demise. I am particularly interested in the varied and mutually constitutive relationships between people (who strive to better their situation) and the state (that strives to regulate their efforts) in the setting of South Africa’s transition, and in the complex and often contradictory understandings that emerge in the course of their interplay.
These processes have seen the re-emergence of ‘the broker’: a phenomenon noted by earlier anthropologists in modernising societies. I wrote an article showing how these anomalous figures blend together the egalitarianism and rights-based character of post-liberation society with the hierarchy of re-emerging traditional authority. Drawing on notions of consensus they embody ‘the people’, drawing on ideas of free choice and enterprise they subscribe to ‘the market’, and they also embody the bureaucratic procedures of ‘the state’.
More recently, I have also been involved in a group project which investigates ‘ethnographies of advice’ in settings of austerity in the EU and UK. It provides new insights into the lived realities of austerity, showing how advisers, and the organisations they work for, do not passively accept the government’s funding cuts: instead they piece together new ‘patchworks’ of funds; devise new forms of face-to-face advice; invest local authority funds to yield returns from centrally-funded sources; and help people to pay their council tax and rent and to honour their tax commitments while challenging debts incurred from the incorrect award and reclaim of benefits. Philanthropic counsel, emergency assistance, charitable intervention, social activism and do-good-ish interference emerge in the cracks between market, society and declining welfare states.
Our research shows how, for advisers, austerity is more a matter of seeking resource flows, inventing interventions, and creating new spaces where justice may be sought and found, than of passively accepting funding cuts.
What are you most proud of?
Following on from my 2007 book Gaining Ground? which explored the complexities of the post-apartheid government’s land reform programme, my book Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa (Stanford University Press, 2015), is what I’m best-known for to date.
It explores the dynamics of South Africa’s national project of financial inclusion which aimed to extend credit to black South Africans as part of economic enfranchisement. Revealing how middle- and working-class South Africans’ access to credit is bound up with identity, status, and aspirations of upward mobility, it draws out the paradoxical nature of economic relations of debt. These relations sustain people, but they can also produce new forms of disenfranchisement in place of older ones. The book captures the lived experience of debt for those many millions who attempt to improve their positions (or merely sustain existing livelihoods) in emerging economies.
Another achievement that has given me great satisfaction is the experience of working collaboratively with a team of younger scholars, alongside providing funding for and mentoring them. In the case of the ESRC project on advice, my fellow team members planned the funding application and then the final workshop, ‘Precarious States: advice, governance and care in settings of austerity’, held at the end of May. The workshop proved to be a great success, due largely to the team’s having shared the design and responsibility between themselves.
Ana Gutierrez-Garza said:
I have had the fortune and pleasure to learn, grow and work next to an academic who is not only intellectually challenging and encouraging, but is ethical, caring and just. Professor Deborah James is a woman committed to teaching, to learning and sharing anthropology with students and colleagues alike. Her support and solidarity with the people she works with makes academic work a rewarding experience. She inspires me to be a better academic, but most importantly a better person.
Department of Anthropology