I am a specialist in the anthropology of South and Southern Africa, where much of my fieldwork has been conducted in Mpumalanga and Northern Provinces and their urban hinterland, the Witwatersrand. My work is broadly political and economic in focus.
My new book Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa (Stanford University Press, 2014) explores the dynamics surrounding South Africa's national project of financial inclusion—dubbed "banking the unbanked"—which aimed to extend credit to black South Africans as a critical aspect of abolishing apartheid’s legacy. It shows the varied ways in which access to credit by people in these newly-included sectors of society is intimately bound up with identity and status-making, and draws out the precarious nature of both the aspirations of upward mobility and the economic relations of debt which sustain the newly indebted, revealing the shadowy side of indebtedness and its potential both to produce new forms of oppression and disenfranchisement in place of older ones, while also helping realize projects of upliftment. It was one of the publications emerging from an ESRC-funded project entitled "Investing, engaging in enterprise, gambling and getting into debt: popular economies and citizen expectations in South Africa". Some of the other results were published in a special issue of Africa in 2012. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?iid=8477176
Others, including a dissemination workshop held in Johannesburg, can be found on the website
In 2007-8 I worked with Evan Killick on a British Academy-funded project entitled "Asylum law in question: ethnography of access to justice in a London Law Centre", which resulted in two articles.
2012 (with Evan Killick) “Empathy and expertise at the legal interface: case workers and immigration/asylum clients in London” Law and Social Inquiry 37(3):430-55. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-4469.2012.01312.x/abstract
2010 (with Evan Killick) "Ethical dilemmas? UK immigration, legal aid funding reform, and case workers" Anthropology Today 26(1):13-15.
Since 2014 have been working with Alice Forbess on a Leverhulme-funded project, exploring similar issues, called “Creative Interventions: Innovation in Public Legal Services after Legal Aid”, from which a further publication is due out in 2014.
2014 (with Alice Forbess) “Acts of assistance: navigating the interstices of the state with the help of UK non-profit legal advisers” special issue eds Thelen, T, K Benda Beckmann and L Vetters, “The Relational State”, Social Analysis 58(3).
A previous monograph, Gaining Ground? "Rights" and "Property" in South African land reform (Routledge, 2007), based on ESRC-funded research in 2002-3, shows how mutually constitutive discourses about the ownership, use, and governance of land reveal contradictory understandings of custom, community and citizenship.
2007. Gaining ground? "Rights" and "property" in South African land reform. London: Routledge.
A related book, but with a comparative remit, is The Rights and Wrongs Of Land Restitution: 'Restoring What Was Ours' (Routledge, 2009), edited with Derick Fay.
Fay, Derrick and James, Deborah (2008) The anthropology of land restitution: an introduction. In: Fay, Derrick and James, Deborah , (eds.) The rights and wrongs of land restitution: 'restoring what was ours'. Routledge, London, UK, pp. 1-24. ISBN 9780415461085
Exploring the relationship between anthropologists' ethnographic investigations and the lived social worlds in which these originate, I was co-editor with Christina Toren and Evie Plaice of Culture Wars: Context, Models, and Anthropologists' Accounts (Berghahn, 2010). Where some claim that only native voices may offer authentic accounts of culture and hence that ethnographers are only ever interpreters of it, others point out that anthropologists are, themselves, implanted within specific cultural contexts which generate particular kinds of theoretical discussions. The contributors to the volume, rejecting the idea that ethnographer and informant occupy different and incommensurable "cultural worlds," investigate the relationship between culture, context, and anthropologists' models and accounts in new ways. (The volume is also a celebration of the work of Adam Kuper, my PhD supervisor.)
Deborah James, Evelyn Plaice and Christina Toren (eds.) (2010) Culture Wars:
Context, Models and Anthropologists' Accounts. Berghahn Books.
My earlier research focused on ethnicity, migration, and musical performance: in Songs of the Women Migrants (Edinburgh University Press, 1999) I showed how women migrants from the Northern Province defined themselves as ethnic subjects through song and musical performance.
1999. Songs of the women migrants: Performance and identity in South Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
I am also interested in comparative insights into the state, law, civil society, and religion in postcolonial settings, and was co-editor of a volume called "Apartheid of Souls" which brought together scholars on Indonesia and South Africa.
2003. (with Albert Schrauwers) An Apartheid of souls: Dutch and Afrikaner colonialism and its aftermath in Indonesia and South Africa: an Introduction. In An Apartheid of souls: Dutch colonialism and its aftermath in Indonesia and South Africa, D. James and A. Schrauwers (eds). [Special issue, Itinerario: European Journal of Overseas History 27(3/4).]