Professor Deborah James FBA

Professor Deborah James FBA


Department of Anthropology

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Key Expertise
South Africa, the UK

About me

I am a specialist in the anthropology of South and Southern Africa, and have recently begun research at some sites in the UK. My work is broadly political and economic in focus. I have just completed work on an ESRC-funded project entitled An ethnography of advice: between market, society and the declining welfare state.  Click here for the project website and for earlier relevant publications.  I am also a Faculty Associate in the International Inequalities Institute.

My book Money from Nothing: Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa (Stanford University Press, 2015) 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. It shows the varied ways in which access to credit by people in these newly-included sectors of society is 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. 

Following on from the book, from 2018 to 2021 I undertook collaborative research with The Black Sash, South Africa’s foremost human rights NGO, into the way financial organisations charged with distributing welfare grants were using those grants, in turn, as collateral for high-interest loans. Our research resulted in a co-authored report Social Grants: Challenging Reckless Lending in South Africa that was launched in September 2020. In pursuit of one of the report’s recommendations, a collaborative paper was drafted, ‘Funding Free Debt Advice in South Africa: lessons from the UK, Croatia and Brazil’, that drew on examples from 3 national settings to inform the South African case. Other recommendations currently being pursued include discussions with the University of Stellenbosch Legal Aid Clinic in order to clarify contradictory legislation governing credit and lending.

A previous monograph, 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, with a comparative remit, is  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  2010 Culture Wars: Context, Models and Anthropologists' Accounts. Berghahn Books.

My earlier research focused on ethnicity, migration, and musical performance: it 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 exploring these topics in 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 History27(3/4).]

Expertise Details

South Africa; the UK; ethnography of advice; aspiration and indebtedness; civil society; citizenship and the state; economic anthropology; ethnomusicology; land reform and property regimes; migration and ethnicity