Maia Green, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Manchester, took over as one of the co-editors of Society and Space earlier this year. The interview below, conducted by Natalie Oswin, is the second of a planned three interviews with the new co-editors. Deborah Cowen previously interviewed Jane M. Jacobs (find it here), and Stuart Elden will interview Peter Gratton in the next few weeks [update: find it here].
Natalie Oswin: Thank you for talking with me. Can you talk a bit about your general research interests and some of your previous work?
Maia Green: My research interests are in the area of social transformation, originally in Africa but more generally also – I am interested in the ways in which people imagine, enact and respond to change, and how imaginaries of transformation are established, circulated and contested. My original work examined the impact of Christian mission in Southern Tanzania and the ways in which this effected a dialogue about change and what could be valorised as unchanging, as ‘traditional’ practice. This took me into the study of what is categorized as ‘traditional’ healing in Africa, as well as the study of another area which was set in terms of a conflict between the traditional and the emergent – practices for the suppression of witchcraft. These have been studied by many anthropologists in terms of anti-witchcraft movements which supposedly appear as a popular response to conflicts associated with modernization. I looked at the apparent emergence of one such movement in Tanzania in relation to the state interventions which regulated popular participation in anti witchcraft practices in such a way as to create the effect of a ‘movement’.
Actually the insights from geography are potentially really useful in thinking about these kinds of social phenomena – how spatiality is brought into being and through which social relations. Tanzanian policy towards anti-witchcraft specialists after about 1980 prohibited their mobility, ensuring that traveling specialists could no longer create the effect of mass participation in anti-witchcraft rituals in rural settlements. What happened instead was the concentration of specialists in particular locations.
As government policy has altered towards the mobility of citizens after socialism, along with a host of other changes, anti-witchcraft practices are more widely available and more dispersed. Competition is intense among specialists who strive to build a brand that will attract clients from across the country. I have worked with a Tanzanian colleague, Simeon Mesaki, an anthropologist from the University of Dar es Salaam, exploring how one such specialist has deliberately sought to modernize his anti witchcraft services, using techniques derived from social marketing and health sector reform to improve service delivery.
This specialist known as Magungu who carries out work in the name of his late grandmother Bibi Kalembwana, a very famous healer, explicitly adopts strategies derived from development management in his modernization work. In relation to anthropological theory, working with Magungu was fascinating because while anthropologists like to interpret witchcraft as being about modernity Magungu was seeking to use technologies of modernization to change traditional healing practically.
This takes me into another area of my work, studying and engaging with international development. Magungu and I have a shared interest in development as a set of practices and forms through which transformation is circulated and enacted. I have worked inside development organizations as an adviser and as a consultant on a range of issues, some in Tanzania, some outside it. This engagement has led to analytical work interrogating core categories of development ordering, such as ideas about poverty and the social processes through which these come to have traction.
Interestingly, my engagement with ideas about witchcraft as a modality for social ordering has led to productive comparisons with social policy – two recent pieces explore on the one hand similarities between witchcraft and the social processes of destitution and another, co-authored with the geographer Vicky Lawson, examines in comparative context practices and processes of exclusion through a lens of care.
NO: What direction is your current work moving in? What empirical sites and conceptual questions are you involved with at present?
MG: My current work follows through on these previous themes, perhaps not very systematically. I think this is partly an effect of anthropology as a discipline which permits the following of interests and which allows the putting together of different literatures and contexts. It’s also an effect of my own way of working. I am not a big project single issue person. I tend to jump about. I am presently jumping backwards towards religion bringing development into the frame, revising a paper about the relation between religion and development in Tanzania. I am also working on the constitution of the `social’ in development policy and in relation to the organization of African states. This is part of a longer term interest in knowledge practices and policy making, in development and outside it which goes back to my first real engagement with development practices, coming across participatory methods as a way of doing social research in the mid 1990s. Of course this kind of methods shock looks very different coming from geography which defines itself differently. For anthropology which has in effect a single method, ethnography, premised on the ontology of immersion as far as possible, other methods become cultural artifacts and must be apprehended, at least partly, as social institutions.
In the future I would love to return to a study of so-called traditional healing in East Africa. It’s a massive sector and a significant part of the economy.
NO: How, in your past and present work, have you bridged scholarship with policy and practice?
MG: I have been involved with policy and scholarship for a long time now, but have only recently begun to bring these two sides of my work together in productive ways. My academic research is not deemed relevant to policy concerns, as indeed much of social science research isn’t, because of the way we do research and the ways in which we as critical scholars approach the matter of `facts’. I have of course carried out quite a lot of rapid policy oriented research, but this is quite different to scholarship. The challenge is to use this as a resource for scholarship and to try and bring values of scholarship, a critical questioning and political awareness, into policy fields. Sometimes a bridge is established through an opportunity to produce work which is deemed ‘policy relevant’ – the piece on social policy and the state is an example. But the demands of policy acceptability are so distant from those of what counts as scholarship in my discipline of anthropology and the conventions so different that getting something productive from this means in practice producing for another disciplinary field, in this case probably development studies.
Having pointed to the differences between policy work and academic work I want to say that I value both enormously. Experience gained of development through working as a practitioner gives insights which surpass those I could attain through normal fieldwork, and it’s a chance to make a contribution too – to get involved in issues about which I am passionate and to use skills derived from the academic sector to work with others to get better policies or to try and shift thinking about taken for granted ideas. I recently produced a background paper for an African Union meeting of Social Development Ministers which looked at issues of building capacity for social policy in member states. Rather than promote the standard approach that ministry staff need training, I used the paper to question the institutional organization of social policy and social sectors in African states and to try and make a bigger political argument about the need for institutional redesign if policies are to have social outcomes. And that this demands significant investment in the state. These things don’t have massive or immediate consequences but they’re an important part of changing the standard thinking, what I have called elsewhere the ‘normative advocated response’ to particular issues and problems. And they aren’t achieved alone – development policy work is all about relations and networks, coalitions, something I have also written about.
Policy engagement and practical development work is not only something I find interesting. It takes me into new empirical sites of interest, most recently social policy, but also social protection, poverty and civil society – all of which as development technologies are fascinating. The importance of evidence and networks took me into science studies as a body of literature which I am still working through. And this kind of literature which addresses complexities and emerging social forms across space seems to explain development better than the anthropology literature, which is still very much bogged down in the singularity of culture and place.
NO: What drew you to the Society and Space editorial team? What are your impressions of the journal as an interdisciplinary project?
MG: This interest drew me to the journal and when I saw the ad on the website for co-editors I sent off a cv. I am really excited by the journal and I love the breadth of submissions. And while it has similarities to anthropology there is the excitement of seeing another discipline at work and how it constitutes itself. I know its interdisciplinary, but through a filter which is essentially geographical- the core concern with the spatial which is a unifying theme. And your ancestors are different – the theorists to which people refer are very different to ours, even the emerging ones. I am learning a lot and enjoying it enormously. It’s very stimulating and I feel very privileged to be taking part.
NO: How are you finding the editorial work so far?
MG: Fascinating. As Jane says, there’s quite a bit of it. But it’s a privileged vantage point from which to see what people are doing across the world. We get submissions from all over. On a massive range of themes, from African city buses to Mexican immigrants to bacteria in the lake district. Great stuff.
NO: Great stuff indeed. Thanks for these insights into your work.
MG: Thank you!