Professor Deborah James FBA

Specialist in anthropology, with a broadly political and economic focus

Elected 2019

Fellow type
UK Fellow
Year elected

Deborah James is a specialist in the anthropology of South and Southern Africa, where she has done fieldwork in Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces and their urban hinterland, the Witwatersrand. She has recently begun research at some sites in the UK. Her work is broadly political and economic in focus. Her research in the anthropology of economy explores, in South Africa, how people’s access to credit is bound up with identity, status, and aspirations of upward mobility and, in the UK, how debt advisers/intermediaries seek novel resource flows, invent interventions, and create new spaces of justice. Professor James recently completed work on an ESRC-funded project entitled ‘An ethnography of advice: between market, society and the declining welfare state’.

Her 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.

Professor James’s previous book Gaining Ground? "Rights" and "Property" in South African land reform (Routledge, 2007) shows how mutually constitutive discourses about the ownership, use, and governance of land reveal contradictory understandings of custom, community and citizenship. Her interest in the contestations between state- and market-driven ideologies also encompasses issues relating to reproductive health and HIV-AIDS. Her earlier research focused on ethnicity, migration, and musical performance: in Songs of the Women Migrants (Edinburgh, 1999) Professor James explored how women migrants from the Northern Province defined themselves as ethnic subjects through musical performance.

Professor James is also interested in comparative insights into the state, law, civil society, and religion: both in postcolonial settings and in the UK, and co-edited a volume called An Apartheid of Souls, which brought together scholars of Indonesia and South Africa.

Current post

Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics

Past appointments

London School of Economics Reader in Anthropology

2003 - 2008

London School of Economics Lecturer in Anthropology

1998 - 2003

University of the Witwatersrand Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology

1995 - 1997

University of the Witwatersrand Lecturer in Social Anthropology

1985 - 1994

University of the Witwatersrand Junior Lecturer in Social Anthropology

1983 - 1985

University of KwaZulu-Natal Assistant Lecturer in African Studies

1982 - 1982

University of the Witwatersrand Assistant Lecturer in Social Anthropology

1981 - 1981

South African Institute of Race Relations Researcher

1981 - 1981


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