Five Questions With Anne Griffiths

On its surface, land seems to be an obvious thing. It has substance. You can feel it, touch it, taste it.

In this week’s conversation with a Framing the Global Fellow Anne Griffiths explains how land can also function as ideas or nonphysical spaces.

Griffiths is Professor of Anthropology of Law in the University of Edinburgh School of Law. Her 1997 book In the Shadow of Marriage: Gender and Justice in an African Community dealt with the way colonial and customary law impacted the lives of Kwena women.

Her Framing the Global project is Pathways to Law in a Global Context: Continuities and Change over Time. Griffiths explained to Rosemary Pennington how she uses land to enter the global.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Anne Griffiths: As a lawyer, working for a number of years on law in a transnational world, I have recognized the need to go beyond a conceptual framework that defines laws in terms of local, national and global domains, especially those that pit the local against the transnational. My interest is in trying to reach a better understanding of how these fields intersect, creating different spaces for action at different times that may be mobilized by institutions, government officials, lawyers and ordinary people in negotiating their life worlds.

I was drawn to framing the global because it is an interdisciplinary programme that is open to exploring how to go about getting to grips with the global. The approach is one that rejects any  preconceived idea of a framework that must be applied to the studies in the project. It allows the project to develop from debate among the fellows that is not contained within the parameters of a pre-determined framework that has bedeviled so much of global studies.

 RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

AG: My entry point is based on a study of access to and control over land in Botswana. It is based on field work carried out from the 1980’s, to recent research (2009-2010, funded by the Leverhulme Trust) that is ongoing.

Baobab sunset, Botswana

Botswana sunset. Image via Derek Keats (Flickr).

I have chosen land because of its importance in multiple domains. It not only forms a crucial resource for families’ and households’ livelihoods and capital accumulation in a local context, but also forms a core component of macro perspectives that centre on national, international and transnational engagement with trade and commerce in the global market place.  Thus land embodies spaces that are not only physical and territorial in nature, but that are also more intangible, embodying the product of social relationships. Law plays an important part in these processes dealing with the regulation of land over time.

These multiple dimensions of land provide an ideal site from which to approach a study of the global in relational terms. This allows for the adoption of a connective perspective where what is ‘local’ and what is ‘global’ becomes hard to disentangle as these categories acquire more flexible dimensions that cannot simply be set apart from, or juxtaposed against, one another.

Instead, they come to be seen as sets of relations that connect and reconnect, or rupture, in a variety of ways, in a number of different places, at different points in the historical record. Such a perspective allows differential experiences to come to the fore, undermining any grand narrative of globalization. What is revealed are the conditions under which the diverse effects of globalization are constructed, that promote the interests of some social actors while perpetuating or creating conditions of poverty and inequality for others.

 RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

AG: The major challenge for me has been weaving my wide and diverse sources into a narrative on land. These sources include archival materials, court and land board records, participant observations on cases and land board meetings, interviews with government departments and officials, NGO’s and extended oral life histories for two families over five generations.

Integrating the more abstract information from sources, with peoples’ narratives regarding their relationships with land in every day is challenging because it involves different projections of time and scale.  It is especially challenging with regard to the legal dimension that involves both written statutory laws and unwritten, customary laws. For me, the challenge is to make sense of the legal parameters without separating them out from the rest of the material. The formality of written law and formal legal discourse creates a distance and separation from the other materials that requires a strenuous effort to overcome.

Another challenge has been the need to remain sensitive to the fact that that how I, as researcher, view the past and people’s experiences of it, is always located in the present and that there is a need to be aware of this. For what people tell you today about yesterday is very much framed from their understanding of the present.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know its global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

AG: For me the global is not a clearly defined entity but rather a space in which a range of actors come together at certain  moments in time to deal with certain areas of interest. As a space it can expand and contract and as I said earlier it is a space that intersects with regional, national and local domains.


A hippo grazes below Botswana’s flag. Image via Kristen Weeks (Flickr).

In my case what may be seen to be “global” in relation to land are the policies put forward by international agencies such as the UN, the World Bank and the IMF, as well as organizations like the Department for International Development (UK) etc. It also involves human rights considerations that have sparked concerns over access to justice and how “informal justice” (viewed in terms of customary or unwritten law) impacts upon social actors seeking to enforce or bring claims within a governance framework, especially e women or children who are perceived of as being especially vulnerable.

I seek to test out these “global’ or ‘transnational’ assumptions through my focus on land and how it is accessed and controlled bringing concrete fieldwork to bear on the more abstract formulations of policy that lack empirical grounding. What space the global occupies varies according to the lens that is being applied. While terms like local/global, national/international, state/none-state and so on can be used to designate certain spaces, what is key for me is the way in which they are viewed in relation to one another without pre-determining the nature of that relationship that places the global as a fixed, given, unchanging entity at the centre of debate.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

AG: In my view that law must be viewed in context as part of the social universe to which it belongs.  The interdisciplinary nature of the  Framing the Global project has  underpinned an approach to the discipline of law that makes links between social and legal domains which underline their mutually constitutive nature.

This approach provides for an understanding of law that takes accounts of these multiple links, making visible what is often left out of account in more conventional or traditional accounts of law that ignore the social basis upon which law operates. For what counts as law, in terms of particular sources and institutions, along with the context in which law is situated, remains circumscribed in these conventional frames of reference. In taking a more social scientific approach, one that looks to social actors and their engagement with law in a range of settings, what becomes apparent are the conditions under which people have access to law and how this impacts upon their access to land in my study.

In other words, it provides an understanding of the geometries of power and social relations that are constantly in the making and that underpin the production of difference.  Such an approach gives voice to those whose experiences and prospects with regard to land might remain invisible or unheard in more formalist, legal narratives.  They also challenge nationally or globally oriented historiographies geared toward a uniliner concept of development or progress that silence alternative or contradictory accounts

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