Image courtesy of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.
As part of our celebration of this year’s medal and award recipients, we caught up with Dr Emma Mawdsley, recipient of the Busk Medal for her exceptional engagements with fieldwork, research and knowledge production about the Global South, to discuss her career, greatest achievement, and most memorable fieldwork moments.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
It is going to sound cliched, but something that was really consequential in my life was rowing in the Cambridge University Women’s Reserve crew in 1990-1991. I had arrived in Cambridge feeling thoroughly out of my depth – like I had got my place through hard work and luck rather than ability. On top of academic imposter syndrome, I had grown up with the freedom to roam with a gang of brothers in the Lancastrian countryside, which was wonderful, but left me feeling socially out of my depth at university.
I learnt to row when I arrived, and when I was selected for the Blue’s squad a year later it felt like an achievement I could really call my own. It gave me a confidence that suffused through so many other parts of my life – including academically. I was thrown together in a crew of wonderful women, who remain lifelong friends. 30 years later, we still have fun, care, and support each other in life’s ongoing joys and challenges. Everyone has different skills, capacities and opportunities, but to this day I encourage my students, especially the women, to take up whatever it is that makes them joyful; what allows them to connect; and encourage those who might be unsure to try out sport.
How did your interest in the Global South develop?
I had been an avid reader from early childhood and was often lost in a book. But although voracious, my reading was so narrow, and I now realise was fundamentally imperialist. I was brought up in a very conservative family and school, and I read more Rudyard Kipling than Chinua Achebe (although I did read both).
When I began my degree, three inspiring and influential lecturers had a huge impact on my (re)thinking: Bill Adams, Tim Bayliss-Smith and Stuart Corbridge. These and other researchers in the department had deep connections to particular regions based on long-term, committed fieldwork. Rigorous political economy and cultural ecology theorising was very productively coming into dialogue with post-development critiques, as well as feminist geographies. I was incredibly fortunate in being supervised by Stuart, who was a generous and inspirational mentor. As part of his third-year course on India, I had read Ramachandra Guha’s book on environmental and social protest in the Uttarakhand Himalaya (The Unquiet Woods, 1990), and it was this that led me to my PhD research. And it was friends, especially my PhD peers, who educated me – opening up new worlds, ways of seeing, ways of questioning. After my PhD, my first job was at Durham University, where Janet Townsend, Gina Porter, Liz Oughton and Jon Rigg, amongst others, were generous, lovely colleagues, who helped me find my feet, professionally and intellectually.
How has this area of research evolved over your career?
My PhD was on regionalism and environmentalism in the Himalaya, which led into some early work on environmental values, beliefs and behaviours amongst India’s growing urban ‘middle classes’ in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then, thanks in large parts to Janet and Gina and our international collaborators – Saraswati Raju, Emma Zapata, Fatima Alikhan and others – I started working on critical development politics more broadly, for example around power and knowledge in transnational NGO networks.
In 2005 I was diagnosed with a very rare skull-based tumour. By now I was working in Birkbeck College, a superb institution – the UK needs more Birkbecks! The tumour made it hard to concentrate, and I lost confidence. I stepped back from my work somewhat, and in that space noticed a story about China’s growing role in Africa, and I was astonished to realise how little I knew about this as someone who claimed to be a ‘development geographer’. This provided a fresh perspective and enthusiasm that allowed me to re-engage while I was (successfully) treated for the tumour. I spent weeks in the SOAS library reading accounts from the 1960s and 1970s about China’s relationships with different African countries. I knew that I didn’t have the underlying expertise to take on China-Africa, but it led me to look at other countries, including India’s decades long history of development partnerships. I ended up writing a book on South-South Development Cooperation and haven’t looked back. For the last few years, I have also looked to the UK’s development and foreign aid policies and approaches, with a particular interest on how the UK and other donors are turning to the financial sector, and to contractors and management consultants.
Is there a particularly memorable project you have worked on?
My friend and colleague at Durham, Louise Bracken, and I got talking about women and fieldwork. We were extremely sympathetic to all the efforts to get away from more ableist, muscular, heroic and masculinist ideas of ‘fieldwork’ – something the Society has also championed. We wanted to finesse this with a feminist appreciation of the joys and opportunities that different sorts of fieldwork could provide for women. Our research on women and fieldwork in physical geography revealed that for many the ‘field’ (estuary, mountain, woodland, glacier etc.) could in some cases be a space of greater equality, confidence and excitement; something that was not always the case back in the lab, academic department, conference and pub. It was a small project, but I loved writing with Lou and exploring these ideas. I am passionate about geography as an integrated discipline – if we lose that, we will lose what is so distinctive and important about our odd but essential subject.
Find out more about this year’s medal and award recipients.