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Interview with Prof Sarah Radcliffe: Research Officer at the Centre of Latin American Studies, 1987-1990

Professor of Latin American Geography, University of Cambridge

When and how did your involvement with CLAS begin?

When I was coming to the end of my PhD, I was interested both in the development side of things and also in academia. I couldn't really decide what I wanted to do so I applied for everything. I got an interview at CLAS in 1987 for one of the Research Officer positions, which was effectively a postdoctoral position. In my time the post-doc was organized so that you would be appointed for three years initially and then there was a possibility of a further two years.  At any one time at the centre there were two or three of these postdocs so it was a very good situation. While the primary purpose was research, the idea was that there would be a mix of subjects among those postdoctoral fellows and that they would contribute in a small way towards the teaching of the MPhil, which was smaller than it is now.

The idea was that one of the postdocs would be someone who worked on Andean studies, rural issues, development issues or peasantries because that was one of the strands of the MPhil. The sociologist Lewis Taylor preceded me and I was followed by Tony Bebbington, another geographer who is now at Clark University in the US. Andean studies and Andean sociology were very popular at the time, and of course David Lehmann was also around and he was very interested in that. After I left the Centre as a postdoc I went to London University and taught there for 5 years before I came back into the Geography Department here.

What was the CLAS MPhil like when you were teaching it?

Through the 1980s there was definitely a strong strand of rural sociology and development studies. That strand was the entry point for anthropology, geography, sociology, peasant studies (studies of the economic livelihood of low-income people). There was also history and there was economics but it was a very different economics from today – not microeconomics but the sort of political economy that was associated with Andre Gunder Frank among others. Students would have taken two or three of those options but they were all very small groups.

Do you think area studies is still as important an approach today as it was when the Centre started?

There have been screeds and screeds written about this, but my personal view is that area studies came about, in part, because of government interest in what was happening in these areas in very particular geopolitical circumstances. The idea was that you needed area studies specialism. Centres of Latin American Studies were established across the country in the 1960s. There was the Cold War and the proxy wars in Central America and the threat of communism and so on. Britain, as a sort of ‘good’ Western power, was interested in knowing what was happening. Obviously, that geopolitical context has gone, and yet there are enduring intellectual reasons and also probably other kinds of political reasons for being involved in area studies.

Those areas were treated as very discreet, unique, singular regions and that of course has been blown apart by transnational migration, by globalization, by incredibly complex flows of influence and people in the intervening years, which creates a very different scenario in which to place Latin American studies. However, on the whole I think that there is a role for area studies to create in-depth knowledge about a particular context. I think that an area studies person should know at least broadly the issues going on in anthropology or political science in Latin America. They should be able to go to a conference and go to any panel, whether it's SLAS or LASA or something else, and be able to think, ‘Right, I know enough to understand where people are coming from and it's adding to my disciplinary knowledge’. So I don’t think of disciplines and areas studies as being in conflict. I think they’re mutually enriching even if the original reason for the Centres to be established has now moved on.

Do you have a sense of where CLAS stood in relation to the other Centres of its type when you first came here? Was there much communication between them?

I had friends in different departments and at different institutes across the country. It seemed fantastic because they were like nodes in a network, and people came together at conferences and that was the important thing.

Of course, later centres and institutes across the country went through a period of ‘austerity’ under Thatcherism, pressuring universities to make cuts and so on. At that point after the Cold War, and with the rise of globalization, as if it were a sort of universal muddling up of things, the relevance of Latin American studies seemed to be less obvious to politicians, policy makers and so on. At that moment people started hearing about the fate of different places and the need to work together, to have a common ground for Latin American studies became clear. That might have been when the standing conference started, where the Directors of the Centres of Latin American Studies across the UK get together to discuss common issues and think about how they can support each other. That has been a very important forum for protecting Latin American Studies in the UK: it became more about ‘well, if Glasgow goes, for example, then that impacts negatively on all of us’. It was a moment of real coming into focus of the wider institutional destiny of Latin American studies across the country.

Do you think the Centre’s position in the university has changed?

Inevitably the university keeps looking at these little Centres and saying, ‘how can we incorporate them into a wider institutional framework?’ So far the Centre has managed to negotiate those choppy waters, and find its way through reviews carried out by the university, and managed to reinvent itself, I suppose.

Obviously, the inclusion of the Centres in POLIS (Department of Politics and International Studies) does bring some challenges. But on the other hand, it is within POLIS and CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) that there is a strong sense of a momentum towards this new way of thinking in an interdisciplinary way, which is very much outside the traditional disciplinary department structures. When I got back to Cambridge in 1995, I felt that, yes, there was the Centre of Latin American Studies, there was South Asian Studies, African Studies and so on, but the University wasn’t taking social science as seriously as biological and physical sciences. I think that has changed with the establishment of CRASSH and the bringing together of area studies in a way that attempts to allow for those crosscutting interdisciplinary conversations and also to generate new conversations in the social sciences and humanities, which is really important. I wouldn't say that that process has finished by any means but that sort of leadership and talking is very important.

Do you remember any of the Simón Bolívar Chairs in particular?

During the time that I was Research Officer at the Centre, Gustavo Gutiérrez was very interesting, as he was a key thinker about liberation theology. He was a theology writer and philosopher. His work was one of the high points of liberation theology and options for the poor and grass roots communities. He was at the Centre during the last year I would have been here. Since I came back in 1995 there have been so many fantastic Chairs – particularly Enrique Tandeter, Guillermo O'Donnell, Guillermo de la Peña, Mercedes González de la Rocha, Carlos Iván Degregori, Adrián Gorelik, and Rosalva Aída Hernández.

August 2016