Writing in a fascist prison in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Italian revolutionary and intellectual Antonio Gramsci issued an eloquent warning about the twin dangers of economism and voluntarism. Gillian Hart’s own work is deeply informed by Gramsci’s challenge: how do we steer a course between the economism that “only one thing is possible” and the voluntarism that “anything is possible” so as to illuminate concrete possibilities for social change?
In grappling with this question, she has paid particular attention to how in-depth ethnographic studies and what she calls relational comparisons can do critical work, both analytically and politically. She began her academic career doing battle with economistic and Eurocentric understandings of agrarian change in Java, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Questions of gender and power figure prominently in this work. More recent research is in her native South Africa, where she has traced divergent post-apartheid dynamics in two towns and adjacent townships, and their connections with East Asia. In Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa(University of California Press, 2002) she draws on this work to engage critically with discourses of “globalization,” and explore alternatives to neoliberalism. She has also become increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of journalism, contributing to debates over the future of post-apartheid South Africa in a series of newspaper articles.
Critical understandings of development theories and practices form another of her interests and concerns, and she serves as Chair of the Development Studies undergraduate major at UC Berkeley. In the early 1990s she helped to establish one of the first course-work Masters programs in South Africa at the former University of Durban-Westville. As an Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she participated in a research cluster program with South African graduate students. She has also worked collaboratively with a group of South African and Indonesian scholars and activists to explore the rise of agrarian movements in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Suharto Indonesia, and the connections they were beginning to forge with one another.