Beginnings: I grew up in England in a cosmopolitan family, and spent two years as a teenager in Singapore (1975-77) attending an international school. There I was inspired by a terrific history teacher to learn about the politics of the region (Mao in China, the authoritarian New Order in Indonesia, student uprisings in Thailand, war in Vietnam). I was also inspired by anthropologists who took students to visit temples and public housing estates, and taught us to inhabit Singapore in a new way. I spent my school holidays exploring longhouses in Borneo. Then I spent a year in Central and South America, working, travelling, and becoming fluent in Spanish. As an undergrad and later as a grad student in anthropology at Cambridge I learned how to be an auto-didact: to sit down with a reading list and educate myself in a new field. I also attended lectures on theory, philosophy, religion, and many other topics that expanded my horizons. I have used these two skills repeatedly as I have pursued new intellectual projects over the decades: reading deeply, and exploring broadly across disciplinary boundaries.
My doctoral research in Singapore concerned urban cultural politics, and the experience of the minority Malay/Muslim community in a largely Chinese state. I published the dissertation book quite fast: Malays in Singapore: Culture, Economy and Ideology (Oxford University Press, 1987). It won a book prize, and is still considered a land-mark study on the Singapore Malay community. It is still used for teaching at the National University of SIngapore, and the Malay translation is used in Malaysian universities. Academic jobs were scarce in the mid 1980s, and I was not set on an academic career: I wanted to improve the world directly, by engaging in development work. I pursued this path for some years, working on a development project that was based at a Canadian university, and had the goal of bringing enlightened environmental management to Indonesia. I became uncomfortable with the assumption that Canadian “experts” knew how Indonesians should organize their society, and more specifically, how they should regulate the environment. That experience began my critical reflections on development, and eventually led me to write a book The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics (Duke University Press, 2007).
Research: After I left the development project I won a 3-year post doctoral grant (the Canada Research Fellowship) that enabled me to begin new research in Indonesia, exploring how Indonesian highlanders inhabited their environment, and attempted to make a living under very difficult conditions. I drew together some of the premier scholars working in Indonesia’s highland areas and began my first synthetic project, which resulted in the edited book Transforming the Indonesian Uplands: Marginality, Power and Production (Routledge, 1997). My ethnographic research site on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi proved to be exceptionally rich, and I kept revisiting my interlocutors there for the next two decades. That research culminated in another full length ethnography, Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (Duke University Press, 2014). In 2011, I published Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia, co-written with a political scientist, Derek Hall, and a geographer, Phil Hirsch. Working through the ideas for the book together, writing and revising the text page by page, was enormously enriching, and resulted in an analytical sharpness and empirical breadth that none of us could have achieved alone. My current book project is an ethnography of plantations, which I am co-writing with an Indonesian colleague Pujo Semedi, of Gadjah Mada University.
Four main themes have oriented my research thus far.