Cornell Series on Land: An Interview with Wendy Wolford

Cornell University Press is pleased to introduce a new series, “On Land: New Perspectives in Territory, Development, and Environment,” edited by Wendy Wolford (Cornell University), Nancy Lee Peluso (University of California, Berkeley), and Michael Goldman (University of Minnesota). We recently invited Wendy to sit down with Sage House News to discuss what inspired the editors to embark on this project and to detail their areas of interest.

All three editors, as well as CUP Senior Acquiring Editor Jim Lance, will be available to field inquiries at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting, March 29–April 2, in San Francisco.

L to R: Series editors Wendy Wolford, Nancy Peluso, Michael Goldman

Sage House: Can you tell us about the manifesto you’ve been working on?

Wendy Wolford: The three coeditors for the series—Nancy, Michael, and I—wanted to write something that would outline in very general terms how we situate the series within a longer tradition of work. We also wanted to delineate some of the areas that we’re most interested in. The three of us are all pretty closely aligned in the way we think of the broader trajectory of work around land—land-related politics, land development studies, political and moral economy—and yet we work in very different areas.

The manifesto is also an attempt to explain why a series on land makes so much sense right now. Not that it’s an ephemeral interest! But in the current moment there is a heightened awareness of the struggle over land resources, urban and rural, even extending to the politics of marine management.

We want the manifesto to explain why it makes so much sense to be thinking about these issues, although of course we expect to publish books that would never have occurred to us as well. We’re quite excited about that.

SH: How do you think this series is distinct from other series on land and development?

WW: It’s pretty rare to have a book series at a major university press that focuses on land, although certainly there are excellent series that focus on related issues, such as the environment or agriculture or agrarian studies more broadly. So to some extent our series is unique because of its direct focus on—and through—the land.

Agrarian studies became a real topic of academic interest in the early 1900s. The question was: how are these large experiments in state design—the Mexican revolution, the Russian and Chinese revolutions—how are they going to unfold? And again in the 1970s, you have a number of rural or peasant-based revolutions across the globe that are anti-imperialist, anticolonial, across Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America. It fundamentally has to do with peasant politics and life on the land, and the way the state understands that work and how it goes about reconfiguring rural life.


In the 1980s and 1990s these questions got dropped, but today you’re seeing the revival of questions that were never satisfactorily incorporated into the way that politics are conducted or understood. The Global Land Grab—or the aggressive acquisition of what people considered to be the remains of the global land base, motivated by global food crises and concerns about peak oil, climate change, environmental degradation—revived interest in these questions. All of a sudden investors and states were looking for remaining pieces of land to expropriate and cultivate as bulwarks against supposed scarcity.

These are the questions we’re interested in exploring. Land for whom, for what purpose? Who wins, who loses? What are the ecological or environmental implications of this kind of large-scale acquisition of land in places where the land has yet to be fully “exploited” for local or global consumers?

There’s also a broader set of questions around the peasant mobilizations that have been at the forefront of a kind of counter globalization since the early 2000s. One of the strongest movements today, globally, is La Via Campesina, or the global peasant movement. That’s something that we need to be not only investigating and understanding but also actively working with in order to also understand how social science can have any meaning or relevance in the world today.

SH: With regard to La Via Campesina, do you see the series as having a sort of activist or public anthropology thrust to it, as opposed to analyzing and examining theoretical issues?

WW: I don’t see those as separate. I can imagine that we would love to have books that fall more on the activist side and those that fall into so-called cultural critique, because I think they have to work together in order to inform our understanding of politics. So we wouldn’t necessarily privilege one over the other. We’re very much hoping to have a range of voices that will address the politics of what’s happening in different ways.

SH: Who are you looking for as authors and who is the audience to whom you are aiming these books?

WW: We’re looking for authors who are engaged with these kinds of questions, whether from rich, empirical, detailed work, or from the perspective of overarching theoretical analyses. A lot of work is both. I think that in the classic agrarian studies tradition, work that has a long commitment to a particular place or set of communities is incredibly valuable. But at the same time, being able to step back and understand how this moment is situated in a broader historical and global context is also really important.


I think that in terms of readership, we would really like to have an international readership, so that it isn’t a series that’s just targeting U.S. or Anglo academics but one that’s applicable and hopefully relevant to academics and publics in very different locations.

SH: Are you considering work about the Global North as well as the Global South?

Many of the dynamics I’ve described are more prominent in the Global South, but a lot of good work is being done in the Global North because many of these same land-related and livelihood processes are happening here. So I would hope that a lot of the work in the series will also focus on the dynamics of the relationships and also be located in the U.S. and Europe.

SH: Are you also including water in your definition of land? Oceans and outer space, even?

WW: Well, we’re including water to the extent that it is necessary for life on the land. I think we’ll try to stay out of outer space for now—unless people actually start making good on the properties they’ve purchased on the moon—but water is vital. We’re interested in manuscripts that incorporate water with a focus on the ways in which water is used, accessed, manipulated, and polluted, for the purposes of territorial settlement or claims, development and environment. We’re also interested in the subsoil—people have pointed out that agrarian studies has been somewhat “topsoil oriented,” and we definitely want to incorporate studies that examine extraction, mining, and subsoil property rights.

SH: What excites you most about the series?

WW: What I’m most excited about is getting to read new manuscripts by people who are writing incredibly rich monographs informed by both long-term fieldwork and theory. I’m excited to see what people are writing about and to learn about new topics.

SH: There’s a strong social justice mission or sensibility that seems to be coming through in reading about the editors’ work around the mobilization of landless workers in Brazil, violence in Indonesia, equity in Bangalore. To what extent does that drive the work of you and your colleagues?

WW: I think that research on land, particularly from the perspective of the agrarian studies tradition, has been very engaged with understanding the politics of and giving voice to those on the land who don’t have access to a ready audience. So it’s more about work that is socially and politically relevant and that is deeply connected to the people who are actually being written about, as opposed to work that simply takes those communities or processes as objects of study. It’s really trying to think seriously about engagement.

It isn’t necessarily that all of the books have to be about social movements or have to be immediately usable by them. And that’s one of the things I’m also really excited about with the series. There really isn’t another series that aims to bring together such a broad range of politically or socially relevant work on questions of agrarian or rural dynamics or development. To be a central place for this new generation of work that takes land as a window to address broader questions of injustice, violence, inequality, citizenship, state, territory—that is really exciting.

Wendy Wolford is Robert A. and Ruth E. Polson Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell University. Her work addresses issues within and between the political economy of development, agrarian studies, social mobilization, land reform, and political ecologies of conservation.

Nancy Lee Peluso is Professor of Society & Environment and is currently the Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She brings approaches from critical political ecology to her research on forests, small-scale gold mining, migration, and other influences on agrarian change.

Michael Goldman is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota and the V.K.R.V. Rao Chair Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, India. He specializes in transnational, political, and environmental sociology; global urbanization; and expert networks of finance, development, and urbanism.



Cornell Series on Land: An Interview with Wendy Wolford