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Olivia Harris

Olivia Harris


Prof. Olivia Harris (1948-2009) was an eminent anthropologist of Latin America who specialised in Highland Bolivia. Her work addressed a range of issues including gender, household, kinship, feminist theory, law, money and economic anthropology, symbolism and ritual. In 2006 she co-authored a major study of Inca rule and Spanish conquest in Bolivia. Olivia's work addressed broad issues which cut across disciplines: she worked on the interface between anthropology and history and explored the nature of historical change, the impact of significant change on those who experienced it and the myth-making and historical narratives of later generations; she also worked on post-colonialism and notions of citizenship in Latin America.

Prof Harris was a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics (LSE) from 1970 to 1975. She taught for many years at Goldsmiths' College, University of London (now Goldsmiths), and co-founded the Anthropology department there in 1986; she also taught in research institutes and universities in Latin America, Europe and the USA. She returned to the LSE in 2005 as Professor of Anthropology. She served as head of the Anthropology Department from 2005 to 2008.

On 11 July 2008 Prof. Harris was interviewed by Clarinda Still as part of the Digital Anthropology Resources for Teaching (DART) project. The idea was to make a small collection of interviews with prolific scholars which would be stored on database and used for teaching Anthropology. The interview took place in Olivia’s office in the Anthropology Department at LSE.

In the interview, Clarinda asks Olivia how she became interested in anthropology, about her experience of fieldwork and some of the major themes in her work. The interview is a testimony to Olivia’s warmth, openness and eloquence.

List of selected publications

The interview

Click on each question to watch Professor Harris' reply.

  1. Can you say a little about your background and how you became interested in anthropology?
  2. So you did your PhD at the LSE. What was it like at the time as a student studying in the seventies at the LSE?
  3. I want to ask you about feminism a bit later but could you just tell me about your first fieldwork for your PhD.
  4. What happened when you were arrested then? - And this was during your fieldwork?
  5. You have written about this journey [undertaken by the Laymi from the Bolivian Highlands into the valley]. What was so extraordinary and frightening about it?
  6. So what happened to your study of women [in Highland Bolivia]? How did that materialise and how did you look at gender relations? And were they what you expected them to be?
  7. And what about in Latin America, did it cause problems there [the publication of research on violence against women]?
  8. So in Highland Bolivia, how would you explain domestic violence? Is it the same thing that was going on in England?
  9. You say that they [the Laymi] place a high value on losing control. Does that have anything to do with it [violence]?
  10. You have also written about the nature/ culture, woman/ man dichotomy that Sherry ortner wrote about in the seventies and you argued against it using the Andean case. Why did it provide an argument against that dichotomy?
  11. Could you say something about feminism at the time? You were involved in the feminist movement. What was that like? - And was there hostility as well to some of these ideas?
  12. Do you think that feminism has done its job now and that is why it is not quite so exciting or relevant for many of the students of anthropology today?
  13. You have also written about money and the economy in Bolivia and in one of your articles you describe the libations [that are poured] to honour all the sources and supports of life. You show how the Laymi distinguish between present day money and ancient money. What is distinctive about the meaning of money for the Laymi?
  14. It seems that there is an irony that people are spending so much money on pouring these libations into the earth and conjures up the idea of the irrational peasant. You argued against that idea. How did you do that?
  15. You have talked about the Laymi economy as ethnically organised, that through an examination of circulation, labour and produce that the importance of ethnic boundaries emerge. Can you explain the significance of ethnicity?
  16. Just to ask you about stereotypes in Latin American anthropology and how your work gets away from them. I am thinking about stereotypes of the mother and also the ‘violent Indian’. You try to get away from those ideas, can you say something about that?
  17. So have activists come to accept that representation [of the Pachamama] or do they still reject it?
  18. What about the stereotype of the violent Indian? Don’t we have to be careful about reinforcing that stereotype?
  19. I want to ask you about ambiguity because that seems to be one of the themes in your work, whether this duality between, say, gods and men is something of Judeo-Christian origin and whether less duality and more ambiguity is a feature of Andean or Latin American culture. Is that something that you were saying?
  20. Briefly, there has been quite a lot of discussion about the effects and influence of the Spanish conquest and whether or not it was disruptive or whether there has been continuity with old forms pre-Conquest. What is your position on this question?
  21. Finally, what about your future work and future directions for anthropology?

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Last modified 13 September 2010