Dr Caroline Schuster recently came on board as the new Director of the Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies.
We've asked Caroline a few questions about her career to date and plans for the future. Read on to find out more!
1. We welcome you as the incoming Director of ANCLAS. You have an established career based at the ANU -- can you tell us a bit more about your background and career to date?
As a student at Stanford University, social movements in Argentina catalyzed by the 2002 economic crisis and largest sovereign debt default in world history inspired me to trace links between the cheap credit fueling the expansion of seemingly ordinary California towns like mine, and events unfolding thousands of kilometers away. I visited the Southern Cone of Latin America for the first time in 2003 to explore community based anti-poverty programs that responded to the crisis, focusing primarily on indigenous entrepreneurialism in the Andean region of Argentina’s border with Bolivia.
I expanded my research on microcredit programs in Latin America in graduate school at the University of Chicago where I pursued by PhD in cultural anthropology from 2005-2012. My interest in informal markets, and particularly women’s livelihoods, drew me to Ciudad del Este, the famous free trade zone on Paraguay’s Triple-Frontier with Argentina and Brazil. Microcredit is part of a global trend of financial inclusion that brings banking services, especially small loans, to the world’s poor — but how do these cooperative development projects work in a place like Ciudad del Este, which is awash in black money and the profits of contraband?
My first book, Social Collateral: women and microfinance in Paraguay’s smuggling economy, takes microcredit lending as a window into the tensions between social development, global finance, and free trade. Social Collateral tracks collective debt across the commercial society and smuggling economies at the Paraguayan border by examining group loans made to women by nonprofit development programs. These highly regulated loans are secured through mutual support and peer pressure—social collateral—rather than through physical collateral. This story of social collateral necessarily includes an interwoven account about the feminization of solidarity lending. At its core is an economy of gender—from pink-collar financial work, to men’s committees, to women smugglers. At stake are interdependencies that bind borrowers and lenders, financial technologies, and Paraguayan development in ways that structure both global inequality and global opportunity.
In addition to my work on economic anthropology, as a researcher at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs, where I was a Fellow of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies from 2012-2014, I focused on social theory and research methodologies. Building on that scholarly agenda, I have co-authored a project with Dr. Sohini Kar on research methods in social studies of finance and collaborated with Dr. Jesse Driscoll on the politics and ethics of conducting research in high-risk settings.
Since joining the School of Archaeology and Anthropology in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the ANU in 2014, I have broadened my research focus to research the expansion of financial systems in Latin America. There is a growing consensus that unfettered markets in Paraguay offer a preview of the shape risk and vulnerability might take globally in ever-more deregulated financial systems and development settings. Paraguayans’ diverse processes of insuring against future damage afford an opportunity to address a basic question rarely posed in debates about crises, both economic and environmental: What social and cultural processes do the work of transforming environmental damages into other forms of value in contemporary capitalism? My Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA, 2017-2020), "Insurance and disaster relief: using the anthropology of finance to rethink climate change adaptation” explores disaster capitalism and the financialization of local risk-mitigation strategies in the context of our ever more unstable climate.
2. How do you see your role developing as the Director of ANCLAS and what are your priorities?
I have been affiliated with ANCLAS since joining the ANU in 2014 and am excited to step into the role of Director. I am eager to continue the Centre’s fruitful collaborations with the Latin American Missions, which has traditionally been an important site of integration between scholarly work on campus and Australia’s wider engagement Latin American culture and foreign affairs.
I hope to see ANCLAS grow into a vibrant research centre that can facilitate interdisciplinary conversation about some of the most pressing issues of our day — from free trade to climate change to cultural heritage protection. My priorities are to (1) to connect our ongoing work on Latin America in research, education and outreach with partners in Australia and Latin America and (2) to promote innovative research and programs that promote excellence in Latin American studies. In addition to supporting our members in large research programs funded externally (e.g. ARC, DFAT) I see ANCLAS expanding its commitment to seeding grants which fund a wide range of contexts for knowledge exchange and debate: public lectures, visiting speakers, seminars, master classes, workshops and panels. ANCLAS can also promote relevant events in Canberra and across Australia, job, fellowship and internship opportunities, and significant developments in Latin American affairs.
ANCLAS has the opportunity to lead the conversation on research on Latin America, which means investing in future generations of scholars. As Director, I hope to showcase research excellence in Latin American scholarship in Australia by developing thesis and article prizes for postgraduate and early career researchers.
3. You have obviously already spent a lot of time in Canberra and at the ANU but your career has taken you to many places globally. Do you have a soft spot for any particular location/country that you’ve visited? What do you enjoy about returning to Canberra and to life at the ANU?
Anthropology as a discipline is distinguished by its use of ethnography, the intense, intimate study of a small section of human society. This method brings with it both advantages and challenges. It allows anthropologists to look into human motivations, concerns, hopes, and joys — in short, to see the fine detail of life behind the numbers of government reports, economic trends, opinion polls, and other statistics. We usually live or spend most of our time as “participant observers” with those that we write about, seeing details of private lives that would not necessarily be revealed through formal interviews or surveys. For the past fifteen years I have lived and worked in Paraguay, where I also maintain permanent residency. Two years of fieldwork in the raucous free trade zone and smuggling haven of Ciudad del Este steeped me in the daily life of transborder trade and the everyday economic practices in the informal settlements at the margins of the Tri-Border Area’s commercial boom. More recently I spent a year and a half in the agroindustrial heartland at the centre of Paraguay’s soy and cattle economy in the politically conflictive northern province of San Pedro. I maintain connections with friends, colleagues and collaborators in Paraguay even while I am in Canberra, sharing WhatsApp stickers in Guarani and vicariously celebrating the fiesta patronal for the towns I have called home while on fieldwork.
Although the flights of wild toucans and caracara eagles dotting fence posts in rural Paraguay are breathtaking, I’m always happy to come home to the cockatoos in Canberra (despite their racket). My welsh corgi dog (soon to be joined by a Paraguayan canine sibling) also prefers the colder climates in Canberra. Buffy the corgi is, of course, the unofficial mascot of ANCLAS.
4. Canberra and Australia can feel fairly removed/remote from latin American culture/s – do you have advice or can you share any insights for staying connected and involved in latin American culture/s and society etc?
We are developing an ANCLAS newsletter! Stay tuned for updates on events, significant news, and opportunities for staying connected and involved in Latin America.
And stop by my office any time to drink some Yerba Mate tea and catch up on Latin American affairs. While normally consumed steaming hot, the cold Paraguayan variant (tereré) is just perfect for hot Canberra summers.
Read more about Dr Schuster here.