New Faculty Profile: Dr. Siân Butcher


How did you decide to become a geographer?

While getting my degree in Development Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, I took an elective during my 4th year of study called “Geography of Development” with Professor Sophie Oldfield. That class introduced me to geography’s relational approach to the political, social, economic, spatial, and environmental. The class also featured a strong emphasis on Global South scholarship, particularly scholarship around the state, race, citizenship, and land and housing struggles. Through that class, and the way geography grappled with theoretical concerns as well as the lived urgencies and contradictions of my local context, Southern Africa, in global perspective. I was inspired to become a human geographer. went on to do my Masters in geography at UCT, and then my PhD in geography at the University of Minnesota.

What is your most memorable field research experience?

Getting to know the megacity of Johannesburg through my PhD field research (2012-13) was a memorable, daunting, and rewarding experience. Growing up in the small mining towns of Zimbabwe, I had only encountered its skyscrapers and spaghetti highways from a distance. My dissertation focused on entry-level mortgaged housing in suburban Johannesburg, and how banks and developers powerfully shape this market’s terms of inclusion and exclusion. This research afforded me the opportunity to engage with homeowners, landowners, developers, bankers, housing experts and activists, government officials and a dynamic community of urban researchers. Eventually, ‘the field’ also became home. But even after years of getting to know Johannesburg by living in different neighborhoods and working as a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand from 2017, the city’s tapestry continues to inspire a certain awe and I consider myself lucky anytime I’m able to pull at one of its innumerable threads.

What are your current research interests and directions?

My research sits at the intersection of critical human geography, critical development studies and southern urbanism. I am particularly interested in what the production of ordinary, mundane places in the Global South’s “city of extremes” – the places between elite gated communities and informal settlements – has to teach us about the forces that build our cities, how power relations in urban development unfold, and which old and new mid-level concepts we can draw on to provide a deeper understanding of it all. Building on my past research, I’m focusing on how land development, the state, and residents shape “affordable suburbanization” in developer-driven housing for a growing Black middle class, and how that in turn impacts post-apartheid socio-spatial change in greater Johannesburg. I am excited to contribute to a worldly and critical urban geographic scholarship on property and real estate projects and processes through this work.