Author interview – Fiona Mackenzie talks about 'Places of Possibility: Property, Nature and Community Land Ownership'

MackenzieA. Fiona D. Mackenzie’s Places of Possibility: Property, Nature and Community Land Ownership was published last December in the Antipode Book Series. Here we catch up with Fiona and discuss the book (which explores how community land ownership can open up the political, social, environmental, and economic terrain to more socially just and sustainable possibilities than private ownership – you can read a review here), its history, and her future projects…

What’s Places of Possibility all about? What’s its central argument?

Places of Possibility tells the story of how the North Harris Trust, a community land owning organisation in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, is in the process of reversing processes of dispossession that have taken different forms over the last several centuries. Through this case study, the book shows how people, collectively, are reworking practices of property and nature in the search for more socially just and sustainable futures.

The story is told in the broader context of land reform in Scotland and how, through this struggle, people engage with questions of property, nature and neoliberalism. As I show in the book, community land ownership disrupts prevailing norms of neoliberal practice with respect to property and nature, pointing the way towards more socially just and sustainable possibilities. More specifically, I argue that “the complicated and contingent process of ‘commoning’ the land through community ownership troubles binaries – of public/private and nature/culture – and through these disruptions creates a space/place where neoliberalism’s normalising practices are countered”(p.4). I show how the North Harris Trust and, more broadly, the Outer Hebrides, are places of possibility where norms that had previously defined political possibility are now disturbed and new imaginaries suggested.

You’ve worked in the Outer Hebrides from the mid-1990s. In that time how has the focus of your work changed, and in what ways has it remained the same? How have the questions you ask developed over that period?

When I began research on the Isle of Harris, my centre of attention was a multinational company’s proposal to locate a superquarry within a National Scenic Area at Lingerbay in the south of the island. The title of the first article published on this research (echoing the title of John McGrath’s popular play about Scotland’s claim to the North Sea’s ‘black, black oil’), ‘“The Cheviot, The Stag … and The White, White Rock?”: Community, identity, and environmental threat on the Isle of Harris’ (Mackenzie 1998) – demonstrates a focus on ongoing processes of dispossession on the island and of community groups mobilised both to support and to resist the proposal.

Theoretically, I drew then, as I have in the book on community land ownership, on Michel Foucault’s analytics of power – on the ‘workings’ or ‘how’ of power. But in more recent research which dates from 2002 when the North Harris Estate was placed on the market, I have focused more specifically on Foucault’s writing on the production of norms, processes of normalisation and their reversability in order to open up the meanings of property, nature and neoliberalism and to conjure what J.K. Gibson-Graham (2006) calls a ‘politics of possibility’. In the book, I also draw on Judith Butler’s (2004) wonderful publication, Undoing Gender, to take Foucault’s ideas on norms and their reversability forward. Her work focuses on the categories ‘gender’ and ‘human’, but is invaluable for providing an analytic template for ‘undoing’ the categories of property and nature, showing how contingent and transformable these categories are and thus how disruptions of the norms through which they are constituted by community land ownership introduce a politics of new possibilities.

A conceptual focus on norms and their unsettling has thus allowed me to think more incisively about how ‘property’ and ‘nature’, rather than ‘land’ and the ‘environment’, which informed my earlier work, are part and parcel of the performance of new political subjectivities.

It’s clear from the book that radical geographers shouldn’t have their heads in the sand about the possibility of alternate ways of ‘doing’ property and nature; another world is not just possible, it’s present and proximate (as you put it, community land ownership ‘works’). Given this, I wonder if you might say something about the difficulty of pointing ourselves towards the world differently; we shouldn’t have our heads in the clouds about that, right?

There may indeed be a challenge to point ‘ourselves towards the world differently’ as you suggest, but perhaps the challenge lies more in terms of carrying out the research than at the level of theory. For me, the theoretical grounds have been firmly identified by social scientists outwith geography, such as those I have identified above, and by critical geographers. Nicholas Blomley’s (2004) work on ‘unsettling the city’, as one example, has been enormously important to me in terms of refiguring how property is conceptualised. And Bruce Braun’s (2002) work on nature has been indispensible. It is writing such as this – by Foucault and Butler, Blomley and Braun – with its sharp critical edges, that provides the theoretical tools for working against any tendency to romanticise resistance or allow our heads to be lost in the clouds. It supports an endeavour to keep our feet remain firmly on the ground.

Recognising the criticisms that may be levelled at any attempt to point to the possible, I have taken care in the book to identify complexity, contradiction and contingency as property and nature are struggled over. These categories are shown to be not in some sense ‘finished’ but still underway, still the subject of negotiation or dispute. Community land ownership is hard work as I trust the book shows.

To turn to matters to do with the practice of research, as examples, both Blomley’s and Braun’s work has in common is a reliance on very detailed research. If the research is to open up spaces/places where previously silenced voices are heard – where ‘differential geographies’ in Noel Castree’s (2003) words are explored – of necessity intensive labour will be called for. There is no other way to explore complexity, contradiction and contingency, to mark out the disturbances through which political possibilities emerge, than detailed empirical research, often taking the form of a case study. As such, its aim is not to promote generalisation but, as Gillian Hart (2004: 97) notes, through examining the particularities of a place to identify and probe “constitutive processes and a means for reconfiguring understandings and practices”.

It is also the case that such investigation may require the researcher to be an active participant in the struggle in question. While this may be deeply meaningful in several ways – and may indeed be of value to research participants – it may add to the demands of an already intensive labour undertaking. None of this is always easy to balance with other academic responsibilities.

Your work is overtly (rather than subliminally, as it were) ‘performative’: working with people striving for alternative ways of relating to each other, property and nature (producing and sustaining a commons, consuming products, thinking about necessity, appropriating and distributing surplus etc.), you explicitly seek to proliferate those possibilities, help cultivate that potential in some way. Could you say something about your methods, how you engage communities in the field and the ways your work might ‘work’ now it’s published?

In carrying out this research, I was primarily working with the North Harris Trust – its board of directors, its employees, and its membership. As a first step, it was absolutely vital that I establish a working relationship with the Trust. A commitment to long-term research on the island was critical here. I had been carrying out research on the Isle of Harris for seven years when the issue of community land ownership was raised. A fair number of people knew me. The North Harris Estate was placed on the market in 2002 and, at that time, I negotiated a research relationship with the directors. My main ‘task’ as I saw it was, as someone said, ‘to get the story out’. This I tried to do, initially by documenting progress through reports written for the North Harris Trust, the community land owning body. I also wrote articles for a bi-weekly local newsletter and letters to the editor of The West Highland Press. In addition, I participated in Trust directors’ meetings, community-initiated events, community-focused meetings such as those on renewable energy and housing, and other local gatherings. I also gave papers at academic conferences and published in academic journals.

As I identify in the book, I extended the network of participants in the research through meetings with members of other community land owning bodies and key personnel in local government, the Scottish Government, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, the John Muir Trust, and the Scottish Crofting Federation. The research also drew on primary documentary material from these and other sources, and on literature, particularly poetry, from the Gaidhealtachd.

It is an immense privilege for me to have the book published as part of the Antipode Book Series. As such, its primary audience is undoubtedly a global academic one. But I have been honoured to see that its audience is considerably broader than this. Members of community land owning groups, particularly in the Outer Hebrides, are reading the book. It is reaching into the domain of two Cross-Party Working Groups in the Scottish Parliament which include Members of the Scottish Parliament, policy makers, members of non-governmental organisations, academics, and members of the public. It may be found in the bookshop in the Ceilidh Place in the village of Ullapool in Scotland’s northwest. It was discussed at some length by one of the keynote speakers at the annual conference of Community Land Scotland at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Isle of Skye, in June 2013. The book is indeed ‘working’ and will, I hope, continue to be read in some unexpected as well as expected places.

What’s next? Are there current or future projects you’d like to tell us about?

Community Land Scotland was established in 2010 as the umbrella group to represent the interests of community land owning groups in Scotland. As was apparent at the conference held in June 2013, its membership has grown phenomenally in three years. Having retired from academic employment a year and a half ago, I am now engaged in a voluntary capacity in doing some background research for the organisation.


Blomley N (2004) Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of Property. New York: Routledge

Braun B (2002) The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Butler J (2004) Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge

Castree N (2003) Differential geographies: Place, indigenous rights, and ‘local’ resources. Political Geography 23(2):133-167

Gibson-Graham J K (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Hart G (2004) Geography and development: Critical ethnographies. Progress in Human Geography 28(1):91-100

Mackenzie A F D (1998) “The Cheviot, The Stag … and The White, White Rock?”: Community, identity, and environmental threat on the Isle of Harris. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16(5):509-532

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The Antipode Book Series explores radical geography ‘antipodally,’ in opposition, from various margins, limits or borderlands.

Antipode books provide insight ‘from elsewhere,’ across boundaries rarely transgressed, with internationalist ambition and located insight; they diagnose grounded critique emerging from particular contradictory social relations in order to sharpen the stakes and broaden public awareness. An Antipode book might revise scholarly debates by pushing at disciplinary boundaries, or by showing what happens to a problem as it moves or changes. It might investigate entanglements of power and struggle in particular sites, but with lessons that travel with surprising echoes elsewhere.

Antipode books will be theoretically bold and empirically rich, written in lively, accessible prose that does not sacrifice clarity at the altar of sophistication. We seek books from within and beyond the discipline of geography that deploy geographical critique in order to understand and transform our fractured world.

Book Series Editors: Vinay Gidwani (University of Minnesota, USA) and Sharad Chari (University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa)