School of Social and Political Science

Jamie Furniss

Job Title

Lecturer in International Development


Please note: From January 2018 I am on leave from the University of Edinburgh for a research fellowship at the Institute for Research on the Contemporary Maghreb in Tunis.

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Biographical statement

My first degrees were in civil and common law and I worked for a time at the Supreme Court of Canada before passing the Bar of Ontario. Things took a different turn, however, when I decided to take a break--or so I thought at the time--from law in order to study Arabic in Cairo and International Development in Oxford...

Today I am an anthropologist working mainly on topics related to 'development' and the environment, especially waste, in Arabic-speaking societies of the Middle East and North Africa. I joined the University of Edinburgh in 2013 after working as a CNRS/Lyon 2 post-doctoral fellow in France.


As a post-doctoral fellow at the CNRS/University of Lyon 2’s Groupe de recherches et d'études sur la Méditerranée et le Moyen-Orient, I taught a variety of regional courses focussed on the Middle East, and one introductory International Development class. These were taught to geography and political science students:

  • International Development and the Global South
  • Introduction to the Middle East and North Africa
  • Socio-economic and territorial change in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Middle Eastern Society: groups, individuals, practices and representations

Since joining the University of Edinburgh I have been programme director for the MSc in International Development and have convened/sole taught the following courses:

  • Social Development
  • Urban Development
  • International development: research design and practice
  • Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa
  • Fundamentals: Studying Anthropology

Courses convened by others on which I have delivered a portion of the teaching include:

  • Sustainable Development
  • Politics and Theories of International Development
  • Ethnography Seminar

These are principally masters and honours (3rd/4th year undergrad) level, however many of them are introductory. Class sizes have varied from small seminars of twelve students to large amphitheatres of 120.


Having been myself educated in Canada and the UK, and having taught students from a range of disciplinary and national backgrounds (often together in the same classroom), in both the French and British systems, in large and small classrooms, I have experience with a range of different lecture, discussion and evaluation techniques and am well aware of the differences in 'teaching cultures' betwee North America, the UK, and continental Europe.

I am especially committed to developing assessment modes and timelines that maximize student development and ensure feedback leads to improvement. This includes incorporating ‘formative’ feedback and ‘feedforward’ that provide information about learners’ progression at frequent and timely intervals on low/medium-stakes assessments. I also encourage students to develop critical skills with respect to their own work and that of others through self-review and peer assessments.

Whenever possible I prioritize a seminar-style with weekly readings and discussions. In order to encourage participation and structure students’ independent learning hours, I generally require weekly reading responses from students. In class, I employ a variety of activities, including student presentations, debates, break-out or ‘buzz’ groups, and extended Socratic style dialogues.


Please get in touch if your are interested in doing a PhD on a topic or in a region where I work.

Current PhD students

  • Declan Murray, Solar Waste? An ethnography of repair in Kenya’s photovoltaic economy
  • Tatianna Mello Pereira da Silva, And yet they move! Mobility and rural livelihoods among Syrian refugees in Mafraq, Jordan
  • Ann-Christin Wagner, Traces of trash: an analysis of the social, spatial and material dimensions of the recycling chain of PET bottles in Brazil

Former PhD Students :

I have successfully supervised approximately 40 honours undergraduate and masters dissertations, of which a number have been 8 week ‘work-based placements’.

Selected bibliography

Furniss, J. (2010). Private Sector Reform of Solid Waste Management in Egypt. In A. A. C. Georgina, M. Gómez, P. Goulart, R. Namara (Eds).Participation for what: Social change or social control? The Hague, Hivos, Oxfam-Novib and ISS Publications: 99-138.

Furniss, J. (2012a). Metaphors of Waste: Several Ways of Seeing "Development" and Cairo's Garbage Collectors. University of Oxford D.Phil Thesis.

Furniss, J. (2012b). Religion, Humanitarianism and Development: The Secular Materialist 'Mission' of Sœur Emmanuelle with Cairo's Garbage Collectors. A Contrario 2012/2(18): 97-123.

Furniss, J. (2012c). What Did Neoliberalism Change for Waste? Foreign Waste Collection Companies in Cairo. Anthropology News 53(8): 10-11.

Furniss, J. (2015). Alternative framings of transnational waste flows: reflections based on the Egypt–China PET plastic trade. AREA 47(1): 24-30.

Furniss, J. (2016). Postrevolutionary land encroachments in Cairo: Rhizomatic urban space making and the line of flight from illegality. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 37: 310-329.

Furniss, J. (2017). What type of Problem is Waste in Egypt. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (Final author manuscript accepted 10/4/2017).

Furniss, J. and P. Desvaux (2015). Hybridations formelles informelles. Gestion des déchets au Caire après la délégation à des entreprises internationales. In K. Bennafla (Ed). Acteurs et pouvoirs dans les villes du Maghreb et du Moyen-Orient. Actes du colloque, Lyon, 29-30 octobre 2012. Paris, Karthala: 219-238.

Furniss, J. and P. Desvaux (2018). L’Etat et la valorisation informelle des déchets au Caire : entre prédation économique et renforcement des logiques marchandes. In S. Jaglin and L. Debout (Eds).Valorisation des déchets dans les villes du Sud. Enjeux socio-spatiaux et économiques des filières. (Final author manuscript accepted 3/4/2017).

Furniss, J. and G. du Roy (2010). Sœur Emmanuelle et les chiffonniers : partage de vie et développement 1971-1982. In O. Servais and C. Sappia. (Eds). Christianisme et politiques: désengagements des acteurs de la mission. Paris, Karthala: 87-101.

Ongoing and future projects

  • I continue to be interested in the topic of waste and the environment. Broadening my fieldwork base while maintaining a focus on the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, I have begun some work in Tunisia.
  • I have been conducting fieldwork on extrajudicial reconciliation ceremonies in criminal cases in Egypt.
  • I have begun a new project on tobacco consumption, the ambition of which is to expand our understanding of new/emergent patterns of smoking in Egypt and the Middle East.

"Knowledge Transfer" and "Impact" Activities

I have been lucky enough, because of the public appeal and importance of some of the topics I work on, to be able to participate in some museum exhibitions, artistic performances, and documentary film/television projects:

Museum Exhibition

Lives of Garbage: The Economy of Waste was a 1200 square meter temporary exhibition at the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Marseille, 22 March - 14 August 2017) to which 129,195 tickets were sold.

"Based on original ethnographic research, this exhibition aims to raise public awareness about individual and collective waste management by exploring the ways that we collect, sort, repair, and transform refuse with the inventiveness that springs from necessity. Whether subject to diversions or high-tech treatments, waste gives shape to our landscapes and our social relations. Through more than 450 objects, documents, installations, films, maps, this exhibition invites you on a journey around the Mediterranean, to discover landscapes, technologies, recycled and reused objects, and above all to meet the men and women who manage our waste, subsisting and often suffering, because of it."

I was on the advisory committee for the exhibition as a whole, authored two catalogue entries, co-edited/coordinated an accompanying peer reviewed publication of a special issue of the journal Techniques & Culture (504 p., 350 ill.), and was the lead for the Cairo pavilion, 1 of three featured pavilions in the exhibition. My role as a researcher for the pavilion involved coordinating and conducting fieldwork and collection missions over 2.5 years leading up to the exhibition, in the course of which we collected photos, videos, sound recordings and objects (the biggest of these, a motorized tricycle used by itinerant scrap collectors, which we exported from Egypt to France and which then entered the museum’s permanent collection, was the largest item collected for the exhibition). Portions of the exhibition (including the Egypt pavilion), have been exhibited elsewhere, in South Korea, Egypt, and Toulouse.

Performance art

My Neighbourhood” is photographic, spoken word and musical show about Cairo’s waste collectors, authored and performed by former Cairo Opera House violinist Christian Stejskal partially on the basis of my research.

"This show is a colourful personal journey from Christian Stejskal's birth city of Vienna to Ethiopia by foot, then into the lives of Cairo’s rubbish collectors, whom he met during this pilgrimage. After finishing his walk in Axum, he returned to Cairo and lived with the Zabbaleen ('garbage people').

Supporting himself as a violinist at the Cairo Opera House, Christian spent five years taking photos and listening to stories of their joys, struggles, tragedies, and small triumphs. Through seven spoken-word vignettes, photos, and music performed live on the violin, this show recounts lives of the Zabbaleen and his encounter with them."

The show has been performed over 100 times in Scandinavia, Egypt and Scotland to an estimated total audience of 3000 spectators. With ESRC Impact funding I coordinated a series of performances in Scotland, where among other things it received a 4 star review at the 2016 Fringe.

Documentary film and Television

I contributed as assistant director to the Cairo episode of the ARTE documentary ‘Petites Histoires de nos ordures,’ shown on television in France and Germany, and the series ‘Trashopolis,’ shown in North America on the Smithsonian Channel, the History Channel, and the National Geographic Channel.


I have given a TEDx talk, ‘The World’s Best Recyclers Aren’t Environmentalists’, which so far has received about 8,500 youtube views.


I am an occasional translator of academic articles or books from French to English. Most notable of these is François Laplantine's Le social et le sensible, introduction à une antrhopologie modale, published in a series on Sensory Studies edited by David Howes (Concordia).

Research interests

Research interests

Middle East and North Africa, Anthropology of development, Egypt, Waste and waste collectors

Follow me on for details of my publications, drafts of works in progress, and other aspects of my academic work.

Over the past ten years since beginning my training in Oxford, my research has focused mainly on waste and waste collectors. I have sought to use the material of waste, its value chains, and the locations and people involved in its collection and processing as a heuristic through which to contribute to the study of international development and humanitarianism, environment/‘discard’ studies, regional studies on the Middle East and North Africa, and themes such as urban informality and global flows of materials and ideas. I attempt to adopt an anthropological approach, publishing also in human geography, area studies, and interdisciplinarily.

Some of the topics on which I have written include:

  • Changing modes of governance, in particular neoliberal reforms of public services and their consequences on the informal sector (Furniss 2010, 2012c, Desvaux and Furniss 2015)
  • Evolutions in the theory and practice of development (Furniss 2012a), including religious genealogies of contemporary development and the blurring of the boundaries between religious and secular in humanitarianism and development (Furniss and du Roy 2010, Furniss 2012b)
  • Recycling economies (Furniss and Desvaux 2018), including ‘south-south’ transnational waste flows and new geographies of circulation (Furniss 2015)
  • Informal housing, urban space making on the margins of the city, and illegality (Furniss 2016)
  • Alternative conceptions of ‘environment’ and ‘waste’ as a critique of the Douglassian paradigm and a contribution to ‘discard studies’ and the new anthropology of waste (Furniss 2017)

Topics interested in supervising

Middle East; Waste; Environment; International Development

If you are interested in being supervised by Jamie Furniss, please see the links below for more information:

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