Hart began her academic career as an economist, but quickly came under the influence of anthropologists during 19 months of fieldwork in a Javanese village in 1975-6. These interdisciplinary tendencies intensified after she finished her PhD and turned to working on agrarian change in Bangladesh and Malaysia. In the 1980s she also became involved in a broader collaborative project on transformations of major rice growing regions across Southeast Asia in the face of rapid technological change. Focusing on questions of power, this body of work reflects her enduring interest in how in-depth ethnographic studies and what she has come to call relational comparisons can do critical work, both analytically and politically. It also entailed doing battle with economists on a variety of topics, including the interlocking of labor, land, and relations of indebtedness; and debates over gender and the household.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Hart was transformed from an economist to a geographer, when graduate students in the Department of Urban Studies at MIT drew her attention to debates in critical human geography. Most immediately she was compelled by Doreen Massey’s feminist reformulation of space and place, and subsequently by the work of Henri Lefebvre, Allan Pred, and many others. She was also drawn to Stuart Hall’s work on articulations of race and class, which reignited an interest in Gramsci’s political economy and its contemporary salience.
These revelations came to her at a crucial moment: the end of the Cold War; the apartheid regime’s unbanning of the African National Congress and other political parties; and returning to her native South Africa in 1990 after an absence of nineteen years. During the 1980s she had led a dual existence, with a Southeast Asian academic side and a South African political side through engagement with the anti-apartheid movement in Boston. The theories she began to embrace in the late 1980s not only transformed her conception of the world; they also provided the compass that guided her as she plunged into trying to understand the forces unleashed by the formal ending of apartheid.
In the first round of research from 1994-2001, Hart traced sharply divergent post-apartheid dynamics in Ladysmith and Newcastle, two former white towns and adjacent black townships, and their connections with East Asia. Her book Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2002) draws on this work to engage critically with discourses of “globalization,” and explore alternatives to neoliberalism. In retrospect she has come to see 2001/2 as a key turning point in post-apartheid South Africa. Focusing on local government as the key site of contradictions, Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony (2013/4) draws on ongoing research in Ladysmith and Newcastle to develop a broader set of arguments about the processes that fed into the rise of Jacob Zuma, and the erosion of ANC hegemony. Currently she is working on a set of essays for a book on resurgent nationalisms and populist politics in South Africa, India, and the United States since the end of the Cold War.
At UC Berkeley Hart co-chaired the Development Studies undergraduate major with Professor Michael Watts from 1996-2016, and participated in its transformation to Global Studies. From 1998-2003 she chaired the Center for African Studies, establishing it as an Organized Research Unit and linking the Center to the Department of African American Studies. In South Africa she helped to establish one of the first coursework Masters programs in the early 1990s, and served as an Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal before being appointed as a Distinguished Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2016. In 2018 she was awarded the Vega Medal by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography for contributions to human geography.