Prof Cousins' research is strategic and use-oriented, for policy-makers and civil society groups concerned with reducing poverty and inequality through redistributing assets, securing rights and democratising decision-making in rural areas. In 2013 he received an inaugural Elinor Ostrom Award, in the senior scholars category, for his contribution to scholarship on the commons. His research is interdisciplinary, drawing on theories, concepts and insights from anthropology, sociology, development studies, political studies, history, economics, law and environmental studies. The main body of scholarship that informs his work and to which he contributes is the political economy of agrarian change, but he also draws heavily on the anthropology of law and land tenure. His work focuses on three key issues: the politics and economics of land and agrarian reform (in particular on the role of small-scale agricultural producers within such reforms); legal recognition or formalisation of customary land rights; and the changing nature of rural social organisation and systems. The scope of his research extends beyond South Africa to Africa more broadly, with a particular focus on southern Africa.
Prof Cousins was in exile for 19 years, working in agricultural training and extension in Swaziland (1976-1983) and Zimbabwe (1983-1986), and carried out research on communal grazing, livestock production and rural class formation in Zimbabwe (1986-1991). Since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s Prof Cousins has worked closely with government departments, NGOs and engaged scholars to formulate new land policies, but has also provided critiques of government policies and advocated alternative policies. He publishes regularly in the popular media and is often called upon to comment on land and rural development policies in the local and international press, radio and television media.
From 1991 to 1995, Prof Cousins lectured in Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape and held a chair in Development Management at the University of the Western Cape from 1998 to 2009. He founded and directed PLAAS from its inception in 1995 until September 2009 and was a Distinguished Visiting Professor in International Development Studies at St Mary’s University in Canada in 2008.
Prof Cousins is currently rated by South Africa’s National Research Foundation as a researcher who enjoys considerable international recognition for the high quality and impact of his recent research outputs. He has published widely in both academic and non-academic formats, and has edited or co-edited ten books.