Ben Cousins holds a DPhil in applied social science from the University of Zimbabwe (1997), and a BA in Sociology and Geography from the University of South Africa (1982). He was in exile for 19 years, worked 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). He lectured in Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape between 1991 and 1995, 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. He was a Distinguished Visiting Professor in International Development Studies at St Mary's University in Canada in 2008. He 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 5 books.
His research over the past decade has focused on the key themes of production, property and power, and their interconnections in the context of land and agrarian reform in Southern Africa. This research is strategic and use-oriented, in this instance by policy-makers and civil society groups concerned to reduce poverty and inequality through redistributing assets, securing rights and democratizing decision-making in rural areas. His research is interdisciplinary in character, 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 draw 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, and in particular on the role of small scale agricultural producers within such reforms; on the legal recognition or formalization of customary land rights; and on the changing nature of rural social organization and system.
Since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s he has worked closely with government departments, NGOs and engaged scholars in the formulation of 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 press and on radio and television, both locally and internationally. The scope of his research extends beyond South Africa to Africa more broadly, with a particular focus on Southern Africa.