Maria Giannacopoulos is a Senior Lecturer in the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University.
She trained in law at the University of Wollongong before completing a PhD in Cultural Theory at Macquarie.
Her combined expertise informs her research on law, race and colonialism in Australia. This has included work on indigenous sovereignty, migration, and most recently, sovereign debt and austerity in Greece and Australia.
My research expertise is in law, and particularly in law’s connection to colonialism and race. With Australia being a settler colonial society, our legal system is founded in conditions of colonisation. How does law organise people? How does it organise societies? How does it contribute solutions to social problems? The specific areas I’ve been focusing on are migration, refugees and asylum seekers, but also questions of land rights and indigenous sovereignties.
Why did I end up in this world? I’ve always been connected to questions of justice. Probably it’s because I am the child of migrants. My parents weren’t formally educated: they barely finished primary school and then migrated from Greece in the ‘60s. I grew up in working-class Sydney and felt the effects of racism growing up.
Feeling it always makes the questions and issues more visible to you, so I knew from a very young age that I wanted to study law. The law appealed to me because it seemed to be the way that you changed things, so that was my driver.
In my upbringing there was love and support for learning and achievement. One thing children of migrants know at their core, is that your life will never be the same as your parents. Knowing that you’re relying on the love and support of your family, who have never had the opportunities that you now have, creates a schism too.
My father worked as a butcher most of his life, a factory worker. My mum worked in cafes and factories, and I’m a senior lecturer in a law school. That’s quite a leap. But that gives you fuel as well.
Challenges and Highlights
Because I got first class honours in my undergraduate degree, I was able to get a scholarship to do a PhD. That was a real struggle. Psychologically, all of the issues that could be motivators became sources of insecurity. I was a slow submitter. I had to get some therapy to bring me out of that insecurity, and then I finished pretty quickly. The therapist said to me, ‘Maria, it sounds like you’re right on the threshold of success.’ People will step over the threshold when they feel worthy of the success, and that’s a different journey to the skill and talent journey. He got a thank-you in my PhD.
So submitting my thesis was my proudest moment. It was a very happy moment for my family. I didn’t really care what the examiners were going to say. Then, as luck would have it, I got three examiners saying that I didn’t have to make any changes!
In 2011 I got a fixed-term position at Flinders. Knowing it was a very finite position meant I had to work quite hard to prove myself; I had to show that I was worthy of keeping it. So getting a real job in 2011 was a major achievement because I had been studying for a long time, working part-time and casually. Never underestimate the value of the permanent position!
Impact and Legacy
Currently I’m writing a book about sovereign debt, austerity and the endurance of colonial power. I’m connecting for the very first time Australia’s hidden sovereign debt crisis, and comparing and contrasting that to the explicit sovereign debt crisis in Greece. I’m thinking about austerity itself as a kind of new form of colonialism or imperialism. I am hopeful this is going to make an impact in terms of how people are thinking about these questions, in particular my students.
If I can keep doing what I’m doing, a good professional legacy would be to have produced original ways to address social justice problems that are actually increasing in seriousness. The refugee/asylum seeker question, for example, is consistently an election issue. It’s a source of controversy, policymaking, and it’s not going away because people around the world are increasingly on the move as social inequalities escalate.
Advice to Younger Researchers
I know of others who have had backgrounds similar to mine but there’s not been the same love of education and ideas. I’ve known of other people who have had to really fight to be an intellectual because of that schism in their upbringing that I was talking about before, but I feel like I’ve been very blessed and I’ve been very lucky in that respect.
I feel like I was born to be an academic. So if you have those sort of feelings and you know that you’re being driven into that world for the love of the task you’re engaged in, then do it. But think carefully because it is an increasingly stressful sector; precariousness is on the rise. You have to tap into what’s driving you. Follow that and you’ll end up where you need to be.
If I Wasn't a Researcher...
If I had to have an alternative career, it would be something to do with food. I love cooking! Food gives you an opportunity to connect with people, which is a part of this job that I like. But you get more instant gratification. If I could connect it with travel and maybe the Greek Islands, that would be idyllic.