Category Archives: Anthropology

Entangled in/equalities in African societies

Check out my academic commentary recently published by the Finnish journal Suomen Antropologi, as part of a forum on anthropologist Harri Englund’s insightful book Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio (Indiana University Press, 2011). The article’s title is “Entangled In/Equalities in African Societies”.

Englund’s masterful ethnography focuses on a popular radio programme that collects listeners’ stories about rights and wrongs of everyday life in rural Malawi. In my response, I engage with his careful exploration of alternative conceptions of equality in Malawi.

The gist of this piece is that Western conceptions cannot be uncritically transposed to southern African contexts, especially when it comes to development interventions and human rights initiatives. Many development practitioners and policy makers tend to gloss over the local entanglements of equality and inequality in African societies.

Englund’s book is part of a wider body of scholarship in southern African anthropology that has much to contribute to the recent surge of interest in inequality following the Piketty phenomenon, and to the design and implementation of effective anti-poverty measures.

Here is an extract from my article:

“The publics Englund engages with do not condemn inequality per se, but rather the excesses of individuals in position of authority who do not fulfil their obligations towards their weaker dependents. Employers are not expected to redistribute their wealth according to some abstract measure of equality, but moral outrage is expressed when they are not able to provide for the basic needs of their employees. Schoolteachers enjoy the benefit of high social status and are widely respected, but they are expected in exchange to make sure that they provide children with an excellent education.

Englund’s highly original argument is that such moral claims and disciplining by the poor … of figures of power and authority are only possible because a relationship of equality holds between the two. Equality then is not a goal to be achieved through specific policies, but rather a pre-condition of any social relation worthy of the name. This existential condition of equality is constantly fostered and nurtured in multiple ways, from sharing food, drinks and familial affects in conviviality to bodily and symbolic communion and exchange in ritual and religion.”


White womanhood and the reproduction of whiteness

I came across an insightful article by Cecily Jones on colonial race ideologies and the centrality of gender in the reproduction of whiteness. This is a neglected aspect in debates around race and racism, in fact a common argument by many liberals remains that people are ‘free’ to marry (hence socially reproduce) within their own racial (or ‘cultural’) group, and that should not be of concern in a ‘multi-racial’ society – in other words, this narrative claims that this has to do with socio-cultural preferences, and does not by itself produce racism and racial inequality.

This perspective can be easily shown as problematic when one considers some of Jones’ observations on colonial Caribbean society:

“… while white males of all stations freely appropriated and exploited the sexuality and reproductive labour of African women, they rigorously enforced prohibitions against relationships between ‘their’ white women and all black males.

This regulation of white colonial womanhood became the essential aspect upon which whiteness would stand or fall. Sexual relations between white females and black males posed a profound threat to the racial social order. Colonial law dictated that, for unfree individuals, children followed the legal status of their mother. This ensured that African women’s bodies were the literal embodiment of unfreedom, while white wombs served as the incubators of freedom. As white males could not imagine a future population of free coloured people, they secured both their own patriarchal power and white supremacy through the regulation of white female sexuality.”

The context of former British settler colonies in Africa is different, especially when colonialism was not preceded by slave trade. Yet, in these societies white womanhood was, and in many ways still is, key in the reproduction of whiteness. This is something that liberal discourse often tends to miss in favour of a focus on race and racism as produced by prejudices and beliefs as rhetorical devices, rather than social practices involving marriage, relationships and other social institutions.

The human economy hits Italian shores

The human economy approach hits Italian shores in the last number of historic liberal left-wing journal Critica Liberale, just appeared in print.

In a brilliant piece titled “La globalizzazione dell’apartheid [The globalization of apartheid]”, Keith Hart, LSE Centennial Professor and co-director of the Human Economy Programme in Pretoria, engages Europe and European liberalism from a global south perspective, more specifically South Africa and its regional economy. He builds on some of the arguments in a piece recently appeared in Anthropology Today, and an older article of some years ago from his Memory Bank website.

In my article “Tra stato, mercato e societa’: la crisi italiana e l’economia umana [Between state, market and society: the Italian crisis and the human economy]”, I try to explore some of the possibilities of developing a human economy approach to understand the Italian crisis, with a strong focus on informality and society to counter more common top-down state-market analyses.

Claudia Lopedote, sitting in the editorial board of the journal, provides the essential linkages between the human economy experience and Italian debates in her piece “Economia umana [Human economy]”.

South Africa in world development: prospects for a human economy

I am thrilled to announce the publication of an article I co-authored with John Sharp (University of Pretoria) and Keith Hart (LSE/University of Pretoria) on South Africa in the world, in the latest issue of Anthropology Today, a high-impact anthropology journal that aims to foster anthropological engagement with current affairs and topical issues.

This is one of the many products of a collaboration with the directors of the Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria that has been going on for nearly two years.

The article is in many ways a partial retrospect on 20 years of democracy in South Africa; it also works as a sort of programmatic agenda for some of the crucial issues that need to be addressed on a global level by humankind, if we wish to work towards a better world for all. It is, most of all, a call for movement as a universal human right and one of the most powerful antidotes to inequality and exclusion.

You can post responses to this article at

Public involvement in research: assessing impact through a realist evaluation

Check out this collective report recently published following a major study of public involvement in research (PIR) I was part of when working at Bristol UWE (2011-2013), funded by the National Institute of Health Research (UK). PIR is a policy term for the increasing trend in health sciences towards the involvement of members of the public (usually with relevant personal experience in the area of the study) in health and clinical research – i.e. not as research participants, but as active advisers to the research team. We carried out qualitative research in eight health sciences projects across England and Wales studying their practices of PIR.

With some people on the team, we are also about to submit for review a collective autoethnographic paper detailing some of the experiences of the academics and the lay researchers involved in the complex process of gaining permissions from the NHS trusts to conduct research in the project fieldsites. This proved particularly challenging for lay researchers as they did not easily fit the “professional expert” criteria around which these procedures are set.

The project work was a very interesting experience for me, as I learnt a great deal about the tensions and interactions at play in health sciences, a key sector where multiple actors converge, from the NHS to the major funders of health research and a variety of publics represented by different civil society associations and other organisations.

My Review of the book “Human Rights and African Airwaves” by Harri Englund

Harri Englund. 2011. Human Rights and African Airwaves: mediating equality on the Chichewa radio. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Building on several years of anthropological fieldwork in Malawi, Harri Englund offers the reader a detailed account of the narratives and the editorial mechanisms of a popular radio program in Chichewa, the lingua franca of Malawi, reporting on local stories from all parts of the country. Anybody can submit a story, and the ones selected are then skilfully crafted for aesthetic efficacy and popular appeal by senior editors. The stories and the processes of producing and broadcasting them provide unusually profound insights into the everyday life of people in Malawi. The imagination of Malawians comes to the fore, with their views of morality and proper behaviour. More often than not, the stories are a commentary about poverty and inequality, but from a perspective that differs from the official human rights and pro-democracy discourses of NGOs and politicians. The narratives primarily features figures of authority – like village headmen and headteachers, among others – and their failures in fulfilling their obligations towards the people they have power over. Condemnation of inappropriate behaviour then becomes an equalising tool of the poor to make sure that people in power fulfil their obligations towards them.

Englund cogently notes the radical differences between local views of personhood, morality and obligation, and the official discourse of human rights imposed by the national educated elites and the international organisations. The author also contests the idea that equality belongs necessarily to the realm of universal discourses of human rights, a domain in which local people have often little or no voice. Hierarchical and unequal relationships of the kind Malawians engage with in their everyday life are always posited on equality as a condition of all social relationships. Englund opposes this view of equality emerging from the voices of the Malawian poor to the business of equality as a utopia to be championed by the vanguard of the ‘enlightened’ national and international elites.

This is an essential reading for anybody interested in contemporary African politics and anthropology, African views of politics and morality, and the controversial local and international practices and discourses surrounding increasingly contested terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. Its highly detailed, accurate and engaging empirical descriptions of local realities are coupled by a theoretical argumentation that reaches well beyond the specific case of a Malawian radio program. Englund’s book is an example of contemporary anthropology at its best.