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With quals just behind me and research ramping up, I've been struggling to come to terms with my academic identity and to rekindle a passion for my research that I know is there, but has been dormant for the last little while. It struck me that one book in particular has influenced me more than any other in the last year -- and this has been a particularly mind-expanding year for me. (I'll post more article and book summaries soon to demonstrate.) But for anyone interested in development, modernization, globalization, or Africa -- or any combination of these -- I highly, highly recommend Global Shadows by James Ferguson. It's extremely well-written, and though certainly not an "easy" read, it is very illuminating. In a way, it has both opened my eyes and (temporarily, hopefully) paralyzed me -- I can't help but think that there's just too much that I don't know for me to make any useful difference. But Ferguson himself would not accept such an excuse (I've taken a class with him and am pretty sure of this), so I'm back in the ring, taking more anthropology, equipping myself to grapple effectively with such thorny, complicated issues. (As a side note, I scoff at anyone who thinks computer science or statistics is harder than this stuff. I've done both; I know.)

Below is the summary I wrote of the book last November. It's very long, but for those of you interested in these topics, I think it is worth the time and effort -- and the book even more so! (I was thinking of dividing this across multiple posts, but wanted any ensuing discussion -- and I hope there's some! -- to happen in one place, so I chose not to.)

What is “Africa”? What are globalization, development and modernity? These concepts – though they may be at times vague and ill-conceived – nonetheless play a central role in discourses, economic and otherwise, about the fate of the many interconnected yet unique groups on the continent. It is understandable, James Ferguson argues, for anthropologists to dismiss the notion of a unitary “Africa” as culturally absurd, but the fact remains that just such a notion is used by many around the world, including those in Africa, to justify political and economic decisions from which anthropologists have been largely absent. In this book, Ferguson proposes ways of defining (or redefining) the idea of “Africa,” as well as the ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” He calls on anthropologists to face these and other similar issues head-on, and to address themselves to wider audiences, in their own work.

How is “Africa” defined? Africa is a place that confounds the definitions of modernity, development, and globalization: many of the usual hopes and fears associated with these concepts simply don’t fit the case of Africa. Ferguson says Africa is often defined “through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” – when Africa is even present at all in discussion, it is as a “shadow” place of “black” markets and informal economies, parallel to, or echoing, the “legitimate,” “authentic” ones. But this view is inaccurate and inadequate, just as anthropologists’ status-blind celebration of the cultural diversity of Africa is. The latter, Ferguson argues, blithely ignores the stark economic inequalities between various regions of the world.

Globalization )and modernity )and development, oh my! )

a 'native' perspective from Zambia )

the real face of modern foreign investment in Africa )

Economic language and Africa )

Complicating neat definitions of 'local' and 'national' ) (As a side note, this strikes a chord with me because my home discipline of communication has been working to address this issue for years.)

These new definitions suggest intriguing directions for anthropology and for thinking about Africa, modernity, development, and globalization (and “civil society”) more generally. First, how could this be taken up in our own work? What issues are there with the definitions as Ferguson has presented them – do we buy them? Second, how do they reflect on other authors we’ve read: Charles Piot’s arguments for African modernity in Togo (Ferguson explicitly critiques this on page 167), the “informal” but highly organized and hierarchical economic structures Janet Roitman documented in areas in and around Cameroon (seems to fit with Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/national/international to some degree), Liisa Malkki’s discussion of how refugees in Tanzania imagine themselves, Donald Moore’s documentation of discipline and skirmishes between local and state in Zimbabwe (where would Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/state fit with this?), Louise Meintjes’ overseas-focused musicians in Johannesburg, Nuttall and Mbembe’s ideas around Johannesburg modernity and their call to approach studies in Africa not as intrinsically “other” but a place like any other place? Finally, what can we make of Ferguson’s rallying call to anthropologists to actually weigh in on political debates, instead of (sometimes purposefully) standing by the sidelines and remaining in academic circles – do we buy that, and what are its implications? What is the future of anthropology in an increasingly non-local, status-defined world?
chimerically: (almost 2 years old)
Here's your daily dose of evil, as heard on NPR a few minutes ago. Donegal International bought a portion of Zambia's national debt, worth $55 million, for $3 million a few years ago, counting on rumors that Zambia's debts would be canceled (and relying on precedents of another vulture company successfully suing two Latin American countries for canceled debts it purchased). Sure enough, the Zambian debts were canceled, and now they're suing the Zambian government for the full value of their "investment." One Zambian official said that this amount could have hired 6,000 teachers and opened a hospital ... but instead it has to be spent on making some billionaires even richer. Sort of defeats the purpose of debt cancellation, dunnit?

"A British court recently ruled that Donegal International ... has the right to profit from its purchase of millions of dollars worth of Zambia’s debt – acquired for a tiny fraction of its face value eight years ago. ... The Donegal case in Zambia shows just how skewed the current financial system is towards the interests of the wealthy. Before reaching a debt cancellation agreement, an impoverished country must borrow from the international financial institutions in order to repay wealthy creditors and those same financial institutions."
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I learned today that my Healthy Cities poster got into UbiComp, and got great reviews besides! *cheers*

Yesterday my car did not pass smog. What kind of environmentalist am I? (Answer: a broke one. I'd buy a Civic hybrid if I could ... or use public transit if it were more reliable! Speaking of which, the bus was 18 minutes late yesterday, and the driver was a prick. Good thing I'm finally close enough to campus to rollerblade - and maybe my neck is better enough to bike again.)

Today I started yoga, databases, and compilers, and talked again with A.J., my research advisor at U. Washington. Today was also the first class of Political and Economic Development in the Third World. The professor is an incisive, expressive fellow from Guyana, full of stories and anecdotes and seditious comments. Each student has to lead a panel discussion this semester, and I asked him if he could add a panel on information technology in developing countries. I also volunteered to make a website for the class, of course. Here are a few anecdotes from class:

The US economy depends on continuous expansion of demand. If the mean income in the US drops, the very basis of our economy - spending as much as possible, the sale of luxury goods, etc. - starts to erode, investments drop, people spend even less, fees go up, and we spiral into depression. Your interests are vested in the system, even though the system is unsustainable; in this way, we are all exploiters, just by living in this country.

What about Cuba? The income range in Cuba is $15-$25/month, but they don't have to worry about education, health care, or housing (10% of your income covers housing). They have trouble imagining a system where you have to worry about having a high income to cover housing, transportation, and health care - just as we have trouble imagining a system where there is no clean water, sewage, or access to food and other goods.

How do you get out of an unsustainable system, like the US? How much would nationalized health-care make a difference? How would nationalized health-care be paid for, and how would it affect the current economic situation?

Overseas work is cheap - more in the range of $1/day, rather than the US $20/hour (for comparable work with benefits etc.) - and transportation is cheap also, so it's no wonder companies export labor.

What convinces people that they have to pay $120 for Nike shoes? The shoe is produced for $9 - labor is cheap since conditions are poor, there are no benefits, and factories employ women - and the rest is marketing, plus maybe pumps, lights, etc., changing every three months. The differences go to the shareholders; it accumulates wealth, generates taxes, and creates the conditions for infrastructures and public education.

How does the system justify exploitation? There are concepts of "deserving", along income, racial, gender, etc. lines. Presumption of innocence goes to the wealthy, and excuses emerge. Why does A. Shwartzenegger deserve to run California? He's from Europe, white, wealthy, and male. Say a qualified woman originally from Rwanda was to run - people would presume that because she's from Africa, black, female, she couldn't possibly be in a position of power. A.S. claims the Horatio Algiers story - his family in Austria was poor, and he came to California with little - and since he made it when others didn't, he's obviously more deserving. We all believe we deserve what we have, or more ... and all it takes is more effort, morality, or to get more.


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January 2011

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