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James H. Smith

Education

  • Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Chicago, 2002
  • M.A., Anthropology, University of Chicago
  • B.A., Anthropology, & Social Thought/Political Economy, Univ. of Mass., Amherst

About

My work, broadly construed, concerns how postcolonial Africans make sense of, act on, and forge innovative responses to contemporary global processes and transformations, including dispossession and regulatory efforts aimed at controlling or restricting their mobility and movement.   Often they do this by appropriating, transforming and redirecting powerful post/colonial forces that have been aimed against them.

My first book, Bewitching Development (University of Chicago Press, 2008), emerged from a question that was put to me by some of my interlocuters in the Taita Hills, Kenya, an area surrounded by and essentially incarcerated within a famous game park that Taita people receive no revenue from.  When I had asked my Taita friends what I should write my dissertation about, some responded with the question, “Why are the witches holding back development?”  Upon following their line of inquiry, I eventually found, among other things, that Wataita had responded to a long history of development interventions—from state-driven land consolidation/privatization projects to more recent NGO-driven efforts to generate development---by reimagining what “true” development (in Swahili, maendeleo) meant, often in opposition to these interventions.  Ironically, many held that the model of development that had been foisted on them—involving land privatization, increased inequality, accumulation by dispossession, and an idea of homo economicus, among other things-- was productive of and synonymous with “witchcraft,” or uchawi (for reasons that turned out to be important, they often used the English term witchcraft to indicate that this was a global, and not only a local moral-political problem),  They understood “witchcraft” to mean secretive and selfish accumulation at the expense of others, rather than magic or occultism (thus, redirecting irrigation canals for one's personal benefit was understood by most to be witchcraft while rainmaking was not).  Ultimately, those who epitomized “development” from the point of view of Western development economists were in fact witches from the Taita perspective.  This bottom-up questioning and theorizing around development undergirded multiple bottom-up diverse interventions centered on disrupting linear Western understandings of development (I called this questioning, and the lines of flight that emerged from it, tempopolitics). 

Since 2006, I have been engaged in a major new project, conducting ethnographic research in the Eastern Congo on the mining and regulation of coltan the other “3 Ts” (tantalum, tin, and tungsten), minerals essential for electronic and digital devices.  The manuscript (The Eyes of the World, forthcoming 2021) examines the coltan supply chain, and other features of global capitalism, from the point of view of those at the bottom of the chain.  For these actors, the "supply chain" is not just an economic system, but a mechanism of value transformation aimed at converting things of the forest, embedded in a world of ancestors and spirits, into commodities that belong to others so that Eastern Congolese may experience what they refer to as “movement” following upon a long period of war and violent post/colonial exclusion.  The second major theme concerns conflict and peace: mainly, The Eyes of the World articulates a Congolese social theory based on movement and “many hands touching money,” concepts that describe and celebrate a conflict-ridden collaboration across differences—this is a collaboration not only amongst people, but also between different political orders, temporalities, institutions, modes of existence, and spatial-temporal arrangements.  Finally, the Eyes of the World shows how these bottom up-themes are mobilized in response to international conflict minerals regulations and tracking, like Section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act and "bag and tag" conflict free mining initiatives.   This imposed top down system, based on concepts of separation and purification, turn out to be at odds with the thought and practice of Eastern Congolese miners and traders,  which prioritizes  collaboration across differences and "being supple" (kuwa souple) and flexible.  

I have been privileged to train a number of excellent recent PhD students, who have been very successful at winning grants and awards and obtaining positions within and outside academe.  They have conducted doctoral research on such fascinating topics as the surprising uses and interpretations of imported biomedicines in Tanzania, the meanings and politics of albinism in colonial and postcolonial Tanzania, the lives of migrant artisanal miners in South Africa, utopian imaginings in urban South Sudan, everyday Chinese-African relations and the mediation of conflict in a Zambian coal mine, right-wing populism/nativism in Greece, vernacular capitalisms in urban South Africa, and the assumptions and desires that inform the practices of tech workers at a Silicon Valley tech firm.

Research Focus

Post/colonial Africa and post/colonialism in general; "conflict minerals" and the impact of "conflict minerals" tracking and regulation; the mining of "digital minerals" in Africa; artisanal mining and resource extraction; the popular reception of "development" interventions and discourses; critical development studies; temporalities and tempo-politics; "witchcraft" and "development"; ethnographic storytelling.

Selected Publications

Awards

Dean's Award for Innovation in Research