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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, University of Massachusetts (Amherst), 1993 (Honors Program, Magna cum Laude, Commonwealth Scholar)

About

My work, broadly construed, concerns how people in postcolonial Africa 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.  

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 from which Taita people were excluded.  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 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 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 and what are sometimes referred to as the “3 Ts” (tantalum, tin, and tungsten), minerals essential for electronic and digital devices.  The manuscript (The Eyes of the World, 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, already 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, turns out to be at odds with the thought and practices of Eastern Congolese miners and traders, which prioritize  collaboration across differences and "being supple" (kuwa souple) and flexible.  

Review excerpts for The Eyes of the World:

"The result of Smith's analysis is a stunning, sometimes astonishing account of the movement, collaboration, and practical ethics of everyday deception involving artisanal miners and supply chain controllers... The Eyes of the World represents the absolute best in an Africanist tradition that demonstrates that our multiple ways of seeing and being in the world rest on often understated and concealed systems of extractive labor and organized violence" (African Studies Association Best Book Prize Award Committee)

"Beautiful and evocative...  Smith produces one of the richest and most thought-provoking ethnographies I have read in a very long time. The Eyes of the World is likely to become an anthropological classic." (Reviews in Anthropology)

"The Eyes of the World is a groundbreaking, brilliantly written book about Congo's place in the global economy . . . Smith deftly weaves insights drawn from an array of anthropological theory with gripping, moving case studies of individual miners and mining sites. . . . Strikingly, Smith shows how Western efforts to crack down on 'blood diamonds' end up, in actuality, to be a tool to weaken the leverage of artisanal miners and allow wily state authorities to cash in on their ability to selectively enforce their will on Congolese workers. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Democratic Republic of Congo today." (Choice Magazine)

"Chock-full of fascinating details on the people and communities that have lived off mining in the chaos of the wars in Congo." (Foreign Affairs magazine)

"The Eyes of the World is a tremendous book that creates a world of its own, enticing the reader in and refusing to let them leave." (APLA Critical Anthropology Book Prize Committee)

Listen to this podcast on The Eyes of the World:

https://podcast.econanthro.org/2022/04/12/mining-the-digital-age-in-eastern-congo-a-conversation-with-jim-smith/

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 Zambia, 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; human-elephant conflicts, the popular reception of "development" interventions and discourses; critical development studies, focusing on the reception of development discourse by "targets"; temporalities and tempo-politics; "witchcraft" and "development"; ethnographic storytelling.

Selected Publications

Teaching

Commonly Taught Undergraduate Classes: Anthropology of Development, East and Southern Africa, Anthropological Theory, Capitalism and Power, Star Trek as Social Theory

Awards

2023 Winner, Society for the Anthropology of Work Book Prize for The Eyes of the World 

2022 Winner, Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Critical Anthropology Book Prize for The Eyes of the World

2022 Finalist, African Studies Association Best Book Prize for The Eyes of the World

2022 Special Commendation, Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology

2015 L&S Dean's Award for Innovative Research

2003 Rockefeller Research Fellow, The Kroc Institute for International Peace Building at the University of Notre Dame

Recipient of multiple research grants, including two multi-year Senior Research grants from the National Science Foundation and grants from Wenner Gren Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and the Spencer Foundation

UC Davis Faculty Leadership Academy Alum

Phi Beta Kappa