Skip to content Skip to navigation

James Ferguson

James Ferguson

Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences
Ph.D. Harvard, 1985
Research Interests: 
Political anthropology, social and cultural theory, southern Africa


James Ferguson is the Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor in the Department of Anthropology. His research has focused on southern Africa (especially Lesotho, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia), and has engaged a broad range of theoretical and ethnographic issues. These include the politics of “development”, rural-urban migration, changing topgraphies of property and wealth, constructions of space and place, urban culture in mining towns, experiences of modernity, the spatialization of states, the place of “Africa” in a real and imagined world, and the theory and politics of ethnography. Running through much of this work is a concern with how discourses organized around concepts such as “development” and “modernity” intersect the lives of ordinary people.

Professor Ferguson's more recent work has explored the surprising creation and/or expansion (both in southern Africa and across the global South) of social welfare programs targeting the poor, anchored in schemes that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-income people. His work aims to situate these programs within a larger “politics of distribution,” and to show how they are linked to emergent forms of distributive politics in contexts where new masses of “working age” people are supported by means other than wage labor. In this context, new political possibilities and dangers are emerging, even as new analytical and critical strategies are required. His book on this topic (Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution) was published in 2015.

Since this latest book, he has been working on two new projects.  First, a programmatic paper (co-authored with Tania Li, "Beyond the 'Proper Job'") argues for the need for an analytical refocusing of global political-economic inquiry in response to the diminishing centrality, in much of the world, of livelihoods based in stable waged labor, and a widespread loss of faith in the promise of the semi-mythical “proper job”.  Second, a new theoretical essay explores the ways that “presence” (rather than membership) can serve as a basis of social obligation (including the obligation to share). The essay was recently published by Prickly Paradigm Press (2021). He is also beginning work on a project exploring alcohol consumption as a site for thinking about the problem of freedom, regulation, and the self (in southern Africa and beyond).


Selected Articles

2010     The Uses of Neoliberalism. Antipode, volume 41, supplement 1, 2010.

2013     How To Do Things with Land: A Distributive Perspective on Rural Livelihoods in Southern Africa. Journal of Agrarian Change 13(1):166-174.  PDF

2013     Declarations of Dependence: Labor, Personhood, and Welfare in Southern Africa. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19:223-242.  PDF

2018     “Beyond the ‘Proper Job’: Political-economic Analysis after the Century of Labouring Man” (co-authored with Tania Murray Li), Working Paper 51. Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape: Cape Town, 2018.   PDF

2019     "Proletarian Politics Today: On the Perils and Possibilities of Historical Analogy". Comparative Studies in Society and History 61(1):4-22.