About Jean Comaroff

Over the past five decades, Jean Comaroff, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University, has, in the words of her own contemporaries, substantially changed the way cultural anthropologists view the African continent. Writing of her first book, Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance” (1985), Shula Marks, renowned historian of South Africa, noted “there are few books that change the way I think, but this is one of them.” In her work on religion, medicine, magic, politics, and the body, Jean Comaroff has insisted on taking seriously the relationship of local and global histories and the integral place of Africa in the modern world. This approach has been influential. The editors of a set of essays on work by Professor Comaroff and her husband and colleague John Comaroff in the American History Review (2003) noted that “The Publication of Jean and John Comaroffs’ monumental study of colonialism and religion in South Africa, Of Revelation and Revolution…issued a challenge to both anthropologists and historians to rethink their understanding of the construction of modernity…[T]hese critical works of understanding and imagination have an importance far beyond their subject matter.”

Profile picture of John L. Comaroff

Professor Comaroff has also been a pioneer in efforts to show how the ordinary features of everyday life – of architecture, aesthetics, and ideas of personhood, of power, gender, and health bear the influence of forces both immediate and of larger scale, forces that speak to processes of world-making – like the forging of empires, the expansion of capitalism, and the commodification of human life. She has shown how, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Africa served as a colonial laboratory for the development of universalizing systems of knowledge that objectified differences of race, civilization, gender, and sexuality. In all this, Africa has held pole position in the modern imagination as first and last: the continent was celebrated as the source of life itself and also condemned as the birthplace of pandemic disease. It remains, paradoxically, associated at once with slavery and decolonization; underdevelopment and vibrant creativity and innovation.  

 

 

Because of this, Jean Comaroff contends that the story of Africa – and the kinds of knowledge emerging from it — offer us unique insights about the workings of the contemporary world at large. This argument runs throughout her writings, and is given special attention in Theory from the South, written with John Comaroff.  Knowledge about the global order that is incubated in “ex-centric” places takes many forms, often unrecognized by liberal European traditions. Professor Comaroff has long insisted that many of phenomena widely associated with Africa – like witchcraft, zombies, and magic –are inherent in all human civilizations, and remain integral features of capitalist modernity. She has written and taught about voodoo economics, magical thinking, and witchcraft in modern US politics, and about ritual and sacrifice in modern medicine. She has also explored the prevalence of conspiracy thinking, moral panics, and accusations of malfeasance – which are very much like ‘blasphemy’ or the ‘evil eye’ — as they occur in everyday American life, even on university campuses. As this suggests, notwithstanding our beliefs to the contrary, the modern world has never really been “secular “or disenchanted in any thoroughgoing sense.

Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology at Harvard University

Jean has shared her knowledge in these respects with medical institutions, international Aid and Development organizations, and legal agencies. She is author, often with John Comaroff, of some 15 books (many of them in translation) and more than 100 articles. Her writings have covered a range of topics, from religion, medicine, ritual, and body politics to colonialism, state formation, crime, democracy, and difference. Her publications include Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: the Culture and History of a South African People (1985), “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: AIDS and the Global Order” (2007); and, with John L. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution (2 volumes, 1991 and 1997); Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (1992); Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism (2000),  Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (2006), Ethnicity, Inc. (2009), “Populism and Late Liberalism: A Special Affinity?” (2013); and The Truth About Crime (2016). Together they have won the Anders Retzius Gold Medal from the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography and The Harry J. Kalven, Jr. Prize from the Law and Society Association. Professor Comaroff has given countless distinguished and named lectures across the world. She has also received multiple awards for teaching and mentoring at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and has created and championed programs that enable college students to study abroad, especially in Africa. She is renowned for having supervised literally hundreds of doctoral students, both in anthropology and the wider human sciences, many of whom have gone on to become eminent scholars across the world.

Professor Comaroff is currently writing about the global rise of vigilantism, as dramatized by the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. This continues a long-standing interest in populism and the nature of sovereignty in liberal political systems.  Most recently, she and John Comaroff have begun a large-scale project entitled After Labor.  It analyses the ways in which, over its long history, capitalism has sought to undermine the power of labor – a process most recently exacerbated by the expansion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, the global outsourcing of production, the spread of the gig economy and informality, and the “zombification” of many in so-called “traditional” employment.

Jean Comaroff completed her undergraduate work at the University of Cape Town and earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. She worked as a research fellow in medical anthropology at the University of Manchester and then moved on to the University of Chicago where, as the Bernard E. and Ellen C Sunny Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, she went on to become the Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory. In 2012, she joined the faculty at Harvard University. She currently serves on the executive committee of Harvard’s Center for African Studies, sits on the editorial board of several flagship journals and is an Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town.

Profile picture of John L. Comaroff
This book is dedicated to Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff because they taught me how...
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Lisa Wedeen
University of Chicago
This book is dedicated to Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff because they taught me how to be a colleague. Their camaraderie, devotion to scholarship, playfulness, energy, sizzling intellects, political and philosophical commitments, and unwavering affection – their ability to show up for me (and for others) – remind me why I chose my peculiar form of political theory as my vocation. Authoritarian Apprehensions: Ideology, Judgment, and Mourning in Syria.
Lisa Wedeen
Lisa Wedeen
University of Chicago
Together [John Comaroff] with his wife Jean, served as guides into a new,...
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Peter Geschiere
Emeritus professor of Anthropology of Africa; University of Amsterdam; Leiden University
Together [John Comaroff] with his wife Jean, served as guides into a new, global anthropology; that is, an anthropology that retains the classic assets of the discipline -- fieldwork, micro ethnography, a focus on the articulation of material circumstances with cultural life -- but re-interprets these to remain relevant in a world that is rapid globalizing. A milestone in this respect was their two volumes Of Revelation and Revolution, in which they brought together detailed research on the history of the Tswana peoples of southern Africa with equally detailed research on the history of the British mission that was to play such a big role in the region. Of particular interest was the way in which the Comaroffs highlighted not just the contrast between these two histories, but also their convergences and mutual articulations. A more recent example of the theoretical creativity that makes their work so inspiring is Theories from the South; Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa which made them forerunners in the present-day debate on ‘decolonizing’ anthropology. But their innovating impact in anthropology worldwide is not only related to the force and the inspirational quality of their publications. They have hosted many conferences and workshops where their brilliant debating style has helped participants open up new perspectives and try out new approaches. These qualities have also made them also exceptionally successful Ph.D. supervisors. I have also learned much from them in this respect: how to challenge students to ever deeper analytical efforts, but balancing this with deep personal involvement. No wonder that both in Chicago and at Harvard they attracted students from all over the world. The global span of their Nachwuchs guarantees that their work will continue to have an impact on anthropology long into the future as well.
Peter Geschiere
Peter Geschiere
Emeritus professor of Anthropology of Africa; University of Amsterdam; Leiden University
[John and Jean Comaroff] have an uncanny ability to take a seemingly local and banal ...
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Ann Stoler
New School for Social Research
[John and Jean Comaroff] have an uncanny ability to take a seemingly local and banal subject, to convey truths about the times in which we live. Something they have done with witchcraft, crime, zombies, and the law. Unraveling both the fictions and force, the meanings and materialities, on which power is based. When the New York Times last week talked about the disenchantment with democracy across the globe, Jean and John were ahead of that story by miles. Not because they were in the throws of New York City politics, but because their antennas have long been glued to the frequencies where history unfolds, where the political is recast and to what emerges from new spaces from which the future is being made.
Ann Stoler
Ann Stoler
New School for Social Research
John and Jean Comaroff’ ‘s intellectual influence has been immense. It is to be...
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Achile Mbembe
Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand
John and Jean Comaroff’‘s intellectual influence has been immense. It is to be found in various areas of academic enquiry, from law, cultural studies, political economy to sociology, social studies of health and religion, arts and design...Their very significant intellectual influence and moral authority [has been] strenuously dedicated...to nurturing high quality scholarly communities. They brought together many of us through consistent ethical behavior, always respectful and responsible conduct, and a huge and extraordinary generosity and sense of humor. [Their] work has consistently brought together finely detailed ethnography, a broad hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of cultural practices, and a striking literary – and almost cinematic – sensibility...This is what has allowed them to write captivating and theoretically sophisticated books. I cannot insist enough on the priceless work Jean and John Comaroff have done in firmly placing the African continent on the international research agenda and contemporary intellectual debates. Through their own research, they have shown that there is no better vantage point than “ex-centric” locations to look at the contemporary planetary order in its totality.
Achille Mbembe
Achile Mbembe
Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand
Over the past 40 years or so …[Jean] solo or jointly has changed the face...
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Filip De Boeck
University of Leuven
Over the past 40 years or so…[Jean] solo or jointly has changed the face of anthropology and more generally our way of thinking about the African continent and its place in the world and in the global political economy. Her work has revolutionized African anthropology, starting with her seminal work Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance. It is a book which I still use in my teachings today…. 
Filip De Boeck
Filip De Boeck
University of Leuven
Of the two, Jean Comaroff was the first I met. It was in...
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Achille Mbembe
Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand
Of the two, Jean Comaroff was the first I met. It was in the early 1990s in New York City. Trained in France, I was among the second cohort of Francophone African scholars at the forefront of the trek which, by the early 2000, had driven countless talented intellectuals to the United States shores. Edouard Glissant, Mary se Conde, V.Y. Mudimbe had opened the gate a few years early. Thanks to a generous grant from the Ford Foundation and encouraged by Richard Joseph, I spent a year at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1987-1988. A young Assistant Professor at Columbia University (New York) from 1988 onwards, I read Body of Power in the midst of the intellectual effervescence which prevailed in the social sciences and the humanities during the late 1980s. By the time Revelation and Revolution had been published, I had quickly realized that between Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, there was no hyphen. Both have been a gift in our midst. It is in recognition of their contribution to the intellectual life of our times and the inseparability of their life and oeuvre that I write this brief testimonial. Both grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid years. Although they left after 1967, they both retained their roots in this country and region I, for my part, settled in in 2000. After Apartheid was abolished, they spent much of their lives moving between the United States, Africa and Europe. Throughout those years, they sharpened a mode of reading each of these places and locations through the eyes of the others. As a result of this endless process of reciprocal estrangement, a productive angle of vision as well as a strikingly original optic of the world was harnessed. This is arguably part of what allowed them to be at the forefront of one of the most theoretically inspiring and methodologically sensitive anthropological traditions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. There is no need to describe in detail Jean and John Comaroff’s seminal contribution to their discipline and to the humanities and social sciences. Their record speaks for itself. Their intellectual influence has been immense. It is to be found in various areas of academic enquiry, from law, cultural studies, political economy to sociology, social studies of health and religion, arts and design. It is no surprise that their work should be translated in so many languages, from French to Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Mandarin, Italian etc… In the course of more than five decades, they have taught and mentored thousands of students in numerous institutions in the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Norway, Africa and elsewhere. Not only have they opened their homes to them, they have also shown patience, kindness and generosity, resourcefulness and open-mindedness to each of them. They allocated an extraordinary amount of time for each of their students, wrote numerous letters of recommendation, assisted them as they often struggled to prepare for fieldwork, to refine their research questions, to win research grants, to improve or reinforce their conceptual frameworks, to interpret their data so that valid conclusions could be drawn from their findings. They have fully supported them and consistently encouraged them to explore and achieve their true potential. The very significant intellectual influence and moral authority they yielded was put to the service of high quality research and teaching. At the various institutions they found themselves (University of Chicago, Harvard University) or with the various others they were affiliated with throughout the world, they strenuously dedicated their energy to nurturing high quality scholarly communities. They brought together many of us through consistent ethical behavior, always respectful and responsible conduct, and a huge and extraordinary generosity and sense of humor. In the current context in which “big data” and “information” is mistaken for “knowledge as such” while the social sciences tend to turn their back on theory in favor of neo-empiricism, I would like to highlight the way in which, throughout their long intellectual journey, they have combined and explored the interplay between detailed description and the macro-historical context in which culture and practices are situated. Almost since its inception, anthropology has been an interpretive science in search of the symbolic meanings that human actors ascribe to their practices within a defined political, economic, and cultural context. Jean and John Comaroff’s work has consistently brought together finely detailed ethnography, a broad hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of cultural practices, and a striking literary – and almost cinematic – sensibility. They have not only paid strenuous attention to the actor’s own frames of reference, their embodied and intersubjective engagements with their worlds. They have also made sure the organized stocks of taken-for-granted knowledge in which their everyday practices draw were accurately identified and accounted for. This is what has allowed them to write captivating and theoretically sophisticated books. Such, for instance, are the two volumes of Revelation and Revolution, which place the reader within unfamiliar social worlds rendered with extraordinary historical and phenomenological fluency through subtle narration and writing. Attentive to social antagonisms, cultural contestation and historical contingency, the two volumes, like numerous other works, point to ungrasped utopian possibilities not only within the past itself, but also within the reader’s present. The same impetus is evident in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony and in The Truth About Crime. The first volume makes sense of the ways in which citizens give meaning to and understand their social realities, particularly the making, unmaking and remaking of the thin lines between legal/illegal, formal/informal, order/disorder that define many facets of contemporary societies. The second shows how crime and policing serve as the medium through which reconfigured notions of sovereignty, authority, law and citizenship are nowadays molded. All, including Millennial Capitalism, pay considerable attention to life at the peripheries of the world and to forces often unseen or disregarded. In Jean and John Comaroff’s anthropology, these peripheries and the forces that move them become critical vantage points for theory-work in the social sciences and the humanities. As a scholar working from those reaches of the planet that were formerly colonized, I cannot insist enough on the priceless work Jean and John Comaroff have done in firmly placing the African continent on the international research agenda and contemporary intellectual debates. Indeed, the same goes for what nowadays goes by the name “the Global South.” Through their own research, they have shown that there is no better vantage point than these “ex-centric” locations to look at the contemporary planetary order in its totality. North and South, they argue, are caught up in the same meta-process of contemporary world-making. They have also been instrumental in infusing much needed energy into continental African debates, showing, for instance, that far from derivative, African modernity has always been plural. It has deep roots in the past and has long been the object of endogenous contention and contestation. I close this testimonial at a moment when, drifting away from academia, I genuinely wonder whether a place remains in the late global university for the kind of pedagogical project and intellectual endeavor pursued over so many years by Jean and John Comaroff. It is my hope that as it keeps transforming for the better, the university will remain a place where hospitality, freedom and creativity will always be the cornerstones for an intellectually satisfying and imaginative life.
Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe
Wits Institute for Economic and Social Research, University of the Witwatersrand