James Ferguson on Modernity, Development, and Reading Foucault in Lesotho, an Interview

an Interview – Published on Theory Talks, November 22, 2009.

How did you arrive at where you currently are in your scholarship?

Well, I guess I first was captured by anthropology as a field. I became interested in the anthropology of Africa, in particular, because of my teachers. The people who taught me anthropology – people like David Brokensha and Paul Bohannan – were Africanists, so the anthropology I learned was, first of all, the anthropology of Africa.

Then, as time wore on – this was the late 1970s – I was increasingly interested in the politics of Southern Africa in particular and the liberation struggles that were going on there. And I became troubled by the gap between the two – one the one hand this sort of academic literature on African societies in anthropology and on the other hand all these interesting events surrounding the struggles against the last vestiges of colonialism in Southern Africa. It seemed to me that there is a space in between those two, where you might be able to connect them, and that became a direction that I was drawn toward. 

There are also chance events, I guess you might say. When I was looking for fieldwork sites for my dissertation, I was mostly looking at Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They were both post-liberation societies where the kinds of social transformations were underway that I was quite interested in. And my advisor said, ‘Well, if you’re going to scope out these sites in Southern Africa anyway, why don’t you also go to Lesotho.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m not really interested in Lesotho’. And he said, ‘Well, but it’s a nice place and you won’t get malaria because it’s in the mountains and, you know, why don’t you go there?’ I ended up going. I brought reading along as one does when traveling and the book that I happened to have with me and was reading while I was in Lesotho was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. So, on the one hand, I was sort of looking at all this stuff going on Lesotho – this swarm of development agencies and development experts – and on the other, I was asking myself these questions about what I was observing in Lesotho which came from reading Foucault at the same time. That led me to formulate a different kind of dissertation project than the one I had been thinking of. This eventually led to my book The Anti-Politics Machine (1990) and Foucault continued to be important for me at various stages in my academic work.

What would a student need to become a specialist in IR or understand the world in a global way? … //

… The concept of ‘development’ is in many ways at the heart of your critiques. To ask a very naïve question perhaps, how can one criticize such a positive concept? Or, to put it more broadly, what’s the use of ‘critique’?

First of all, one would have to say that it’s not always a positive concept. If you were having your land taken away from you so it could be given to some timber company in the name of ‘development’, you might not think it was so positive

But I think it’s also possible to answer the question in a slightly different way. Which is to start out by asking, ‘Why would one suppose that critical thinking is only for things that one is opposed to?’ For instance, I think it’s crucially important that we think critically about the concept of ‘human rights’. Does that mean that I’m in favor of torture and dictators? Certainly not. But the concept of human rights requires very careful, critical scrutiny, precisely because it is something around which we are organizing our political energies and where we’re focusing our hopes and ambitions for the future. Which reminds me something Foucault said once in an interview, when he was accused of producing an impossibly pessimistic analysis. The interviewer said: ‘You think everything is bad’. Foucault immediately responded by saying, ‘No, No. I don’t say that everything is bad. I say that everything is dangerous.’ That’s very different. Because when things are dangerous, we have to watch them closely. We have to attend to them. We have to see what are they doing. Where are they leading us astray? Where are the dangers?

And I think one wants to approach the things that we value (politically or socially) in that kind of spirit: being attentive to the way that they can lead us astray, to the way that we can end up producing effects that are not the ones that we had in mind. An exemplary account of this, in my view, is the analysis of human rights is a book by Harri Englund, called Prisoners of Freedom (2006, read first chapter here in pdf), which brings just that kind of skeptical scrutiny to bear on the concept of human rights in the effect it actually has. Which is far from being an attack on the idea of human rights. It is, rather, the sort of careful, critical scrutiny that I have in mind … (full long interview text).

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