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.”
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.