Jane I. Guyer: The Contributions of a Scholar
By Ann M. Reed * Posted May 1998
Jane Guyer has been a scholar influential not only in anthropology, but also in feminist studies, economics, and African studies. She was born in Scotland and attended the London School of Economics (L.S.E.), where she received her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1965. Her foundations in British social anthropology emphasized studying people according to the “templates of population”, how social life is organized and how it persists or changes with time (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview). Guyer’s original training at L.S.E. exposed her to the major figures in British economic anthropology which informed her later work: Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, Raymond Firth, and Evans-Pritchard (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview; Guyer August 1997: C.V.).
As was common for many graduates of British institutions at the time, Guyer took a hiatus in the United States before pursuing graduate study. Though she had intended to return to Britain, she wound up eventually marrying an American and decided to remain Stateside. She studied at the University of Rochester, which focused on British social anthropology rather than the American variety rooted in the in the Boasian linguistic-based tradition. Her training was guided by both Alfred Harris and her advisor Robert Merrill, an economic anthropologist trained in the natural sciences (Guyer 1997: x; Guyer 6 May 1998: interview). In 1968-69, Guyer was an occasional student at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and conducted fieldwork, uncovering the technical, social and economic framework of the food farming system in a Yoruba community. Guyer’s doctoral dissertation was called “The Organizational Plan of Traditional Farming: Idere, Western Nigeria”, and she received her degree from Rochester in 1972 (Guyer August 1997: C.V.).
Before completing her degree, however, Guyer had already begun teaching anthropology at the University of North Carolina in 1971-72. Several teaching appointments followed: instructor of social sciences at Peabody College (Nashville, TN) in 1973-74; instructor of social sciences at the National School of Nursing and Midwifery (Yaounde, Cameroon) in 1975-76; and visiting assistant professor in anthropology at Boston University in 1978-79. She taught in the department of anthropology at Harvard from 1980 to 1986. Guyer taught anthropology at Boston University from 1986 to 1994, during which time she served as associate of African ethnology for the Peabody Museum at Harvard (1986-89) and visiting scholar in anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University (1991-92). From 1994 to the present, she has held the position of director for the program of African studies as well as professor of anthropology at Northwestern University (Guyer August 1997: C.V.).
No one can charge Jane Guyer with being an “armchair anthropologist”, as she has rooted her scholarly contributions in empirical research. Besides the initial fieldwork she conducted in Nigeria (see above), she has returned to Africa on several occasions. In 1975-76, Guyer studied the history and development of the women’s food farming system in a Beti community in southern Cameroon. In the summer of 1979, Guyer went back to southern Cameroon to research the regional and historical variation in Beti food cultivation. In 1984, Guyer studied indigenous currency, bridewealth, and exchange. Her fieldwork in Nigeria resumed in 1987 and 1988, when she concentrated on agricultural change and the division of labor in Ibarapa, Western Nigeria (Guyer August 1997: C.V.).
Guyer has been active in a host of professional organizations, including the Population Association of America, the American Anthropological Association, the Society for the Anthropology of Work, and the Society for Economic Anthropology (Guyer August 1997: C.V.). She has always considered her scholarly engagements interdisciplinary and international in their orientation, though her level of activity within specific fields has fluctuated. For example, Guyer mentioned that she partially withdrew from her association with anthropology during the 1980s, because her interests really did not mesh with the reflexive turn the discipline was taking (6 May 1998: interview). During this time, Guyer affiliated herself along interdisciplinary lines. The African studies context afforded Guyer the opportunity to test her ideas and engage in debate with other disciplines.
Though she has always located her scholarly contributions within a historical context, Guyer’s work does not reside solely within the confines of a single tradition. She has, rather, woven together the contributions of Africanist social historians and anthropologists, among others, in order to derive her identity as a scholar. The social historians who have informed her work include E.P. Thompson and Mark Block, who have studied the dynamics of populations’ economies temporally. Other individuals of import include the Africanist historians Sara Berry and Frederick Cooper, anthropologist Keith Hart, French neo-Marxists Claude Meillasioux, Paul Richards, and George Duprè, who continues to engage with Geyer’s scholarship (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview).
In the 1970s, Guyer explained that anthropologists were criticized by Africans for basing their work in their own cultural interests. It was during this era that Guyer found it imperative to engage in a context (e.g. African Area Studies) which would allow dialogue with African scholars. She cited two African scholars, the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbmbe and Nigerian geographer Akin Mabogunje, whose critiques were important to her work (6 May 1998: interview). Guyer has also engaged in collaborative work with indigenous scholars, such as S.M. Eno Belinga, a geologist and musician by training who co-authored “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge. Accumulation and Composition in Equatorial Africa” (1995).
In the late 1970s, Guyer’s research interests had leaned towards focusing on households and gender. Ironically, just as she was delving deeper into feminist scholarship, the second wave of feminism began looking at issues–like economic exchange–familiar to political economy and familiar to Guyer. Such feminist anthropological classics as Rosaldo and Lamphere’s edited volume, Women, Culture, and Society, Rayna Reiter’s Toward an Anthropology of Women, and Annette Weiner’s Women of Value Men of Renown were influential in Guyer’s work (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview).
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Geyer and other political economists found it essential to begin studying national institutions and to devise ways of incorporating an analysis of the state in their work. Instead of focusing solely on local level social and economic structures, political economic anthropologists felt an urgency to address how the state functions locally to regulate everyday life. Guyer’s two experimental pieces along these lines were “Toiling Ingenuity” (1993), which discussed food regulation in Britain and Nigeria, and “Representation Without Taxation” (1992), which focused on democracy in rural Nigeria. Guyer has not incorporated this state-centered approach in her work recently because she feels that in Nigeria and Cameroon, where she has based her work, national institutions do not loom so largely. In West Africa, she explained, formal financial infrastructure imposed by the state or private institutions is by and large absent (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview).
Guyer’s numerous publications reflect her commitment to providing detailed, empirical accounts of local economic issues. She has focused on women’s agriculture and food provisioning systems in both Cameroon and Nigeria, while relating her empirical data to theoretical discourse. In much of her work, she argues against reductionist and evolutionary assumptions regarding domestic organizational structure. In Anthropological Models of Production: The Naturalization Problem (1983), Guyer explains that positivistic scholarship of a singular model for the African division of labor and resource control by sex is rooted in assumptions about the naturalness of domestic organization (2). The falsehood of ideal types of such productive and political models is exposed through her own data (comparing Yoruba men food farmers with Beti women food farmers), historical evidence (comparing the work of Forde with Bohannan), and feminist scholarship (Collier and Rosaldo) which states that relationships in the domestic domain are always variable, negotiated by social-political networks (3). Demonstrating that gendered work patterns revealed in her fieldwork are explained by a differential access to institutionalized modes of labor mobilization, she argues for examining historical change at the sites where power is localized (14, 18).
The monograph Family and Farm in Southern Cameroon (1984) incorporates rich ethnographic data and a consideration of African family history and agricultural history as interwoven systems to address the classic research question of “continuity and change” as it relates to women’s farming (1). In this work, Guyer continues her assault on structural determinism by looking at the complexities of production and gender relations on a local level. Especially relevant to her analysis are the concepts of peasant theory, which emphasizes a connection between the state and peasant as well as the development of rural distinction; articulation theory, which engages in addressing the specialized nature of African kinship structures; and concern over the worsening status of women (5). Geyer selectively employs strains of such ideas to argue for scholars to pay attention to the centrality of gender in the historical analysis of production in Africa; the importance of changing modes of power from the domestic sphere to the state and the international; and the variant paths and patterns of negotiation in which people choose to engage (9-10).
In the edited volume Feeding African Cities (1987), scholars from geography, economics, and sociology present case studies in the food provisioning of African urban centers. Guyer’s contributing chapter, “Feeding Yaoundé, Capital of Cameroon”, concentrates on the success Yaoundé residents have had in maintaining their diets despite enormous urban expansion (112, 114). A social history of food provisioning is presented which focuses on the constructions of local level market institutions, the market’s relationship with state policy, and its changing position of players in the colonial and post-colonial eras (115). This history presents dilemmas in the negotiation between state-sponsored economic reform and the functioning of the local market and highlights the growth of social differentiation by class, occupation, and regional specialization (143-4). In the epilogue, Guyer states that the central concern of the volume has been to stress a critical need to consider the food market in a wider sociological and historical framework and to challenge others to devise ways to incorporate market dynamics into the formulation of theory.
Guyer’s original inspiration to address issues raised in Money Matters (1995), grew out of an acquaintanceship with Marion Johnson. She writes in the preface:
During the 1980s, when anthropology was became definitively historical in approach, whatever I worked on seemed to pose with urgency and insistence the problem of ‘value,’ as created and recreated over time. Whether with respect to food prices in urban provisioning, taxes and public finance in the state sphere, intrahousehold income-management within production and consumption units, or the marriage payments within kinship and community groups, the volatility of the currency in relation to the creation of long-term value was strikingly evident (xi).
This era of Guyer’s work is marked by incorporating more cognitive features of cultural dynamics instead of relying on the more material-based ideas of change emerging from political economy. In her research for Money Matters, Guyer tried to concentrate on the “real life” aspects and cultural complexity of money. Some of the methods she used to understand the systems of knowledge based on material life were to actually touch (monetized) objects and talk with people who both made them and used them (Guyer 6 May 1998: interview).
Money Matters concerns itself with the empirical documentation of currency along three basic lines: the construction of African currency in terms of relative “primitiveness” or “special purpose”; the associated instability of monetary conditions in Africa; and the consequent ways that money is significant in African communities (1995:4). Guyer posits that money should be central to political economic and cultural inquiry because of the increasing state and supra-state institutions which partially govern the flow of a variety of currencies and because of the relative importance of money in the everyday lives of people (1995:5).
Guyer’s contributing chapter, “The Value of Beti Bridewealth”, critiques the portrayal common in the older anthropological literature that marriage payments follow a static, prescribed pattern. Her empirical and historical research in Southern Cameroon reveals the complexity of marriage payment systems. For example, throughout Beti history different categories of people have wielded control over the ways in which marriage payments are negotiated through both descent and alliance relations. These categories include: the bride’s father during the pre-colonial period, the chief in the early colonial era, and the bride’s descent group in the cocoa farming period (1987: 126). Fluctuations in “price” of bridewealth are not explained solely by economic conditions, but require consideration of specific cultural and political manifestations of gender relations, social groups, and political hierarchies. In thinking about how specific expressions of bridewealth are worked out, fundamental statements can still be made about the nature of marriage.
Jane Guyer’s most recent book, An African Niche Economy (1997), is a the product of a twenty-year re-study of the agricultural community in the hinterland of Ibadan where she conducted her original fieldwork in 1968-69. Her focus in the monograph is to present local narratives about how people have coped with change, to describe how markets have changed in a context of commercial growth, and to formulate a model for competitive dynamics which mediate the processes involved (8). Despite the unfamiliar trajectories of African market systems, Guyer sees this as no reason to cling to explanations emerging from the “crisis” literature which claim that rural economies are becoming more “anarchic, dysfunctional, and environmentally destructive”. She concludes by stating, “If there is order to routine daily phenomena such as urban provisioning, and if the non-hegemonic state and world market frame, without determining, their dynamics, then analysis may not be well-served by reactive guiding concepts such as ‘counter-modernity’ or ‘postcolonialism’ or a generic ‘informal sector'” (234).
Throughout Jane Guyer’s work, she has been concerned with how “marginally-regulated”, rural-based economies have changed. She has contributed to the process of understanding such market dynamics though providing empirical accounts which can serve as the foundation for more theoretical enterprises on the predictable pathways in which locally-based institutions operate. Guyer stated in an interview:
More of the world now looks like West Africa. People are creating local institutions-occupational organizations, training programs, contract enforcement, savings organizations. With the retreat of state economic institutions-in places such as China and the former Soviet Republic–we are on the brink of an important descriptive project. [We need to] try to bring together scholars who think theoretically about that ( 6 May 1998: interview).
Such scholars, Guyer explains, would need to understand the processes involved with the advance and retreat of state institutions as well as the processes of how particular local-level economies are constituted. According to Guyer, an analysis of commodity chains may be the key to defining these local economic patterns. She suggests drawing from Appaderai’s The Social Life of Things, which contends that commodities follow pathways mediated by social organization and cultural meaning all the way from production to consumption. In tracing the ways commodities travel and are made meaningful, we may be able to answer a host of pressing questions: “How are local societies provisioning themselves? Why are they not starving in the streets? How is a city like Kinshasa able to be fed? How are they being employed? How are people getting by? What particular household strategies are people using?” These strategies of “getting by” are mysterious to scholarship, but not to the people living in them who are successful in re-configuring their economies from the bottom-up ( 6 May 1998: interview).
Jane Guyer could also be construed as an applied anthropologist, as she is currently involved in a project designed to answer some of the questions raised above. She is a member of the advisory board for “The Real Economies of Africa”, which supports doctoral research of African scholars in Africa. Students in this program focus on topics relevant to African economies, such as the trade in second-hand goods and the food provisioning of cities of three or four million people. This enterprise signals an effort to move beyond the “development project paradigm” to engage in indigenous solutions to preserving fragile economies. According to Guyer, “It is clear that–with the information revolution and because of the large, rapid movement of capital, Nigeria and Zaire cannot duplicate the pathways of the West. The macro-economic conditions of the world have altered. The set of opportunities has really changed” ( 6 May 1998: interview).
Jane Guyer sees her own scholarly work continuing along interdisciplinary and international lines but mentioned that she is enthusiastic about learning some aspects of American cultural anthropology. In an attempt to illuminate ways people mobilize knowledge, Guyer has recently concerned herself with naming systems in the creation of market niches. In “Preparing for the Future: A Vision of West Africa for the Year 2020”, a lecture presented at Indiana University, Guyer commented that the naming of a product, technique, or skill was fundamental to its successful adoption (3 December 1997: lecture notes). Such a naming system contributes to the indigenous process of growth and shaping novelty in the creation of a niche economy. From Guyer’s lecture comes a demonstration of the utility of locally meaningful (and humorous) terminology towards the creation of a niche in which a community of Nigerian women were encouraged to cooperate with men truck drivers to transport large quantities of tomatoes to the urban marketplace. The Yoruba term for Datsun trucks, used to carry such produce to markets, translates as “Lets all descend into the potholes!” (3 December 1997:lecture notes).
1972. “The Organizational Plan of Traditional Farming: Idere, Western Nigeria”. PhD
Dissertation, University of Rochester.
1983. Anthropological Models of African Production: The Naturalization Problem.
Working Papers in African Studies no. 152. Boston: Boston University African Studies Center.
1984. Family and Farm in Southern Cameroon. Boston University African Research Studies
No. 15. Boston: African Studies Center, Boston University.
(ed.) 1987. Feeding African Cities: Studies in Regional Social History. Manchester:
Manchester University Press for the International African Institute.
1991b. Representation Without Taxation: an Essay on Democracy in Rural Nigeria,
1952-1990. Working Papers in African Studies no.152. Boston: Boston University African
1993. “‘Toiling Ingenuity’. Food Regulation in Britain and Nigeria”. American Ethnologist 20, 4: 797-817.
1995a. Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of
West African Communities. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, pp. 1-37.
and S.M. Eno Belinga. 1995b. “Wealth in People as Wealth in Knowledge. Accumulation and Composition in Equitorial Africa.” Journal of African History 36:91-120.
1997. An African Niche Economy: Farming to Feed Ibadan. 1968-88. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press for the International African Institute. August 1997. Jane Isabel Guyer C.V.
3 December 1997. “Preparing for the Future: A Vision of West Africa for the Year 2020”.
Indiana University African Studies Seminar.
6 May 1998. Telephone interview with Jane Guyer.