Eye on the Quads

Critical Distances

Questions for Jean and John Comaroff, distinguished service professors in anthropology

John and Jean Comaroff, distinguished service professors in anthropology, arrived at Chicago in the late 1970s by way of Great Britain and their native South Africa. Experts in colonialism, African modernity, and social theory, they have authored many books—including Of Revelation and Revolution (1991)—together and separately. Their Quantrell award–winning teaching in the College includes Medicine and Culture; Self, Culture, and Society; and other courses. Since 2001, they’ve led the winter quarter African Civilizations program in Cape Town.

Is it true that you first met in an anthropology class? When and where?

John: Absolutely. We were in the same class in 1964, but we got to know each other in 1965.

Jean: It was Anthropology 2 at University of Cape Town, where we are now honorary faculty.

What were your initial impressions of each other?

John: Well, she was drop-dead gorgeous, brilliant …

Jean: Please. He was intense. We were both probably the most intense people in the class—and the most talkative.

Do you argue?

John: Of course.

Jean: But argument in the sense of debate. You know, we do argue about who takes out the garbage occasionally, but mainly it’s debating; it’s the sort of thing you do in the context of good academic exchange anyway.

How close is your collaboration? Do you share a Blackberry?

John: No, no, we don’t. We don’t ever sit at the computer together except at the very end of projects.

Jean: We write separately; we keep our materials separately, and we continue to write things both on our own and together. But before one starts a new project in the social sciences, one has to have a sense of why and how one is going to investigate something. Those questions we debate before we begin. And we also do a lot of the actual observation together.

You’ve said that you consider undergraduate teaching a form of social activism. Why?

John: We don’t mind what our students think, but we do mind how they think. Having come from a very authoritarian background ourselves, we learned to value the freedom to think very early on. But the freedom to think has a responsibility to think critically—especially in contemporary America, where the seductions of political life, of consumer society, are to suspend thinking and simply live.

Jean: Undergraduates ask you the hard questions; they’re prepared to be disrespectful if they don’t find what you’re telling them convincing. Also, they’re not necessarily going to become ivory-towered scholars. People we’ve taught are now working in NGOs, are journalists, writers, and teachers.

John: For every student you encourage into critical thinking, they’re going to transmit that to any number of others. So there’s a multiplier effect.

Is studying in South Africa a transformative experience for students?

John: Deeply.

Jean: Totally.


Jean: Because it takes them out of the context they know—what they understand to be the normal, the civilized, the safe, the secure—and it puts them into a place which seems in many respects the opposite. South Africa has a crime problem and a relatively violent history; it’s relatively underdeveloped. And the program doesn’t only take them there as tourists; they have to live there.

John: It’s also a place where the majority of people are black—that is, culturally and racially different.

Jean: Students see for themselves the kind of everyday realities to which their readings correspond. They are volunteering in NGOs; they are going to debates. They also do homestays in the rural areas. On one occasion we went to visit the home-stay kids [and we] asked one of them, “Have you eaten this evening?” and he said, “I’m not quite sure.” And he was looking at a bowl of termites, which people eat there. Actually, termites are quite nutritious.

John: And quite tasty.

What are you working on now?

Jean: We recently finished a book called Ethnicity, Inc. about the commercialization of identity and the commoditizing of culture.

John: And we just finished another book called Theory from The South: Or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. And now we’re writing a book on crime, called The Truth About Crime in South Africa.

Jean: It asks the questions: Are crime rates actually higher than they ever were, and is this linked to economic inequalities? Or is the matter more complex? And why are we so obsessed with crime and detection, in our personal lives and in our public culture?

That’s important for a number of countries.

John: Oh, yeah. We always use South Africa as a way of looking at the world at large.

—Elizabeth Station

Photos by Dan Dry