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111 Cosmologies of Welfare: Two Conceptions of Social Assistance in Contemporary South Africa James Ferguson Many anthropologists today seem unsure of what their discipline is about, or how it is to be distinguished from other forms of social and cultural analysis. I myself feel no such anxiety, since it seems obvious to me that anthropology’s distinctiveness and value lie neither in a unique subject matter nor a trademark methodology, but rather in an intellectual tradition. I feel so confident about this, I think, because that tradition was conveyed to me in very convincing terms, and at a tender age, by an exceptional constellation of teachers. And of these teachers, none was more influential than Stanley Tambiah in showing me how to think about a problem anthropologically. The question of what it means to approach a problem anthropologically is of some significance to my current research project, because it deals with a topic, social assistance, that has not historically been regarded as an anthropological one.Sociology seems to be where the topic is thought to belong, and sociologists have indeed written libraries’ worth of books and articles about welfare, pensions, social grants, social work, the rise and fall of the Keynesian welfare state, and other related topics. That anthropology has produced no parallel F5920.indb 111 F5920.indb 111 12/17/12 3:00:41 PM 12/17/12 3:00:41 PM 112 James Ferguson literature is worth pondering.1 One might think that this is an artifact of the conventional geographical division of labor between the two fields (with sociology conventionally claiming the industrialized First World, and anthropology the underdeveloped Third World). But in fact anthropologists have from the beginning worked disproportionately with people who were directly engaged with systems of social assistance (Native Americans in the United States and aboriginals in Australia come to mind, among many other examples). And many of the modern Third World nation-states that have been the focus of study and have produced the richest troves of anthropological work have elaborate and well-established welfare regimes of long standing that loom large in the lives of the poor and marginal peoples that anthropologists have so often studied. (One might think, for instance, of South Africa, Brazil, and India.) An anthropology of welfare, then, would appear to be overdue. Yet how are we to approach this topic anthropologically? And what might an anthropological approach be able to contribute to the work already done by our colleagues in sociology and other fields? I suggest that Tambiah (who himself made the journey from sociology to anthropology) can give us a clue. It is perhaps fortuitous that I learned my economic anthropology from a scholar best known for his studies of ritual and religion. For as Tambiah explained it, producing and exchanging, buying and selling, markets and prices—all had to be situated within encompassing schemes of classification and valuation that economistic perspectives inevitably left invisible and unacknowledged. Because anthropologists have historically taken seriously social and conceptual systems that are very different from those of the modern West, we tend to take far less for granted than do other social scientists. The anthropological starting point is that different sociocultural worlds are in fact different. They are not simply different arrangements or valuations of the same basic set of familiar elements. In fact they contain, and are made up of, altogether different things. Analysis must in some sense begin, then, with the question of classification and cosmology, where the most basic question is: what are the things in this world, and how are they related to one another? Michel Foucault, of course, is one valuable source for thinking about such an “order of things,” and his work continues to guide my analytical approach to what he termed “the formation of objects.” But the classical traditions of anthropology in some ways converge on the same set F5920.indb 112 F5920.indb 112 12/17/12 3:00:41 PM 12/17/12 3:00:41 PM Social Assistance in Contemporary South Africa 113 of issues and provide distinctive conceptual tools for their analysis— tools to which I find myself increasingly returning as I work on my new project. As Tambiah put it in his introduction to Culture, Thought, and Social Action (1985b),cosmologies “are frameworks of concepts and relations which treat the universe or cosmos as an ordered system,describing it in terms of space,time, matter,and...


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