Wilson Center Experts

Sara Berry

Fellow
Africa Program

Expertise:
Africa
Affiliation:
Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Questions of Precedence: History, Ownership and Value in Contemporary West African Political Economies"
Term:
Sep 01, 2005
-
May 01, 2006

My introduction to the political and economic realities of post-colonial Africa began in January 1966 when, ten days after I arrived in Nigeria to begin research for a dissertation on the role of small-scale cash crop production in Nigerian economic development, Nigeria's First Republic was overthrown in a military coup. Eight months later I returned to the US with many more questions than answers about the role of agricultural commercialization in economic development, the politics of independence, and the social and cultural contexts in which they were taking place. Returning to Nigeria several times between 1969 and 1979, for further field research, I expanded my interests from my initial focus on market conditions and trends in cash crop production and farming methods, to the effects of cash crop expansion on the economic and social structures of rural communities, the socio-economic fortunes of farmers and their descendants, and changing relations between the rural sector and Nigerian economy and society in general. By tracing shifts in the demographic and socio-economic makeup of one rural community, and following the careers of farmers and their children before and after the oil boom of the 1970s, I gained a grassroots perspective on the effects of long-term agrarian commercialization, market fluctuations, and political upheavals on people's daily lives and social relationships, and the cumulative implications of individual achievements and frustrations for aggregate processes of social and economic change. My growing interest in the social, cultural, and political contexts in which people work, produce and invest, also led me to other academic disciplines—history, anthropology, political science, geography—and to African Studies in general. In 1975, I moved to Boston University, where I was fortunate to be given a chance to teach courses in African history as well as economic development. Teaching in two departments and working closely with graduate students and Africanist colleagues in several disciplines allowed me to expand my methodological repertoire and explore correspondences and differences among varied disciplinary traditions. It also broadened my appreciation for the diversity of societies and historical experiences in different parts of Africa, and the distinctiveness as well as the familiarity of the Nigerian case. After publishing two monographs on economic and agrarian transformation and socio-economic mobility and differentiation in Nigeria, I wrote No Condition is Permanent, a comparative study which explores the social dynamics of agrarian change in sub-Saharan African through a detailed comparison of particular rural localities in southwestern Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia. Since the early 1990s, I have taught African history and occasional courses in anthropology at Johns Hopkins, and carried out field and archival research on changing claims to land in both rural and urban areas, and relations between land claims, land conflicts, governance and the politics of belonging in the Asante Region of Ghana. My current project seeks to place the Asante case in comparative perspective by examining similar processes in other localities in Ghana and neighboring francophone countries in West Africa. It also reflects, and seeks to extend, my long-standing interest in what students of economic and political transformation can learn from other disciplinary traditions, and vice versa.
 

Education

B.A. (1961) History, Radcliffe College: M.A. (1965) Economics, University of Michigan; Ph.D. (1967) Economics, University of Michigan
 

Subjects

Africa
 

Experience

  • Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University, 1990-present
  • Professor of History and Economics, Boston University, 1986-91, (Associate Professor, 1975-86)
  • Associate Professor of Economics, Indiana University, 1975-76, (Assistant Professor, 1967-75)

Expertise

African social & economic history; political economy of African development; African land conflicts in historical perspective

Project Summary

Using evidence from field research in Ghana and neighboring West African countries, this study examines the effects of neoliberal policies of privatization, decentralization and capacity-building on resource access and allocation, local governance, and social conflict, and reviews the neoliberal policy paradigm in the light of West African experience. By describing the way recent policy debates and social practices have been informed by understandings of the past, this study asks how struggles over authority, ownership and value are shaped by contingencies of knowledge; examines links between policy interventions and the politics of indigeneity and belonging; and reexamines policy options for development and governance in West Africa and in general.

Major Publications

  • Chiefs Know Their Boundaries: Essays on Property, Power and the Past in Asante, 1896-1996 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001)
  • No Condition Is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)
  • Fathers Work for Their Sons: Accumulation, Mobility and Class Formation in an Extended Yoruba Community (University of California Press, 1985)

Stay in Touch

Are you a Wilson Center alumnus? We want to hear about your latest move, award or project. Please send us your news at alumni@wilsoncenter.org.

Experts & Staff