Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Daniel Jordan Smith (page 2)
 Talking with
Daniel Jordan Smith
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You've talked about many of the challenges of adapting to and understanding another society being akin to what one faces doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. Tell us a little more about how the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone prepared you for doing anthropological research.

In my experience in the Peace Corps it quickly became apparent that being an effective Volunteer required a great effort to acquire a kind of cultural competence — epitomized by language fluency and eating and enjoying local cuisine, but encompassing a wide range of familiarity with and empathy regarding local traditions, practices and understandings. In addition, just getting to know people and becoming an accepted person in the community turned out to be simultaneously the most treasured aspect of my Peace Corps experience and the crucial factor in being able to do some effective work. All of this translates wonderfully into what it takes to do good research as a cultural anthropologist. The challenges — but also the joys — are very similar.

What was your PHD study?

I did my dissertation research in southeastern Nigeria among the Igbo-speaking ethnic group looking at the relationship between social change and family and demographic processes. Specifically, I was interested in a seeming paradox: why was it that Igbo people, who by many measures (education, mobility, urban exposure, women’s autonomy, etc.) are among the most “modern” of Africans still value high fertility and have so many children. This seemed to go against the conventional wisdom that modernization (whatever, exactly, that means) is associated with low fertility. My research addressed this question and I came to the conclusion that relatively high fertility remains important for Igbos (and indeed for many Africans) because ties of kinship continue to be necessary for access to social resources, even when those resources are modern ones, like education, state services, opportunities for urban migration, employment, and so on. Essentially, I argued that in a clientelistic political economy like Nigeria’s, people navigate social, economic and political life through kinship ties, and in such an environment having relatively large families still makes sense — even though one must acknowledge, and Igbo people certainly experience, many countervailing pressures.

Is your book A Culture of Corruption the result of your Ph.D. work?
  

My book is not directly the result of my Ph.D. research, though in retrospect I have been collecting ethnographic “data” about corruption in Nigeria ever since I started working there in 1989. As I decided what to write my first book about I felt almost obliged to write about and try to explain corruption in Nigeria. I took on the topic in part because it so dominates Nigeria’s global reputation, in part because it is in many ways misunderstood, and in part because for Nigerians themselves corruption — and the discontents it generates — is a primary lens through which they experience, understand and criticize contemporary life.

Where have you taught besides Brown?

Brown has been my only full-time teaching position, but I also taught at Emory University while I was doing my Ph.D. and I taught several courses at Abia State University in Nigeria when I had a Fulbright Fellowship.

What do you teach in Brown?
I teach mainly in the areas of medical anthropology and the anthropology of development, but also more broadly in cultural anthropology. I teach courses such as “Culture and Health,” “International Health: Anthropological Perspectives,” “Anthropology and International Development: Ethnographic Perspectives on Poverty and Progress,” and “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” I also plan to teach courses specifically on Africa.
As an academic, would you think the study of “the Peace Corps” would make a good academic study at Brown or any other colleges or universities?
Yes, I think someone could do a fascinating study of the Peace Corps. I’d be surprised if there hasn’t been some stuff already done, though I am unaware of any anthropological study — taking the Peace Corps as a kind of ethnographic object. I know that there are many RPCVs who have gone on to become anthropologists. We have had several just in our Ph.D. program at Brown.
Let’s go back to your book and its topic of corruption. Does Africa, particularly Nigeria, have a future that will not be limited by such widespread corruption that those of us who served in Africa know from first hand experience?
Let me say that I think corruption is a feature of every society, not just African societies. But I also think it is fair to say that Africa, and Nigeria, has been especially hampered by corruption. I argue in the book that to understand corruption in Nigeria one must recognize and unravel the paradox that ordinary Nigerians are simultaneously participants in corruption even as they are also its primary victims and its loudest critics. The scope of corruption and the degree to which it creates a sort of vicious cycle contribute to its intractability. But I am somewhat optimistic because I see that ordinary Nigerians (and Africans more generally) are extremely self-conscious about the pernicious effects of corruption. Half my book focuses on explaining major social trends (like burgeoning Pentecostal Christianity, resurgent ethnic nationalism, and vigilantism) in terms of being responses to popular discontents with corruption. I see a tide of popular expectation for change and argue that even when elites use the facades of democracy and development to facilitate corruption and maintain inequality, they are stoking popular aspirations that they will not necessarily be able to control. So I am hopeful, but also worried about some of the paths to change that could unfold.
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