John Comaroff

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John Comaroff
Born (1945-01-01) January 1, 1945 (age 72)
Fields Anthropology
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater University of Cape Town
London School of Economics
Doctoral advisor Isaac Schapera

John L. Comaroff (born 1 January 1945)[1] is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies at Harvard University. He is also Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation. He is recognised for his decades of African and African-American societal study. John and his wife, Jean Comaroff, have collaborated on landmark publications examining post-colonialism and the Tswana people of South Africa. He has written several well-received texts describing his research, and has presented peer-reviewed anthropological theories of African cultures that have relevance to understanding global society.


Comaroff was born in Cape Town in 1945 and received his BA at the University of Cape Town in 1968. After college he and his wife left South Africa for the United Kingdom, where he received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 1973. His field research focus is on the Tswana people of Southern Africa. He researches and publishes independently and in collaboration with his wife, Jean Comaroff. His interests also include corporate Christianity, witchcraft, political culture, colonialism, the history of consciousness, politics, and historical anthropology.

Family and Early life[edit]

John Loinel Comaroff was born 1 January 1945 in Cape Town, South Africa where he lived with his mother Jane Miller Comaroff and father, Louis (better known as Lionel) Comaroff. John is considered one of the world's first baby boomers as his day of birth coincides with the first hour of the first day of 1945, the start of that generation. John's father's family was either from Ukraine or Belarus (somewhere in the Western part of Russia, the exact location is unknown). John's grandfather migrated in the early 1890s from Ukraine or Belarus first to Germany (Kimmerhauft) to escape conscription into the Russian army and discrimination against Jews, and later to Birmingham, England. During the economic recession, he joined the Pioneer Column and migrated again, this time to Rhodesia, present day Zimbabwe. The Pioneer Column was a force led by Cecil John Rhodes, an English-born South African businessman, to secure Matabeleland and Mashonaland (both are now in present-day Zimbabwe) before other European powers (Wikipedia, 2013). John's father, Louis, is therefore Rhodesian, as he was born in Rhodesia.

Louis later moved south to Cape Town where he would meet his wife, Jane Miller. Like John's father's family, his mother's family also migrated to South Africa from Lithuania in the early 1900s. Jane was born just outside Cape Town where her father worked as a small trader. Jane and Louis met during WWII in Cape Town. John recalls with admiration, "My mother is an extraordinary brilliant woman who ought to have gone to college but never did" (John Comaroff, personal communication, April 2013). Instead, as the war continued, Jane worked in an arms factory while Louis worked as a trader in the furniture business. Throughout Jane's lifetime she exhibited a commitment to voluntary work in their community. She was a major leader in the South African Jewish community and just before her death in 1972 she was named the head of the World Woman's Zionist Organization. John's parents were both Jewish, however as John remarks, "They were not especially religious" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). John is conscious of being Jewish and holds an interest in Jewish music, history and literature. However, for John, Judaism plays more of a cultural role in his life. John has no active belief in god and considers himself an atheist, which he has been since a young age.

John was the only child of Louis and Jane, born at the onset of apartheid in South Africa. The period of apartheid presented two vastly different worlds, one that appeared to be luxurious, beautiful, and safe on the surface but below the surface a level of darkness, control, and violence existed. The authoritarian regime passed highly regulatory laws that limited the lives of all South Africans. For example, the government restricted education in general for all South Africans by imposing censors on the availability of different books, theories, and ideas. Restrictions were far more severe for non-white individuals, impacting their lives on a daily basis. For example, citizenship was taken from all black South Africans when The Bantu Homelands Act was passed in 1951. The law declared that lands reserved for black South Africans were independent nations, thus they were considered residents of their new homelands and foreigners of South Africa (Bantu Authorities Act, 2013). Blacks were required to carry identification and faced severe consequences if they were stopped and did not have proper identification (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

John was the first person in his family to attend University. He attended the University of Cape Town and it was during this time that he began to develop and solidify his interest in anthropology. In his second year at the University, John met classmate and future wife, Jean, who shared a similar interest in anthropology. John and Jean both completed their bachelor's degrees and part of their Honors year at the University of Cape Town. The second part of their Honors year was completed at the London School of Economics. John and Jean's shared interests in anthropology have allowed them to work closely together developing ideas, conducting research and writing books. John and Jean share a unique relationship that allows the two of them to challenge one another and learn from each other every day (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Monica Wilson, a South African anthropologist at the University of Cape Town who focused on historical anthropology, were two individuals who influenced both John and Jean Comaroff as young adults. Monica was both John and Jean's professor at the University of Cape Town and ended up having a profound impact on their lives, eventually becoming their mentor but a friend as well. Prior to studying at the University of Cape Town, John did not know much about anthropology. He had heard about Monica Wilson as she was recognised as well known anthropologist in South Africa. However, having Monica Wilson as a professor at the University of Cape Town, in addition to the fact that the study of anthropology was very relevant to the South African experience, specifically because it began to deal with the idea of cultural differences, John began to develop an interest in the field of anthropology. John describes Monica as being an "utterly brilliant women; one of the finest anthropologists" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). John and Jean had a special connection with Monica and her husband as they, similar to John and Jean, were a couple that studied anthropology. John explains further, "We [Jean and I] went on to write historical anthropology and Jean worked on ritual, so there was a very strong genealogical link with her" [Monica Wilson] (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 15 November 2008). Additionally, Monica also turned Jean and John on to the idea of attending the London School of Economics (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

John's time spent at the LSE greatly impacted the path that he would later choose to follow. It was at the LSE that John met another very influential individual. This individual was well known anthropologist, Isaac Schapera. Schapera was an incredibly influential figure and professor to both John and Jean. John explains how his time at the LSE impacted his life, "Our engagement with the LSE was certainly going to affect what we later did" (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 15 November 2008). John and Jean attended the LSE from 1967 to 1968, which was a time characterised by unparalleled social activism (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 15 November 2008).

Much of the Comaroff's first year was spent outside of the classroom participating in protests as the LSE was closed for most of this time. Additionally, this was a period in which John describes as, "The moments also when anthropology was for the first time developing arguments about colonialism" (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 15 November 2008). The topic of colonialism is one that John went on to study and appears in his writings. John's Doctorate work was focused on politics and looked at the nature of African politics in the post colonial and apartheid period in politics. John has a particular interest in Law and had once thought of pursuing a career as a litigator. John explains, "I was interested in what we would think of today as public action law or public interest law; the law governing political indictments and political imprisonment. I would have liked to have been a litigator in political cases, but the problem was that we knew that we were going to have to immigrate, and so the South African law degree would have been useless outside of South Africa. Although Law was a passion of mine it was not practical due to the circumstances" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

John Comaroff has conducted most of his field research in South Africa. From 1969–1970 he spent nineteen months studying society, culture, politics, and law among the Barolong boo Ratshidi, which is part of the Tswana chiefdoms located along the South Africa-Botswana Borderland. One of the reasons John and Jean chose the Tswana chiefdoms was because they were worried that the South African Security Police would eventually stop them from conducting research. Eventually this did occur and the Comaroffs had to relocate to Botswana to complete their research (Jean and John Comaroff, personal communication, 28 September 2010). From 1972–1973 John went back to the Mafeking District, of the Barolong boo Ratshidi, for some supplementary research on society and culture for filming Heal the Whole Man, which looks at healing and other religious practices of the Barolong boo Ratshidi (British Film Institute, 2012). He then focused his research on the social and cultural aspects of economic development of the Barolong in Botswana for 15 months in 1974 and 1975. From 1977–1978 for 3 months, he focused on this group again, but looked at the rise of agrarian capitalism. During the summers of 1990–1998, John returned to South Africa to conduct research in various places such as Bophuthatswana, better known as the North West Province. From 1999–2001, he again studied in the North West Province looking at occult-related violence, and researched this topic for fifteen months. Then from 2002–2001, he studied Crime and Policing in this area. During 2005–2010 he was also researching the Tswana and San people and how ethnicity identity and cultural property is becoming commoditised (Comaroff, 2013).

Current Projects and Work at the American Bar Foundation American Bar Foundation: John Comaroff is currently an affiliated research professor at the American Bar Foundation. John joined the bar foundation in 1991 and was originally considered a research professor until 2012. In 2012, John became an affiliated research professor when he and his wife took teaching positions at Harvard University. The ABF is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing justice through rigorous research on the law, legal practices, and the impacts laws have on our society. Comaroff’s focus as an affiliated research professor of the ABF is legal and political anthropology with a concentration on the tensions between the governance of the new South Africa and the rising incidence of informal justice and cultural policing (American Bar Foundation [ABF], 2013). Additionally, he focuses on democracy and differences in post-revolutionary societies as well as the post-colonial political economy in the global South (ABF, 2013).

Current Projects: Comaroff’s most recent project is called Ethnicity Inc., which is follow up research that is being conducted in connection with the Comaroff’s book called, Ethnicity Inc. This is a project that focuses on the following issues: 1) Why it is that ethnic groups have become more and more like corporations, 2) Why culture has become more like intellectual property, and finally 3) What it is about the contemporary world that has made it that way (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). Research is currently being conducted in South Africa at two different sites which include: a) the rural and semi-rural Northwest, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga Provinces, and b) the urban precincts of Cape Town, in which a wide range of popular forms of justice are in evidence (ABF, 2013).

In addition to the Ethnicity Inc. project, the Comaroff’s currently have two other projects of their own. The Comaroffs’ just recently published a book called Theory from the South, which is based on research that was conducted in South Africa. Theory from the South focuses on the global South or what has previously been referred to as "the third world." In this discussion of the global South the Comaroff’s emphasise Africa’s growing global importance (American Anthropological Association, 2012). Secondly, John and Jean are in the process of working on writing another book, which will focus on imposture in South Africa (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard University: Prior to teaching at Harvard University John and Jean spent 34 years teaching at the University of Chicago. Teaching at the University of Chicago was a pleasant experience for John. He especially loved to challenge his students to think from a different perspective of what he called "Africanity" which "implies a profound respect for the aesthetic, cultural, social and political aspects of Africa" (Schonwald, 2001). He strives to have his students look at Africa in a different way than what they have been taught about previously and uses different techniques to keep them engaged in the subject (Schonwald, 2001). John and Jean joined Harvard on 1 July 2012 and have since then, both been working as Professors of African and African American Studies and Anthropology. Their primary position at Harvard University is to build the African American Studies department. As John explains, "African Studies requires building and even though Africa is assuming a more and more important place in the world it remains in the minds of many as irrelevant and the dark savage place where nothing happens" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). John’s experience at Harvard, thus far, has been wonderful. He deeply enjoys teaching the students of Harvard and has felt much support from the faculty he and his wife work with (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

John’s Interest in Anthropology: John’s interest in anthropology developed as a result of different factors. Relationships with professors and anthropologists like Monica Wilson and Isacc Schapera helped solidify his interests in the area as well as the fact that it was a subject that was very relevant to his experiences growing up in South Africa during the apartheid. John explains, "Anthropology was a subject that I found very relevant to the South African experience because it dealt with the idea of cultural difference. It was a discipline in South Africa that was considered part of the school of African studies in the faculty of arts and sciences. It was known to be extremely in tune with the race and class issues that were occurring at the time in South Africa. The anthropology classroom was the only place where you saw some kind of reflection that you were living in Africa and that African society had something to teach the world. It was an extraordinary thing" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Education and Influential Figures: The effects of apartheid legislation were also notably visible throughout John’s early and late education. The contrast was stark between the conditions of schools in urban areas versus rural areas and all white schools versus non-white schools. Schools, like the majority of South African institutions at the time, were completely segregated and funding for non-white schools was almost nonexistent. Additionally, schools in urban areas were seriously impoverished; students often attended class under a tree with little to no educational materials. John has spent extensive time as an anthropologist and a professor in rural and urban South African schools. During his tenure as a professor at the University of Chicago, John led a group of university students to the Limpopo province in South Africa to visit a school. John described the conditions of the school as having "…approximately one chair per every three students" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). The conditions of schools like Limpopo reflect effects inherited from apartheid that still challenge the lives of black South Africans today.

Theories and Interests: Witchcraft' Witchcraft has been a topic of interest for the Comaroffs since 1969. John explains, "Witchcraft is a moral discourse about right and wrong, fortune and misfortune. It is not a topic focused on superstitions but rather a discourse that is focused on evil" (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). The Comaroffs became particularly interested in this phenomenon after they returned to South Africa in the 1990s, shortly after apartheid had ended in South Africa. The Comaroffs went back to South Africa with the intention of studying the impact of democratisation and found that in the countryside, which was a part of Africa in which they had previously done work in, witchcraft had become a topic that was being spoken about by many individuals. For this reason the Comaroffs began to study this phenomenon and have continued to study it to this day (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Global Capitalism Global capitalism also serves as a topic of interest for both John and Jean. The two recently published a book called Ethnicity Inc. (2009), which focuses specifically on the topic of global capitalism. The subtitle of this book is called " Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa." In the book Ethnicity Inc., the Comaroffs aim to emphasise the broad unfolding history of global capitalism. One of the main arguments the Comaroffs make is that global capitalism is affecting the entire world in the same ways, but not in the same time frame (Comaroff, 2009). Additional topics explored in this discussion of global capitalism look at why memory is more important than history, the future of democracy, and the different types of politics that are occurring in the world (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Lawfare John and Jean have also expressed an interest in the concept of lawfare. John defines lawfare in the following way, "The process of using violence and power inherent in the law to produce political outcomes" (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 28 September 2010). They have specifically explored the ways in which the law has been used to inflict violence indirectly by using the law to benefit oneself at the expense of others. This concept is used in their book called Law and Disorder in the Postcolony (2006) in an analytical sense, which differs from how others have chosen to use this concept (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013). In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, the Comaroffs explore how law in postcolonial societies is used to look at disorder and furthermore how disorder is created. Additionally, the Comaroffs look at, "How lawfare is becoming the default mode of resolving disagreements, defending interests, attacking others, and claiming rights" (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication 28 September 2010).

Postcolonial Societies John has a particular interest in postcolonial societies, specifically South Africa, where the Comaroffs began their research. John found that although anthropology was not in itself radical, "It created a base from which one could think radical thoughts and from which one could ask questions about the nature of South African society, which was almost impossible anywhere else" (John and Jean Comaroff, personal communication, 15 November 2008). When John and his wife first started their research as undergraduate students, apartheid was still widespread in South Africa. To this day the Comaroffs still conduct research in different parts of South Africa and look specifically at the developments that have occurred since the end of apartheid.

Hegemony John Comaroff and his wife look closely at hegemony in their book, Of Revelation and Revolution. The definition they come up with goes past the idea of simple dominance and leadership. Their definition has become an important part of looking at hegemony. Their definition states, "We take hegemony to refer to that order of signs and practices, relations and distinctions, images and epistemologies – drawn from a historically situated cultural field – that come to be taken for granted for as the natural and received shape of the world"(Comaroff, 1991). This looks more closely at how historic cultural practices and ideas have come to seem natural, although are not natural, influence practices of people and how these can be used to assert dominance. They note that culture has to have some hegemony to keep some aspects of culture the same (Landau, 2000). They look at how hegemonic practices of evangelists in Africa affected the Tswana people and how the Tswana people unconsciously resisted these practices (Landau, 2000).

Lectures Given Globally: John’s work has extended beyond the United States and South Africa; his influence has been felt on a global level with lectures in the following 22 locations: • Africa • Argentina • Australia • Austria • Canada • Columbia • Denmark • France • Germany • Hong Kong • Hungary • Israel/Palestine • Netherlands • Norway • Russia • Spain • Sweden • Switzerland • Taiwan • Turkey • United Kingdom • United States of America

Other Positions, Awards, and Honors: John has also been a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Wales (1971–1972), University College of Swansea (1971–1972), and the University of Manchester (1972–1978). He was also a visiting professor at the University of California Riverside (1981–1982), Duke University (1989), Tel Aviv University ( 2000), University of Basel (2005), and the University of Vienna (2007). Additionally, Comaroff was an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Manchester in the International Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research (1994–1995) and in the Department of Social Anthropology (1996–1998). In 1988 and 1995 he was an Associate Director of Studies in Paris. Furthermore, Comaroff was a visiting scholar at the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin (1998) and a visiting fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advance Study in South Africa (2010 and 2011). Since 2004, John Comaroff has been an Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Oppenheimer Research Scholar at Harvard University: John Comaroff is a recipient of the Oppenheimer Research Scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. The Oppenheimer Research Fund is aimed at assisting post-honor students with an honorary research scholarship that provides necessary funding for a scholar "undertaking research in any field with application to African Studies" (Department of African American Studies, 2013).

Publications: Throughout the course of his anthropological career, John and his wife Jean have co-authored several books which include: Of Revelation and Revolution (Vol. 1 and 2), 1991; Ethnography And The Historical Imagination (Studies in Ethnographic Imagination), 1992; Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa, 1993; Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa: Critical Perspectives, 2000; Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, 2000; Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, 2006; Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera, 2007, Ethnicity Inc, 2009; Zombies et Frontières A l'Ere Néolibérale, 2010; Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, 2011. John has also written a book in which he co-authored with Simon Roberts in 1986 entitled, Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context.

In Ethnicity, Inc., John and Jean Comaroff explore the rampant commodification of ethnicity. Ethnicity can be a multimillion-dollar business, and the Comaroffs present convincing examples of cultural identity as marketable money-makers in this University of Chicago Press 2009 release. Examples abound in the modern world. Culture and capitalism come together in Native American operated gambling casinos. Shakaland is an ethno-themed amusement park in the Zulu nation. The country of Scotland is transforming its name into a corporate brand. Upstart marketing firms are targeting specific ethnic populations. Many strong examples of the intersection of ethnicity and business such as these are presented in a convincing, and sometimes humorous, 236 page discussion. The Comaroffs scrutinise the "new frontier": ethnicity as a modern commodity, and its implication for race and commerce in the future.

Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context is a 1986 collaboration between anthropologists Simon Roberts and John Comaroff that studies legal anthropology—the process of settling disputes—in African society. The conflict resolution process in Taswana, a southern Africa village, is scrutinised. The authors document how governing rule and laws are dynamically influenced by the cultural identities of the individual citizen. The intersection of sociocultural structures and individual experience in conflict resolution is presented by the authors, and in doing so, they challenge many orthodox anthropologic legal ideologies. Rules and Processes broadens our understanding of the social dispute process by examining the underpinnings of an African village.

Picturing a Colonial Past is a rich photographic volume from The Chicago University Press (2007) presenting photographs of British anthropologist Isaac Schapera, taken between 1929 and 1934 in what is now Botswana. His camera captures images of daily life among the Kgatla people—rainmaking ceremonies, village building and architecture, animal herding, etc.— and 136 crisp monochrome images are presented. John and Jean Comaroff provide a written introduction to the photographs, which imbues cultural context to early 20th century rural African life. Co-author Adam Kuper provides a detailed biography of the photographer. Picturing a Colonial Past provides not only a rare insight into old Botswana, but also a glimpse into the rich life of one of the most famous anthropologists who worked there.

Hobbies: Aside from enjoying time with his two children Joshua and Jane, the Comaroff’s have four grandchildren whom they adore. John enjoys watching films, reading novels, and is a diehard Manchester United football fanatic (John Comaroff, personal communication, 17 April 2013).


In collaboration with his wife* Comaroff, J. & Comaroff J. (1991). Of Revelation and Revolution Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Illinois, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

In collaboration with his wife* Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. (2006). Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Illinois, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
In collaboration with his wife* Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. (2009). Ethnicity Inc. Illinois, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
In collaboration with his wife* Comaroff, J., & Comaroff, J. (2011). Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Colorado, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers
  • Comaroff, John L., & Roberts, S. (1986). Rules and Processes: The Cultural Logic of Dispute in an African Context. Illinois, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Comaroff, J., Comaroff, J., & James, D. (2007). Picturing a Colonial Past: The African Photographs of Isaac Schapera. Illinois, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Department of African American Studies. (2013). John Comaroff. Retrieved from:
  • Landua, P. (2000). Hegemony and History in Jean and John L. Comaroff's "Of Revelation and Revolution" [Review of the book Of Revelation and Revolution]. Retrieved from
  • Schonwald, J. (24 May 2001). 2002 quantrell award winner: John Comaroff, Harold H. Swift distinguished service professor in anthropology and the college.



  1. ^ Europa Publications, International Who's Who of Authors and Writers 2004 (Routledge, 2003: ISBN 1-85743-179-0), p. 111.