My research agenda investigates how cultural politics intersect with the forces of capitalism to produce and naturalize social inequalities and environmental degradation. At a broader level, I am interested in connecting processes across sites and scales; while my dissertation research examines agrarian change in West Africa, I have also studied status politics among white runners in Boulder, Colorado. In both projects, I use ethnographic methods to examine how inequalities of neoliberal capitalism are produced and justified, drawing on theories of embodiment, culture, and status.
I am interested in the following sociological questions:
the contradictory discourses/processes of meritocracy and naturalization
how cultural processes secure consent (or resistance) to capitalism
the paradox of sustainable development: how do we balance desires for economic growth and "modernity" with ecological sustainability?
White Gold, Black Debt: Capitalism, Culture, and New Agricultural Technologies in the Cotton Sector of Burkina Faso
This video was made right before I left to conduct eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in Burkina Faso. I intended to study farmers' adoption and understandings of genetically modified (GM) cotton. When I arrived in Burkina, however, the state cotton industry stopped growing GM cotton, and I had to rethink my research questions. This led me to consider GM crops as one technology among many in a broader landscape of agricultural and social change.
I came to ask: Why are Burkinabe farmers adopting new agricultural technologies, when these technologies deepen their integration into capitalism and contribute to rising social and environmental inequalities?
My answer refutes rational-choice theories of farmer behavior and builds on – yet extends – traditional agrarian political economy. I draw on Bourdieu’s cultural sociology, postcolonial theory, and environmental inequality research to explain and evaluate the dynamics of agrarian capitalism in Burkina Faso. I find that many actors in Burkina are enthusiastic about purchased agricultural technologies (including genetically modified crops, pesticides, fertilizers, and tractors), despite rising levels of debt, social inequalities, or negative ecological and health effects of using these technologies. I show how a combination of reinforcing political-economic and cultural forces compels Burkinabe farmers to embrace these technologies.
First, the global economic system profoundly constrains farmer choice – the system benefits Western countries and capital interests and leaves farmers few options other than to produce poorly remunerated cash crops. Yet economic coercion is not the only force at play. Farmers also take part in the distinction politics of Burkina’s postcolonial cultural field, which reflects a global status hierarchy that de-values manual labor and rural, poor, uneducated, darker-skinned, and female people. In this setting, labor-saving “Western” technologies offer a route to modern identity and status – even at the cost of debt or illness. In this context, farmers reject more sustainable farming practices because of their association with the lower status of poverty, physical labor, and the “backwards black African.”
My dissertation thus argues that the current conjuncture of economic and cultural forces works to materially produce and discursively justify global inequalities, producing both “White Gold” (literally cotton, but also greater economic and environmental wealth and health for white people and Western countries) and “Black Debt” (greater economic and environmental hardship for African farmers, and the continued devaluing of black identities and bodies). My findings challenge the dominant view that “technology will save Africa” – a perspective that downplays deepening inequalities and narrowing farmer choice, while also tempering the populist vision that small-holder farmers will necessarily resist capitalist expansion – a framing that overlooks farmers’ aspirations for symbolic and material capital. Uniquely, I show how racial ideologies of modernity help explain why farmers apparently “consent” to their deeper integration into capitalist systems of economic coercion.
This research was generously funded by:
The American Association of University Women
The Fulbright Foundation
The National Science Foundation
University of Colorado Boulder Dean's Office