Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

James Ferguson
Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt.

Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999, 326pp. $66.75 cloth, (0520217012), $26.75 paper (0520217020).

The statistics tell much of the story. At independence in 1964 Zambia had the strongest economy of all the newly independent states in Africa, and it continued to grow at a rapid rate so that by 1974 its GDP per capita of US$504 was not far behind Portugal; a quarter of century later this had dropped to US$380, before any adjustment for inflation. Copper provides most of the explanation. Over this period copper has lost about two thirds of its purchasing power, and Zambia has lost half its productive capacity. Since even a mono-export economy cannot shrink at such a dramatic rate, the shortfall was made up by increasing external debt which of course simply prolonged the agony of making the inevitable adjustment to the new realities of the international financial system. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s the Copperbelt represented the dramatic intrusion of modernity with all its hopes and aspirations for material and social betterment, now that period is regarded with nostalgia as real living standards plummet with no prospect for change.

It is this reversal of the myth of modernisation that is the focus of James Ferguson's study and what gives it particular significance is that the Copperbelt was the site of the path-breaking anthropological work sponsored by the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute. It shifted the focus of the field away from a static, functionalist conception of a self-contained tribe, to the dynamic processes of incorporation into a global capitalist system through migration and urbanisation driven primarily through the mining industry. Colonial regimes found the tribalist view of African miners convenient since it served as the basis of a social policy which denied them adequate housing and other services on the grounds that they were merely temporary sojourners in urban areas. The RLI scholars therefore emerged as defenders of the rights of Africans to full participation in modern urban civilization, fusing their analysis of modernisation with its celebration.

Reviewing the fate of the modernisation project in Zambia also entails revising its theoretical underpinnings. These turn out to have been a simple adaptation of modernisation theory, with its teleological arrangement of stages, in which life on the Copperbelt was to be seen as in transition from the primitive to the Western. Several features marked this transition, of which three were particularly crucial: degree of permanence of urban residence, shift from matrilineal kinship to nuclear family, emulation and adoption of Western cultural styles of food, drink, dress, music, recreation, etc. Ferguson undertook extensive field work throughout the late 1980s, on the basis of which he assembles a formidable critique of the RLI school and its successors, establishing two overall conclusions. The metanarrative of modernisation failed to represent the distinctive patterns of social change, even during the heyday of copper and the RLI (circa 1940-1970); the subsequent economic collapse forces its complete abandonment.

While there are constant references to the economic predicaments faced by those living on the Copperbelt, these are not elaborated in any systematic fashion. What is clear is that virtually all residents are forced to develop complicated survival strategies, most of which include cultivation of rural opportunities. Although the precise balance between rural and urban is obviously contingent on the state of the urban economy, it no longer makes any sense to talk about an undifferentiated process of urbanisation. Surplus land allows many with weak existing links to rural areas to contemplate the rural option, but the absence of an adequate infrastructure, not least in teaching technical agricultural skills, means that this constitutes not an alternative developmental path, but rather just another site of misery. Survival strategies are made even more complex by the pattern of kinship and gender relations and Ferguson provides a fine account of both. The modernisation myth of the nuclear family has supported a housing policy which is quite inconsistent with the actual patterns of kinship and gender, patterns which are shaped by the urban context rather rural imports. As a mining community, occupational opportunities are strictly segregated along gender lines, and the strategies adopted by women are consistently at odds with those adopted by men. This gender conflict is transformed into a particularly acute kinship conflict when couples resettle in rural areas. All these tensions and conflicts provide the basis for a wide range of cultural styles performances by the Copperbelt residents, moving between “cosmopolitan” and “localist” styles as they negotiate their strategies for survival in both urban and rural worlds.

Throughout the analysis of these complexities which run simultaneously along economic, kinship, gender, and cultural lines, Ferguson stresses that they cannot be moulded into a stage along any developmental path. If they constitute a particular type of more general significance, it is one of disconnecting from the aspirations of modernity, a contradiction evident in many spheres, not least in the failure to deliver one of its most powerful symbols, electricity, thanks to theft of the copper wire.

Perhaps the promise of modernity in Central Africa was inherently false, especially since it rested on the transitory resource of copper. But at least it offered a leverage against certain forms of exclusion, subordination, and deprivation. Ferguson shows that the theory behind it was quite inadequate to the task, and recognises that in demolishing this as the master metanarrative of development, he has also exposed the need for a fresh set of intellectual resources to protect new generations from another set of false promises of development.

John Hillman
Department of Sociology
Trent University
June 2000
© CJS Online