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Law and Disorder in the Postcolony

Are postcolonies haunted more by criminal violence than other nation-states? The usual answer is yes. In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Jean and John Comaroff and a group of respected theorists show that the question is misplaced: that the predicament of postcolonies arises from their place in a world order dominated by new modes of governance, new sorts of empires, new species of wealth—an order that criminalizes poverty and race, entraps the “south” in relations of corruption, and displaces politics into the realms of the market, criminal economies, and the courts. 

As these essays make plain, however, there is another side to postcoloniality: while postcolonies live in states of endemic disorder, many of them fetishize the law, its ways and itsmeans. How is the coincidence of disorder with a fixation on legalities to be explained? Law and Disorder in the Postcolony addresses this question, entering into critical dialogue with such theorists as Benjamin, Agamben, and Bayart. In the process, it also demonstrates how postcolonies have become crucial sites for the production of contemporary theory, not least because they are harbingers of a global future under construction.

400 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2006

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: Southeast Asia and Australia

Latin American Studies


“This major collection, with a masterful introduction by the editors, presents new ways to understand how the globalized legal order bears the signs of its colonial heritage while proving a hyperlegal space for new negotiations about order, crime, and justice in many postcolonial societies. It offers a feast of empirical insights that bring the anthropology of legality into the very center of postcolonial studies, places the South African experience in a highly original global perspective, and shows that the relationship between law and legality is both contradictory and generative.”

Arjun Appadurai, The New School for Social Research

“This collection deals with an important contemporary issue: the nature of order and disorder in spaces of former colonization. These essays offer provocative insights into the extent of violence and disorder in various situations and the complicated and often ineffectual, performative, and even complicit role played by police and other agents of state order. There are numerous forms of disorder presented here, from more conventional criminality to vigilante justice to state violence. These are rich and fascinating glimpses into a world of disorder that follows its own forms of order.”

Sally Engle Merry, New York University

"Each chapter of the book makes important contributions, and there certainly is a topical integration of the volume that is often missing from conference volumes."

Alan Smart | Journal of Anthropological Research

"Not only is this collection a measure of the paradigm of the postcolony, it is also an engaged work of political anthropology set to have a lasting and salutary impact on the discipline."

Nicolas Argenti | Social Anthropology

"Individually and as a whole [the essays] provide some thought-provoking insights into the ways in which law and disorder, criminality and justice feed into one another, and serve as stark warning to those who would see legality as all-conquering."

Tobias Kelly | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"This book is an important text for scholars concerned with the intersections and mutually constitutive elements of governmentality and violence. Though the volume takes the ’post-colony’ as its temporal focus, the innovative strategies that the various contribnutors use in anthropologizing ’criminality’ render their work useful to scholars of colonial situations as well."

Katherine Luongo | African Affairs

"in a short review it is impossible to do justice to the richness of the ethnographic material presented in the individual chapters. This material not only shows the variety of situations in which we can detect the dialectic of law and disorder that the Comaroffs theorize in their introductory summation. Equally important, they point to new directions in which the theorization can be usefully developed."

Giovanni Arrighi | American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents


1. Law and Disorder in the the Postcolony: An Introduction
John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff

2. The Mute and the Unspeakable: Political Subjectivity, Violent Crime, and "the Sexual Thing" in a South African Mining Community
Rosalind C. Morris

3. "I Came to Sabotage your Reasoning!": Violence and Resignifications of Justice in Brazil
Teresa P. R. Caldeira

4. Death Squads and Democracy in Northeast Brazil
Nancy Scheper-Hughes

5. Some Notes on Disorder in the Indonesian Postcolony
Patricia Spyer

6. Witchcraft and the Limits of the Law: Cameroon and South Africa
Peter Geschiere

7. The Ethics of Illegality in the Chad Basin
Janet Roitman

8. Criminal Obsessions, after Foucault: Postcoloniality, Policing, and the Metaphysics of Disorder
Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff

9. On Politics as a Form of Expenditure
Achille Mbembe


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