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Neoliberal Frontiers

An Ethnography of Sovereignty in West Africa

In Neoliberal Frontiers, Brenda Chalfin presents an ethnographic examination of the day-to-day practices of the officials of Ghana’s Customs Service, exploring the impact of neoliberal restructuring and integration into the global economy on Ghanaian sovereignty. From the revealing vantage point of the Customs office, Chalfin discovers a fascinating inversion of our assumptions about neoliberal transformation: bureaucrats and local functionaries, government offices, checkpoints, and registries are typically held to be the targets of reform, but Chalfin finds that these figures and sites of authority act as the engine for changes in state sovereignty. Ghana has served as a model of reform for the neoliberal establishment, making it an ideal site for Chalfin to explore why the restructuring of a state on the global periphery portends shifts that occur in all corners of the world. At once a foray into international political economy, politics, and political anthropology, Neoliberal Frontiers is an innovative interdisciplinary leap forward for ethnographic writing, as well as an eloquent addition to the literature on postcolonial Africa.

320 pages | 24 halftones, 3 maps, 1 figure, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


“This is an engaging, creative book offering compelling insights about the content and effects of neoliberal restructuring in a postcolonial state.” 

Adia Benton | American Anthropologist

“This fascinating study offers important new insights into what neoliberal restructuring means (and does not mean) for states today. Through careful observation and clear-sighted analysis, it demonstrates just how much we stand to gain from a truly ethnographic approach to the postcolonial state.”

James Ferguson, Stanford University

“Brenda Chalfin’s meticulous, innovative, and theoretically sophisticated account of changing customs regimes in contemporary Ghana offers a compelling and revealing analysis of customs practices as a window onto the nature of modern statecraft, the procedures and effects of neoliberalism, and the complex and contradictory faces of sovereignty in twenty-first-century Africa.”

Daniel Jordan Smith, Brown University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Toward an Anthropology of Neoliberal Sovereignty

Part one

1 Customs as Effective Sovereign: State Logics across Time and Place

2 Anthropologies of the State: Marrying Ethnography and Political Economy

Part two

3 Histories and Tactics of Territorial Sovereignty: Thinking through the Border

4 The Sovereignty of Good Governance: Bureaucratic Contests and the Recentering of Power

5 The Properties of Popular Sovereignty: Customs and Corruption, Cars, and Democratic Discourse

6 Technologies of Sovereignty: The Politics and Phenomenology of Privatized Rule on the Maritime Frontier

7 Affective Sovereignty: Airport Anthropology and the Shifting Contours of Citizenship

Conclusion: Working the Border: Neoliberal Sovereignty in Comparative Perspective





African Politics Conference Group/London School of Economics and Political Science: Best Book on African Politics

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