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Anthropology JHU

Department of Anthropology
The Johns Hopkins University
404 Macaulay Hall
3400 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218

Phone 410-516-7272
Fax 410-516-6080


Juan Obarrio

     Juan Obarrio

Assistant Professor

Phone: (410) 516-4668
Macaulay 407

PhD, Columbia University

Office Hours

Spring 2015

Thursdays 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm

Research Interests
The political, law and temporality, theology in relation to state and the economy, memory and subjectivity, magic, violence, value, experimental writing. Southern Africa, Latin America.

Current research
My forthcoming book "The Spirit of the Laws in Mozambique" (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is a historical ethnography of the postcolonial state in Mozambique. Focusing on issues of law and justice, the state is here understood as an entanglement of temporalities, collective memories and versions of national history. The project's main object is one of the current key political processes in Africa: the status of "customary law" and "traditional chieftaincy" in a context of post-civil war and post-Socialist transition to neo-liberal "rule of law". Moving from ritual and kinship to state reform, and from chiefs and people's courts to multilateral donors, the study engages with an elusive, metaphysical kernel of the law's legitimacy and its ambiguous relation with violence, revealing the aporias in the "democratic" project of a politics of recognition. The project analyzes the state not simply as a unitary institution of sovereign power  governing a territory or a population, but rather in its original sense as status or condition:  a mobile assemblage of authorities, rythms, imaginaries, subjectivities, norms and desires. The study is based on two years of field research funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

In 2012, I will be an ACLS fellow working on a comparative project on "Customary citizenship" in Contemporary Africa.

Another broad set of interests is gathered under the rubric of "The Gift of Justice". Combining anthropological theories of the gift and philosophical conceptions of justice,  I study circulation and reciprocity as frames for a central concern with the issue of political community, in relation to topics such as state, labor, contract and development.

At Johns Hopkins, I am the convenor of Conversions: Political Theologies/Political Economies.


Law and Justice

Citizenship and civility in Postcolonial Urban Mozambique
Forthcoming in "The Art of Citizenship in Africa" , edited by Mamadou Diouf and Rosalind Fredericks (Palgrave 2013)  

"Theorizing the Contemporary: Introduction"
Johannesburg Salon, n5. Wits University, South Africa, 2012

“Remains: To be seen. Third Encounter between State and “customary” in Northern Mozambique”. Cultural Anthropology. Volume 25, Issue 2, pages 263–300, May 2010

“Beyond equivalence: The Gift of Justice. (Mozambique 1976-2004)” in Anthropological Theory. March 2010;   10   (1-2)

“Traditional Justice as Rule of Law in Africa: An Anthropological Perspective”, in Peacebuilding and Rule of Law in Africa: Just Peace?. Chandra Lekha Sriram Olga Martin-Ortega Johanna Herman (eds). Routledge, UK, 2010.

“Mozambique: The chief question”, forthcoming in The Mozambique Reader. 2011

“Number as Inventive Frontier” Special Issue of Anthropological Theory. March 2010; 10   (1-2). Co edited with Jane Guyer and Naveeda Khan

Mozambique : reconciliation without "truth"
e-misferica 7.2


Theorizing the Contemporary: Introduction
Johannesburg Salon, n5. Wits University, South Africa, 2012

Editor, Cultural Anthropology special issue on J and J Comaroff 's book "Theory from the South"

Review of Paul Khan "Political Theology: Four new chapters on the concept of sovereignty"
The Immanent Frame, 2011

Review of Bataille's Peak: Energy, Religion and Postsustainability by Alan Stoekl, in Cultural Anthropology, Volume 24, Issue 4, pages 752–755, November 2009

Review of Achille Mbembe’s On The Postcolony. South African Historical Journal, Volume 56, Issue 1 2006 , pages 188 – 200

L’Etat de Choses en Afrique. Politique Africaine, 91, 2003. Paris

Review of  Patricia Zimmerman, States of Emergency: Documentaries, War, Democracies,  in XCP Cross Cultural Poetics n8, May 2001.

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