The Association for Africanist Anthropology (AfAA) exists to stimulate, strengthen, and advance anthropology by promoting the study of Africa, as well as Africanist scholarship and the professional interests of Africanist anthropologists in and outside of the African Continent. We do this in many ways, including book and paper awards to distinguished scholars, graduate student members, and undergraduates.
At the November 2016 AAA Annual Meeting, James Ferguson, Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, received the Elliott P. Skinner Book Award for Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution, published by Duke University Press. AfAA also named two honorable mentions for 2016: J. Lorand Matory, the Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and of African and African American Studies at Duke University, for his book Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America, published by University of Chicago Press; and Richard Werbner, professor emeritus of African anthropology at the University of Manchester for Divination’s Grasp: African Encounters with the Almost Said, published by Indiana University Press.
Established in 2007, the award honors the memory of Elliott P. Skinner, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Skinner was a prolific scholar, diplomat, and founding member of the AfAA. The award aims to recognize Africanist anthropology scholars whose books exhibit originality, make advances in ethnographic and theoretical scholarship, and have the potential to gain broader visibility. The award committee is chaired by Betty J. Harris (Oklahoma), and includes AfAA past presidents Maria Cattell (Field Museum), Bennetta Jules-Rosette (UCSD), Gwendolyn Mikell (Georgetown), and Anita Spring (Florida).
In Give a Man a Fish, Ferguson deftly explores the possibility of South Africa extending its current national system of social payments, in the form of “old age pensions, child care grants, and disability payments” to developing basic social grants. Within the emerging “politics of redistribution,” Ferguson supports basic income grants in the provision of small monthly cash payments to all South African citizens—inclusive of “working age ‘abled-bodied’ men,” who have high rates of unemployment and are often excluded from existing social grants. This provocative idea, espoused by the ANC Freedom Charter’s notion of “sharing the wealth of the country” and by Martin Luther King and others during the 1960s, has gained greater currency in semi-peripheral and peripheral areas of Latin America and Africa. South Africa, with highly productive commercial agriculture and generally good infrastructure, has not experienced a long history of failed development projects, unlike many of its neighbors—and about which Ferguson has also written. Ferguson’s field research among South African scholars and policymakers inspired his ideas about the development of and the policy implications for a basic income grant as a strategy for economic development in South Africa and the southern African region.
In Stigma and Culture, Matory examines US race relations at Howard University, an academic center for black higher education where members of the African diaspora congregate for their education and for a boost in social mobility. As he interrogates the topic by interviewing faculty, students, and alumni, instead of finding signs of black unity, Matory discovers evidence of black ambivalence and differentiation occurring as a result of social interactions within the university. Matory examines black conformity to the dominant white ruling class as a reflection of black upward mobility and distance from stigmatized, lower-class black people. Employing ethnography and auto-ethnography, he identifies black individuals of creativity and distinction who have managed to avoid stigmatizing blacks at the bottom of the social hierarchy to gain personal success. Stigma and Culture is a major contribution to the study of race, ethnicity, and class in the Black Atlantic, and is beautifully written.
In Divination’s Grasp, Werbner shares his observations and interviews with two Tswapong diviners, key informants from the 1970s to the mid-2000s. Divination séances can be conducted in a variety of arrangements: one-to-one between diviner and client; multiple diviners and clients in a village context; and international clients crossing borders to consult diviners who have established excellent reputations. Werbner observed divination on a case-by-case basis with each diviner, examined the types of issues being divined, and analyzed how cases were divined with family members, between neighbors and strangers, and in the diviner’s communication with intimate friends. This book, which includes analysis of some of Isaac Schapera’s field notes, represents a significant contribution to the anthropology of religion.
If you are interested in or conduct anthropological research in and/or about Africa, we want you to join us in the Association for Africanist Anthropology. See the AfAA website for more information about our activities and our awards.
Betty Harris is professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.
Cite as: Coffman, Jennifer, and Betty Harris. 2017. “Elliott P. Skinner Book Award.” Anthropology News website, August 4 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.562