“Institutions in motion: revisiting ‘development’ in postcolonial Africa”


 presented by Sara Berry (Johns Hopkins University)

Time: 13h00-14h30

Venue: HUMA Seminar Room, 4th Floor, The Neville Alexander Building,


The seminar has been facilitated by the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC)(formerly RWAR, Centre for Law and Society), Faculty of Law, UCT. Prof Berry’s visit was arranged by LARC with the assistance of the UCT Visiting Scholars’ Fund.



To understand the roles institutions play in social and economic ‘development’ (however one chooses to define that term), this presentation argues that it is useful to view them as dynamic social entities—micro political economies in which people contend for power and resources, even as they work toward a common goal. People who agree on one goal—such as raising output and income, strengthening livelihoods and human security, expanding educational opportunities, holding governing authorities to account, etc.—may have very different ideas of how to go about achieving it, as well as disparate, often competing, interests and agendas of their own. The way an institution influences and interacts with the society around it is shaped as much by debate and struggle among its members over power and resource allocation, as by the views they hold in common and the ways they cooperate to promote them.

To illustrate the approach suggested here, I discuss three different kinds of institutions—marriage, business enterprise, and chieftaincy—not because they are in any sense typical or ‘representative’ of institutions in general, but rather to draw attention to the variety of institutional forms in Africa (or anywhere else) and the way very different kinds of institutions figure in development. In particular, I argue that, while these particular institutions are characterized by very different degrees of intimacy and social regulation, all involve processes that may be regarded as political and economic—internal debates over power relations and resource allocation that both draw on and influence processes of production, distribution and governance in their surrounding social worlds.

The particular cases discussed here are drawn from studies of West Africa, and are meant to invite discussion and comparison, rather than either models for institutional ‘reform’ or future trends in African institutional landscapes.


Trained initially in economics, history Prof Berry has specialized in using micro-historical research to promote interdisciplinary analysis of social and economic transformations, and to bring comparative and historical perspectives to bear on understanding contemporary African political economies.

She has inspired several generations of scholars in African Studies across many disciplines in the land, legal and humanities fields. Her vast fund of publications span many decades, and she continues to publish prolifically. Her scholarship has contributed unique insights into social institutions in Africa, and the way in which land access and control over land intersect with property, production, labour and power.

Her books include Fathers Work for Their Sons: Accumulation, Mobility and Class Formation in an Extended Yoruba Community (1985); No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (1993); and Chiefs Know Their Boundaries: Essays on Poverty, Power and the Past in Asante, 1896-1996 (2000). Key journal articles include: “Questions of ownership: proprietorship and control in a changing rural terrain. A case study from ghana,” Africa, 83 (1): 36-56 (2013), “Property, authority and citizenship: land claims, politics and the dynamics of social division in West Africa,” Development and Change, 40 (1): 23-45 (2009), and “Hegemony on a shoestring: indirect rule and access to resources in Africa,” Africa, 62 (3): 327-55 (1992)




HUMA on Facebook