African Studies Review

Research Article

Formalities of Poverty: Thinking about Social Assistance in Neoliberal South Africa

James Ferguson


In Marginal Gains (2004), Jane Guyer traces the logic of African socioeconomic practices that have long confounded attempts by modern states to impose what she terms “formalization.” Nowhere is the tension between pragmatically “informal” economic life and putatively “formal” state structures more evident than in the domain of poverty interventions, which typically aim to bring state institutional power to bear precisely on those who are most excluded from the “formal sector.” This article offers a preliminary analysis of some new rationalities of poverty alleviation observable in recent South African political and policy discourse. I will argue that new sorts of programmatic thinking about poverty represent a new development within (and not simply against) neoliberalism, and that they seek, by abandoning the regulatory and normalizing functions usually associated with social assistance, to bring the formal and the informal into a new sort of relation.

James Ferguson is a professor of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. He has conducted ethnographic research in Lesotho and Zambia, and is the author of The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (University of Minnesota Press, 1994) and Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (University of California Press, 1999). He has just published Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Duke University Press, 2006), a book of essays on the place of Africa in the contemporary world, and has recently begun a new project on rationalities of poverty and social assistance in South Africa.