Crafting historical and ethnographic imagination to make sense of being and becoming in the contemporary world order.
George Paul Meiu is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Basel. He is Associate in the Departments of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, where, until 2022, he was a tenured, full professor. Meiu’s research and teaching focus on sexuality, gender, and kinship; ethnicity, belonging and citizenship; mobility, memory, and materiality; and the political economy of East Africa and Eastern Europe.
Meiu is author of Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017), a book that won the Ruth Benedict Prize and the Nelson Graburn Prize of the American Anthropological Association. Combining ethnographic and historical methods, the book explores how the tourist commodification of ethnic sexuality shapes belonging and relations of age, gender, and kinship in postcolonial Kenya.
In his newest book, Queer Objects to the Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2023), Meiu explores new ways of thinking homophobia and rampant violence against LGBT people by taking as points of departure objects whose poetic deployment in rumor, political rhetoric, and everyday life come to constitute the homosexual body as an imaginary target of repudiation.
Meiu coedited Ethnicity, Commodity, In/Corporation (Indiana University Press, 2020), a book that examines the growing global entanglements of ethnicity in market dynamics, nationalism, and consumption. He is also author of the Romanian-language monograph Vin feciorii cu turca! Schimbări semiologice în obiceiurile cetei de feciori din Comăna (Arania, 2004), a historical ethnography of a Romanian ritual that has been pivotal to nationalist, communist, and post-socialist political imaginaries of identity and nationality.
His work appeared the American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Ethnos, HAU, and Anthropology Today and in edited volumes on tourism, bodies, sexuality, futures, and the history of anthropology.
Meiu is also producer and host of the video podcast Ethnographic Imagination Basel, an initiative led by the Institute of Social Anthropology in Basel to bring anthropological questions and concepts to wider public.
Meiu holds a BA in anthropology from Concordia University in Montreal and an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, where he won the Daniel F. Nugent Prize for the best dissertation in historical anthropology.
Meiu, George Paul. 2023. Queer Objects to the Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in Kenya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meiu, George Paul. 2023. ” “Waiting Out the Rush: On the Durability of Wealth in Kenya’s Coastal Sex Economies.” In In the Meantime: Toward an Anthropology of the Possible edited by Adeline Masquelier and Deborah Durham, pp. 194-218. New York: Berghahn. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2022. “Queer Futures, National Utopias: Notes on Objects, Intimacy, Time, and the State.” African Futures, edited by Clemens Greiner, Steven Van Wolputte, and Michael Bollig, 320-330. Leiden: Brill. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2020. “Underlayers of Citizenship: Queer Objects, Intimate Exposures, and the Rescue Rush in Kenya.” Cultural Anthropology, 35(4): 575-601. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2020. “Queerly Kenyan: On the Political Economy of Queer Possibilities.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 10(2): 613-617. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2020. “Panics over Plastics: A Matter of Belonging in Kenya.” American Anthropologist, no. 122(2): 222-235. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul, Jean Comaroff, and John L. Comaroff. 2020. “Introduction: Ethnicity, Inc. Revisited.” Ethnicity, Commodity, In/Corporation, edited by George Paul Meiu, Jean Comaroff, and John L. Comaroff, 1-35. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2020. “On Branding, Belonging, and the Violence of a Phallic Imaginary: Maasai Warriors in Kenyan Tourism.” Ethnicity, Commodity, In/Corporation, edited by George Paul Meiu, Jean Comaroff, and John L. Comaroff, 35-66. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2019. “Who Are the New Natives? Ethnicity and Emerging Idioms of Belonging in Africa.” A Companion to the Anthropology of Africa, edited by R. Grinker, E. F. Gonçalves, C. B. Steiner, and S. Lubkemann, 147-172. Oxford: Wiley. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2017. Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Read the Introduction]
Meiu, George Paul. 2016. “Belonging in Ethno-erotic Economies: Adultery, Alterity, and Ritual in Postcolonial Kenya.” American Ethnologist 43 (2): 215-229. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2015. “Colonialism and Sexuality.” The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality (Volume 1), edited by Patricia Whelehan and Anne Bolin, 239-242. Malden, Oxford: Wiley. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2015. “Beach-Boy Elders and Young Big-Men: Subverting the Temporalities of Ageing in Kenya’s Ethno-Erotic Economies.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 80 (4): 472-496. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2011. “On Difference, Desire, and the Aesthetics of the Unexpected: ‘The White Masai’ in Kenyan Tourism.” Great Expectations: Imagination and Anticipation in Tourism, edited by Jonathan Skinner and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos, 96-115. Oxford: Berghahn Books. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2009. “Mombasa Morans: Embodiment, Sexual Morality, and Samburu Men in Kenya.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 43 (1): 105-128. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2008. “Riefenstahl on Safari: Embodied Contemplation in East Africa.” Anthropology Today 24 (2): 18-22. [PDF]
Meiu, George Paul. 2004. Vin feciorii cu turca! Schimbări semiologice în obiceiurile cetei de feciori din Comăna. Brașov : Arania. [PDF]
Sexuality and Political Economy
With globalization, sex—everywhere—has become more central to who we are as citizens and consumers, how we gain rights and resources, and how we relate to others as members of a specific race, ethnicity, region, or culture. Worldwide, states invest or disinvest in people according to how they have sex, adopt gender identities, or sustain sexual morality. Terrorist organizations claim to use violence to reestablish bastions of piety and sexual propriety; various populist movements imagine immigrants and refugees to threaten their societies, in part, by failing to uphold the sexual norms of adopting countries; and transnational NGOs and activists seek to “rescue” or “rehabilitate” sex workers, gays, lesbians, transgender, and other people vulnerable for their intimate and social lives. The growing importance of sex to a global consumer culture only heightens the rush to secure societies from the so-called “perversions of globalization.” Tourists now travel for sex to various destinations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean; poor, unemployed men and women, in former colonies, sometimes use sex as a means of enrichment and empowerment; and amidst the rise of religious fundamentalisms, commodity ads incite youths to consume sex along other goods to build authentic selves. In this lecture course, we ask: Why does sexuality become so central to how we imagine our world and futures? Why is sex so important in defining us, as subjects and populations? And how do older colonial stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and culture shape sexuality politics in the new global order? To address these questions, we explore about how sex and sexuality relate to politics and the economy.
Kinship, Citizenship, and Belonging
The domains of family life, kinship, and intimacy represent central sites for the construction and contestation of social and political belonging. This course introduces students to classic and contemporary theories of society, kinship, and citizenship by way of theorizing how economic production, sovereignty, and everyday life emerge through the regulation of relatedness. Anthropologists of the late nineteenth century and of the first half of the twentieth century turned kinship into a key domain for understanding social cohesion and political organization. In the past three decades – following feminist, Marxist, and queer critiques – anthropologists explored how discourses about kinship and the family anchored the ideologies and practices of modernity, colonialism, nationalism, and globalization. In this course, we ask: What can various forms of kinship teach us about the politics of social reproduction and the making of citizenship – its modes of belonging and exclusion – in the contemporary world? Why do national and transnational institutions care about how we related to each other, how we build families, and whether we reproduce? Why do we desire that our intimate lives be recognized by the state and by the agents of the global market? And, can our ways of crafting relatedness in everyday life transform how we come to belong to larger political institutions?
Anthropology and Africa
This undergraduate course explores the links between race, empire, and the production of anthropological knowledge about Africa. Africa has occupied a central place in the making of anthropology as a discipline. Ethnographic studies of African contexts generated leading theories of kinship and society, money and economy, ritual and religion, violence, law, and political order. And, while anthropologists have often used their work to critique racism and social injustice, the discipline of anthropology has been, at times, accused of being the “handmaiden of colonialism” – its discourses complicit in the making of dominant ideologies of racial alterity and imperial power. In this course, students revisit moments of intersection between the history of modern Africa and the history of anthropology in order examine the role of knowledge production in the politics of world-making. We interrogate “Africa” as an ideological category, a source of identity and collective consciousness, and a geo-political context of social life. We ask: What is the political potential of various forms of knowledge production? What do ethnographic engagements with African contexts offer by means of understanding the world at large? And what may anthropological thinking offer by way of envisioning better futures in Africa and beyond?
History and Theory of Social Anthropology
This course explores the political economy of anthropological knowledge production. It examines anthropology’s relation to alterity and sociality in different historical contexts, in the colony and in the metropole, in the socialist East and the capitalist West, at the center and at the periphery. Anthropology has long been seen as a quintessentially “Western discourse” problematically aligned with the ideologies of power. Rather than approach the discipline as a unified whole, however, this seminar revisits key moments, figures, and events that demonstrate how important anthropological concepts emerged as expressions of—and reflections upon—complex historical conjunctures. Various attempts to conceptualize society, culture, race, hegemony, value, commodity fetishism, the state, ontology, and alterity have resonated with, but also beyond, their immediate contexts of theorization. Informed by a desire to de-center “the canon” (without losing sight, that is, of the effects of its normative centrality) or to decolonize the discipline, we pursue a set of theoretical and ethnographic detours through and around key anthropological moments and concepts, all along seeking to understand how idioms, objects, and events of theoretical and ethnographic attachment shape and are shaped by historical context. Thus, students are encouraged to think anthropologically about anthropology, its concepts, practices, potentialities, and futures. This presupposes not only reading texts closely but also identifying how the assigned readings resonate with one another; what potentialities they have for understanding the present and anticipating the future; and to how such potentialities are to be activated, pursued, actualized.
Ethnographic Research Methods
This practical course teaches the basics of anthropological methodology with reference to qualitative and interpretative research. Its focus is ethnography in its double sense as process and product of intensive fieldwork. Through readings, discussions, and practical exercises, participants will learn concrete methods for answering anthropological questions and for expanding their ethnographic imagination. How can ethnographic research capture the shifting dynamics of globalization? And how can anthropologists examine the ways local, national, and global processes shape the lived experiences of research interlocutors? Students will learn how to design research projects, undertake active observations, interview, write fieldnotes, compile genealogies and time surveys, carry out space analysis and archival research, and collect and think with artifacts. These methods will also raise a set of ethical questions about the kinds of social rapport that anthropologists and their field interlocutors might cultivate and about the myriad identities and subjectivities produced through the fieldwork encounter. The last part of this practicum focuses on how anthropologists can transform field data into ethnographic writing with a central focus on questions of representation, poetics, and truth.
Memory and Inheritance in Eastern Europe
Romanian National Television — TVR International (in Romanian language), interviewed by Mihaela Crăciun about the meanings of migration, home, and belonging as well as about social life and the future anthropology seminar in the village of Criț, Romania.
Podcast: “Anthropology on Air,” interviewed by Sidsel Marie Henriksen about his forthcoming book Queer Objects to the Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in Kenya. (June 2023)
Romanian National Television (in Romanian language), interviewed by Cătălin Ștefănescu, Meiu speaks about anthropology, nationalism, the desire for certainty and the value of self-decentering in the contemporary world.
Podcast: “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, interviewed by Zachary Davis for the Writ Large Podcast about Sigmund Freud’s classic study Three Essay on the Theory of Sexuality.
“Diapers and Other Queer Objects”, interviewed by Juliana Friend for the Society of Cultural Anthropology about his article “Underlayers of Citizenship: Queer Objects, Intimate Exposures, and the Rescue Rush in Kenya” (Cultural Anthropology, 2020). March 2, 2021.
George Paul Meiu on Ethno-erotic Economies and Queer Objects, June 5, 2019, Global South Center, University of Cologne.
Video Lecture: “Panics over Plastics: A Matter of Belonging in Kenya.” March 11, 2020, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University.
Podcast: Interview on Ethno-erotic Economies, March 26, 2018. Interviewed by Erin Freas-Smith about his book on the New Books Network.
Podcast: “From Fieldnotes to First Draft: Writing as a Way of Thinking”, Professor Meiu walks us through his method of moving from fieldnotes to finished writing product as a process. How do we reflect on fieldnotes? How (and why) do we make “notes on notes?” How can we envision the argument emergent as we draft our texts?