Spaces of imagination : associational life and the state in post-war, urban Liberia

Kaufmann, Andrea. Spaces of imagination : associational life and the state in post-war, urban Liberia. 2013, Doctoral Thesis, University of Basel, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.


Official URL: http://edoc.unibas.ch/diss/DissB_11700

Downloads: Statistics Overview


This ethnography explores social imaginaries in post-war, urban Liberia – a physical and social context dominated by intricacies of past oligarchic rule, dictatorship, brutal civil war and post-war reconstruction. Against this challenging backdrop, this thesis asks: How do Liberians imagine the social to be and how do such imaginaries translate into social practice? Embedded in a political anthropology of the state and conceptually drawing on agency as defined by the interrelated temporal-structural dimensions of the past, present and future (Emirbayer and Mische 1998), this ethnography analyses three political associations and their interrelations with the state. Based on twelve months of empirical field research between 2009 and 2012 in urban Liberia, this thesis shows how ordinary people engage in meticulous social practices of “hustling”, “trying”, studying and maintaining social relations to economically or politically influential persons to forge a living in this insecure, unpredictable setting. Associations create social spaces in which imaginaries are uttered and shared, and inform individual and collective action.
The first association, the Unconstitutionally Disbanded Armed Forces of Liberia (UDAFOL), is a particular group with claims towards the central and sensitive post-war issue of national security. UDAFOL represents the grievances of soldiers that have been disbanded in the implementation of the Security Sector Reform. They consider their disbandment unconstitutional and a political decision. The disgruntled ex-servicemen regularly take to the streets, and address specific state images and practices in various forms of collective action.
The second association is the Concerned Mandingo Society of Liberia (COMASL), a group representing the temporally and situationally marginalized and instrumentalized ethnic group of Liberian Mandingo. As traders and late comers in Liberia, their belonging to the nation-state is contested. Though lawfully placed in the field of formal citizenship according to the constitution, in everyday life, their participation is challenged by discursively formed social boundaries. These boundaries are countered by COMASL on the basis of claims of belonging.
The third association is the West Point Women for Health and Development Organization (WPHD), a women’s association in a Monrovian slum. The association presses for political action in regards to the delivery of public goods and services such as security, justice, sanitation or health care. This association flexibly navigates the donor-sphere as a quite formalized NGO, directly addresses some of the neighborhoods’ problems, and situatively works in cooperation with state actors or mounts pressure on them.
These three associations highlight some particularities and complexities of post-war intricacies and how social spaces create an environment for collective action in response these problems. As the three case studies show, the state plays a central role and is ascribed major responsibility. The associations make claims towards political actors to initiate and catalyze change.
This ethnography shows that state and civil society are not monolithic black boxes but composed of individual actors with various experiences, knowledge and interests, and are very closely interwoven into a “state in society”(Migdal 2001), formed and shaped by multifaceted relationships of claims and state responses. Often overlooked, and highlighted in this thesis, is the existence of official norms that underlie the expectations towards the powerful political leaders that give the state a concrete imagery (Olivier de Sardan 2008). These norms do not emerge randomly, but from the political history of the Liberian state, and through experiences from other states.
From the social actor’s point of view, hence, the Liberian state is not a failed, weak or absent state. Quite to the contrary, it is considered strong, yet its actors are considered to lack political will to meet the needs and to work in the interest of the ordinary people and implement policies that make a change.
Advisors:Förster, Till and Utas, Mats
Faculties and Departments:04 Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > Departement Gesellschaftswissenschaften > Ehemalige Einheiten Gesellschaftswissenschaften > Visuelle und politische Ethnologie (Förster)
UniBasel Contributors:Förster, Till
Item Type:Thesis
Thesis Subtype:Doctoral Thesis
Thesis no:11700
Thesis status:Complete
Number of Pages:1 Online-Ressource (334 Seiten)
Identification Number:
edoc DOI:
Last Modified:22 Apr 2018 04:32
Deposited On:30 Aug 2016 12:17

Repository Staff Only: item control page