My interest in border regimes dates from my dissertation fieldwork. For most of 1994 and 1995, I lived in a small town on Ghana's northeast frontier a few miles from both Togo and Burkina Faso. My research focused on the implications of neo-liberal reform for female livelihoods and as I visited homesteads, markets and farms across the community, I could not help but take the border into account. Capitalizing on differential exchange rates and trade regimes, nearly the entire town was involved in kalabule, or black market activity, buying, selling and transporting un-customed manufactures across the frontier. Ghana's borders had been closed several years earlier and despite the heavy presence of state agents and bevy of restrictions that remained, by the mid-1990s the international boundary line appeared to be infinitely permeable. While the effectiveness of state controls at the frontier appeared negligible, other aspects of my research revealed the resurgence and entrenchment of state power. Although Ghana's structural adjustment program was premised on the rolling back of the state, state institutions and actors in the northeast were reinventing themselves in anyway possible: building cooperatives to insinuate themselves into rural life, taking over development projects and agencies, and infiltrating private enterprise. Returning to West Africa in 2000, I sought to grapple with these seemingly contradictory findings and chose to make border controls—-specifically the operations of Ghana's Customs, Excise and Preventive Service—-the target of my research. Moving between Ghana's international airport, harbor, the country's busiest land frontier and a multinational firm contracted by the government to carrying out customs work, I pursued an ethnographic study of the Customs Service. The primary goal of this project was to understand how customs officers, through the day-to-day practices of rule, constitute their authority in the face of challenges posed by persons involved in border crossing along with a wider policy environment favoring the reduction of trade barriers and state controls. I was quickly made aware of the centrality of Customs to Ghanaian sovereignty. In Ghana, Customs, in addition to guaranteeing the state's territorial presence through the guarding of the nation's frontiers, collects the bulk of state revenue: roles harking back to the very founding of the Gold Coast Colony. It also became apparent that Customs was a site of sovereign contention as a number of extra-national bodies—-from Interpol and the WTO to the World Customs Organization-—sought to influence the terms of governance by means of customs policy. My study of Ghana's Customs service provides a backdrop for my current research on global customs regimes. Once again challenging received understandings of liberalization, there is a revitalization of customs controls occurring around the world despite the ostensible breaking down of boundaries brought about by globalization. Forging a synthesis between anthropology and international political economy and using the insights provided by the African case to comprehend wider processes of political and economic transformation, my project at the Wilson Center seeks to reveal the role of contemporary customs regimes in carving out the contours of global governance, thus shaping the phenomenology of late modern-sovereignty. Drawing attention to the ontological and epistemological forms underlying and emerging out of arrangements of rule, in this study I look closely at the conceptual work accompanying the negotiation and dissemination of global customs protocols. I am especially interested in examining the logics and technologies of truth production-—distinguishing the real from fake, the legitimate from the illegitimate, the inscrutable from the inspectable—-dominating customs operations and the way they capacitate the recognition and manipulation of particular forms of agency, materiality, spatiality, and temporality. African nations, among others where state controls are weak, are emerging as key arenas for the sourcing and development of an array of technical and bureaucratic instruments geared to the achievement of internationally sanctioned customs standards. Adopted and exchanged by national customs administrations though produced outside the state and working through means newly associated with governance, these developments are part and parcel of a shifting political and cultural economy of sovereignty.


B.A. (1986) Anthropology, Amherst College; Ph.D. (1998) Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania


Border Controls,Customs Regimes,West Africa


  • Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, 2001-present
  • Member, School of Social Science, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., 2002-03
  • Affiliated Researcher, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, 2000-01
  • Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Denver, 1998-99


Economic and political anthropology; anthropology of the state; neoliberal sovereignty; customs regimes; West Africa

Project Summary

This study considers the implications of the current revival of customs controls occurring around the world for the character of late modern sovereignty. My research focuses on the array of governmental, private, and supranational bodies—from the World Customs Organization and the WTO, to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a host of IT and logistics firms—involved in formulation and implementation of global standards of customs administration. Bringing anthropology to bear on what is conventionally the purview of international political economy, I examine the modes of ‘truth production'—i.e. the methods of surveillance, documentation, and interrogation—integral to customs work and giving shape to contemporary state systems. Concerned with the structures of domination which characterize the late modern moment, I attend to the growing role of non-governmental bodies in customs administration, a dynamic which both depoliticizes border controls by taking them out of the hands of individual states and repoliticizes them by forcing conformity with international protocols.

Major Publications

  • Shea Butter Republic: State Power and Global Markets and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity (Routledge, 2004)
  • "Working the Border in Ghana: Technologies of Sovereignty and Its Others," School of Social Science Occasional Paper, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., November 2003, Paper Number 16
  • "Border Zone Trade and the Economic Boundaries of the State in North-east Ghana," Africa, June 2001, vol. 71, no. 2, pp. 197-224