Currently I am Melville J. Herskovits Professor of African Studies and Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University. My projects (supported by the Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations; the National Science Foundation; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation; and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany) have all grown from work in West Africa. The research I have developed has centered on cultural visions of marriage, reproduction, contraception, and child fosterage. While the first project (1973-74) concerned marriage in Liberia (Women and Marriage in Kpelle Society, 1980), the second (1981-82) took on the widespread West Africa practice of child fosterage in Sierra Leone. This project showed that people try to achieve demographic outcomes less by planning child numbers than by structuring household compositions and influencing children's obligations. This study also revealed that Sierra Leoneans situated formal education and its pedagogical relationships within local ideologies of secrecy that treat valued knowledge as an economic and political commodity. Both studies provided the backbone to subsequent work, which has increasingly involved collaborations with demographers. (Examples: The Social Dynamics of Adolescent Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1993; Critical Perspectives on Education and Fertility in the Developing World, 2000; Nuptiality in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1994; Fertility and the Male Life Cycle in the Era of Fertility Decline, 2000.)My most formative project was in The Gambia (1992-95; collaborators: Allan Hill and Fatoumatta Banja). The use of Western contraceptives by rural women in high-fertility areas of The Gambia proved to be a powerful discovery heuristic: a vivid entry point into the science of time, aging, and reproduction. The study, based on findings that at first seemed highly counterintuitive to current scientific understandings, revealed that while Western assumptions equate aging with the passage of linear time, the West African model views aging as contingent on the cumulative effects of "wear," especially that encountered in obstetric trauma. A subsequent study of technical writings on Western obstetrics in the early 20th century revealed unmistakable support for the African view. Contingent Lives: Fertility, Time, and Aging in West Africa, with contributions by Fatoumatta Banja (2002), tracks the course of the study during which my beliefs about the science of biology were changed entirely.The current study -- "Transnational vital events: birth, law, and migration between Africa and Europe" - builds on collaborations with Gunnar Andersson, René Houle, Papa Sow, Núria Empez, and Annett Fleischer. This project has asked how Africans distribute their key life moments of birth and marriage across international boundaries in Europe as rights to work and live shift so dramatically. Looking at modes of engagement with policy among social actors, it analyzes the impact of shifting immigration and family reunification policies on family life for Gambians and, more generally, Africans in Spain. As the leading European host country now, proportionate to its national population, for the people it classifies as immigrants, Spain increasingly finds itself caught up in dilemmas between, on the one hand, sustaining its labor needs and upholding its human rights commitments, and, on the other, against demands by its EU partners to shore up its borders.


B.A. (1971) General Studies, University of Arizona; Ph.D. (1976) Anthropology, Stanford University


Anthropology,Population and Demography,Sub-Saharan Africa,West Africa


  • Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico
  • Associate Professor, Northwestern Univesity
  • Professor, Northwestern University


Anthropology, population studies, West Africa

Project Summary

Focusing on family reunification policies for immigrants in the volatile zone of Afro-Iberia, this project examines emerging dilemmas for Spain and its African immigrants as the wider European Union unfolds. A recent study --"Transnational Vital Events: Birth, Law, and Migration between Africa and Europe" -- will be used to suggest that family reunification and humanitarian doctrine can have paradoxical consequences under intensifying EU pressures to exclude. Producing separate legal pathways of mobility for individual family members, they generate logics which may separate immigrant families rather than bring them together.

Major Publications