Conspiracies to build. The political and moral economy of construction booms

Jessica Johnson

My recent publications reflect my ongoing research interest in justice in Africa. What does “justice” mean? How does it travel as a concept? And how can we study it as anthropologists and scholars of Africa in a way that is sensitive to local categories, concerns, and priorities?

In Search of Gender Justice approaches these questions with a focus on gender relations. The book looks at gendered and marital relationships and asks what a just relationship would look like in rural southern Malawi. Observing disputes in a police-run Victim Support Unit and local Magistrates court, my aim was to understand what kind of justice men and women were seeking when they brought their cases to these authorities. Observations in legal settings were underpinned by broader ethnographic research in nearby villages, enabling me to develop a more holistic understanding of gender relations and to achieve a degree of fluency in the Chichewa language. The Chichewa term for justice, chilungamo, became a source of inspiration in trying to understand the ideals that guided people as they sought justice in their relationships.

Ultimately, I argue that aspirations for complementarity were more salient than ideals of formal equality, or sameness, such as those taught by local human rights NGOs. Complementarity entails mutual recognition of the differential contributions of men and women to household reproduction. In making this argument, I engage with African feminist scholarship, which has also questioned the centrality of formal equality to western feminist theory and argued for the need to re-think the value of motherhood in feminist analysis.

My research in Malawi has demonstrated the significance of matrilineal kinship norms and practices. These shape the lives and aspirations of men and women whose belonging is reckoned through the female line and for whom it is obvious that land is held by women, and passed to their daughters. Matrilineal kinship practices inform marriage and residence patterns and are crucial to understanding the contributions of men and women as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers to marital relationships, parenting, and the daily life of a household unit. My ongoing research maintains a focus on matriliny, and the question of what difference it makes to women that they live within a dynamic and changing matrilineal context.   


  • In Search of Gender Justice: Rights and Relationships in Matrilineal Malawi, Cambridge University Press, 2018