Dr Jessica Johnson BA (Hons), MPhil, PhD (Cantab)

Dr Jessica Johnson

Department of African Studies and Anthropology
Lecturer in the Anthropology of Africa

I am a social anthropologist specialising in Southern Africa, with a particular focus on the anthropology of gender and law in Malawi.


  • BA (Hons), Archaeology and Anthropology (Cambridge)
  • MPhil, Social Anthropological Research (Cambridge)
  • PhD, Social Anthropology (Cambridge)
  • PGCHE, Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (Birmingham)


I completed my PhD in 2013 at the University of Cambridge, where I also studied for my BA and MPhil. I worked for three years as a Research Fellow at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, before joining DASA as a Lecturer in 2016. In 2018, I completed the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) and became a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


  • Theory, Ethnography and Research (core module for second-year undergraduates)
  • Thinking Anthropologically (core module for first-year undergraduates)
  • Social Life of the Economy (optional module for second- and third-year undergraduates and Masters students)
  • Kinship, Gender and Sexuality (optional module for second and third year undergraduates)
  • Contemporary Gender Issues in Africa (Masters module)

Postgraduate supervision

I welcome enquiries from students interested in gender relations, development, and legal anthropology.

Find out more - our PhD African Studies  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


I have conducted more than two years’ fieldwork in Malawi, 2009-10 and 2015. My doctoral work concerned gender relations and marital dispute resolution in a matrilineal context. My more recent research focuses on the workings of a rural Magistrates’ court. 

Other activities

  • Gibbs Travelling Research Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge, 2014-15
  • I am an editor of the Journal of Southern African Studies
  • Fellow of the Higher Education Academy



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

Edited books

  • 2018. Pursuing Justice in Africa: Competing Imaginaries and Contested Practices, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. Edited with George Karekwaivanane.


  • 2018. ‘Feminine futures: female initiation and aspiration in matrilineal Malawi’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI) 24 (4): 786-803.
  • 2017. ‘After the mines: the changing social and economic landscape of Malawi-South Africa migration’ Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) 44 (152): 237-51.
  • 2012. ‘Life with HIV: “stigma” and hope in Malawi’s era of ARVs’, Africa 82 (4): 632-53.
  • 2008/9. ‘Harvesting failure in the field: an ethnographic apprenticeship in coping with the unexpected’ Cambridge Anthropology 28 (1): 61-82 (with Amrith, M., D. Martin, M. Murawski & T. Nelms).

Book chapters

  • 2019. ‘Law, Dispute Resolution and Justice’ in R. R. Grinker, E. F. Gonçalves, C. B. Steiner and S. Lubkemann (eds) A Companion to the Anthropology of Africa. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • 2018. ‘Introduction: Re-centering Justice in African Societies’ in J. Johnson and G. Karekwaivanane (eds), Pursuing Justice in Africa, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press (with George Karekwaivanane)
  • 2018. ‘Feminist Anthropology and the Question of Gender’ in M. Candea (ed), Schools and Styles of Anthropological Theory, Oxford: Routledge. 
  • 2018. ‘“It is better for me to agree when my guardian is here”: consent and relational personhood in postcolonial Malawi’ in M-C. Foblets, M. Graziadei, & A. D. Renteln (eds) Personal Autonomy in Plural Societies: A Principle and Its Paradoxes, Oxford: Routledge

Comments, reviews and teaching resources

  • 2018. ‘Anthropology and the Study of Africa’ in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. New York: Oxford University Press. Reprinted (2019) in T. Spear (ed) The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Historiography: Methods & Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • 2016. ‘Matriliny’, in F. Stein et al. (eds) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (http://doi.org/10.29164/16matriliny)
  • 2013. ‘Gender justice at the intersection of human rights and custom’ (comment accompanying article by Shannon Speed) Journal of Legal Anthropology 1 (3): 382-85.
  • 2013. Review of Aginam, O. & M. Rupiya (eds) ‘HIV/AIDS and the Security Sector in Africa’ Canadian Journal of African Studies 47 (1): 145-47.
  • 2012. Review of Mottin-Sylla, M. & J. Palmieri ‘Confronting Female Genital Mutilation: The Role of Youth and ICTs in Changing Africa’ Canadian Journal of African Studies 46 (2): 340-41.

View all publications in research portal