James A. Robinson

Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor and University Professor; Institute Director of The Pearson Institute


Economics, Politics, and African Societies

Course Number:  PPHA 32736
Quarter:  Spring 2022
Instructors: James A. Robinson, Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra
Course Webpage

This class provides an introduction to, and interpretation of the social scientific and historical research on African development. The focus is on economic and political development in the longue durée and trying to understand how Africa fits into the comparative picture. The focus of much research on contemporary African development is of course on poverty, famine, civil war and the immense economic challenges that the continent has faced since independence. We shall study these and their roots and also many of the political correlates that go along with them, such as the weakness of African states, their corruption and problems of autocracy and democracy. But to get a deep understanding of these phenomena entails understanding Africa society, how it is organized, why it is organized as it is, and how it has come into collision with global forces in the past 500 years.

My own perspective, that will emerge as the course proceeds, is that historically African society, though there is a great deal of variation, was organized around a few pivotal trade-offs. The most important was around the problem of creating and controlling hierarchy. Notably, African lagged Eurasia in the creation of centralized state authority and instead society was organized in a number of different ways: through kinship, age, or other types of corporate groups such as secret societies. Though states did emerge they did so relatively recently and they differed in key ways from European states. The reason for this very different historical pattern for political development is that Africans came up with very creative ways of both stopping centralized authority emerging and also finding substitutes for what it could achieve. This equilibrium, however, left African societies very vulnerable to some of the pernicious forces unleashed in the modern era, particularly the slave trade and colonialism. The combination of these two things, along with the historical legacies of African institutions, have created a very difficult terrain to create prosperity and peace in the post-colonial world.

The course is open for master’s students, undergraduates and doctoral students. For the latter, I have added a more in depth reading list which relates the lectures to the more detailed social scientific literature on Africa. There is no real textbook for this course.


Political Economy of Development

Course Number:  PPHA 41120
Quarter:  Spring 2022
Instructors: James A. Robinson, Christopher Blattman
Course Webpage

This course is intended as an introduction for Ph.D. students to the research literature in the political economy of development. Its purpose is to give you both a sense of the frontier research topics and a good command of how social science methodological tools are used in the area.