James A. Robinson

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


Advanced Topics in Political Economy: Comparing Societies

Course Number: PPHA 41150
Quarter: Winter 2024
Instructor: James A. Robinson
Course Webpage

The course will study the cultural, social, and institutional foundations of contemporary and historical societies around the world. Particular attention will be paid to factors that are typically taken for granted and presumed universal within the economics discipline. These include perceptions of reality (including birth, death, the afterlife, the spiritual world, nature,and the environment), and moral frameworks (including views about right/wrong, fairness,equality, and community membership). We will consider how these differences then affect and are affected by resulting cultural values, social structures, and formal political and legal institutions. The course is targeted to advanced (second-year or later) Ph.D. students with an interest in economic development, political economy, cultural economics, and/or economic history.


Economics, Politics, and African Societies

Course Number:  PPHA 32736
Quarter:  Spring 2024
Instructors: James A. Robinson 
Course Webpage

This class provides an introduction to and interpretation of Africa’s economic and political trajectory over the past 500 years. The emphasis is on economic and political dynamics in the longue durée and trying to understand how Africa fits into the comparative picture. The focus of much research on contemporary Africa 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 deeper 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 perspective, that will emerge as the course proceeds, is that, though there is a great deal of variation (I will discuss the extent to which it is even useful to talk about “Africa”), one can think of African society as organized around a central principle; “wealth in people”. By this I mean that social relations were (and are) more valued than the type of material “things” (houses, land, assets and money) that we typically think of as constituting wealth. To be wealthy meant/means having a lot of social relations, dependents and “people” (in marriage, wives, hence polygamy – though this shows that there is a gendered nature to this it is also true that women were valued as people in ways that was typically not true in western society). This principle is probably the consequences of deeper aspects of African’s ontologies and worldviews. I will spend a little bit of time on this (Lecture 3) but will focus more on wealth in people and its consequences. One was for the nature of politics in Africa and for political institutions. The emphasis on people and social relations led to a focus on the autonomy of the local community and the creation of institutions and mechanisms that made it very difficult to centralize political power and threaten autonomy. When more centralized political institutions emerged, they did so in unique ways which preserved the autonomy of the local community. I shall stress the conclusion of the great historian of Central Africa Jan Vansina that “the ability to refuse centralization while maintaining the necessary cohesion among a myriad of autonomous communities has been the most original contribution of western Bantu tradition to the institutional history of the world” (Paths in the Rainforests, 1990, p. 237). This led to a remarkable system of independent polities where institutions, particularly economic institutions, were subservient to the broader political imperatives.

Seen from this perspective, that of what Africans were actually trying to achieve, I shall emphasize that Africa, far from being the “failure” portrayed in economics and political science, was actually a success – Africans achieved what they were trying to achieve. There is much to celebrate here and learn from and we will! Unfortunately, however, the institutions they created left Africans vulnerable to the pernicious global forces unleashed by European political and economic expansionism and imperialism in the early modern and modern periods. These forces led to the emergence of the slave trade, colonialism and in the post-colonial period, the Cold War. They foisted on Africans a state system which made no sense in terms of the history and traditions of African societies. The challenges these phenomena created have led to the economic decline of Africa and the political challenges Africa societies have faced (state collapse, civil war, autocracy). Nevertheless, the future does not have to be like the past and we will see that many of the intrinsic features of African society bode well for the future.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of ignorance about Africa, have a look at this for an example from our own government[1] and a lot of nonsense is written. I will not however linger on this, life is too short, and I will not talk about how confused Hegel or Trevor-Roper were about Africa.[2] Time to get over that.

The course is not technical and open for Masters Students, undergraduates and doctoral students.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50849559

[2] See Toby Green (2019) A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution, University of Chicago Press.