Tijo Salverda


In this (current) project I analyse the impact of large agribusinesses on the socio-economic conditions of rural residents in Africa and the extent to which (international) critics influence corporate practices. Since the 2007/2008 world food crisis, critics such as transnational NGOs, local communities, journalists, social movements, (activist) scholars, and, in a more ambiguous way, also multilateral institutions have raised concerns about the negative impact of speculation and the global land rush. Yet in social and cultural anthropology and to a large extent also in the other social sciences it remains relatively under-investigated whether and why market actors respond to their critics – or not.

The main case study in the project is a European agribusiness in Zambia, which, as I observed when I visited it for the first time in 2015, was doing its best to integrate a number of social and moral considerations into its operations. This was partly in response to the (inter)national movement of critics. The outcomes of critique, however, is certainly ambiguous, with the continuation of negative consequences of land investments and corporate practices around the world. With this study I aim to contribute to a better understanding of the ambiguities involved and the ways in which critique and (political, economic and /or cultural) convictions shape the outcomes of corporate practices on the African countryside.

Though there has been a minor increase in studying elite actors from an anthropological perspective over the last two decades, ethnographic studies of the powerful still remain relatively rare within the discipline. Anthropological studies of elite actors highlight, however, that long-term ethnographic research can offer valuable contributions to the discipline – and the understanding of power in societies more generally.

The central question in my own research on an elite, was how the Franco-Mauritians, the white former colonial elite of Mauritius, have relatively successfully maintained their (white minority) elite position about half a century after Mauritian independence. One of my key findings and contributions to the theory is that in addition to dominant interpretations of (elite) power, elites often have to defend their power and privileges in reaction to the challenges they face from other social groups – they apply their power ‘defensively’, so to speak. The Franco-Mauritians, for example, opposed independence, yet eventually had to concede and redistribute their (direct) political power to the majority of Mauritians. The initial focus on their political dominance, however, allowed them to relatively successfully maintain their economic power until the present day.

In relation to my more developed research on elites and the interactions between corporations and their critics, I have a general interest in the developments of (global) market society and how a more just world can be accomplished. Of particular attention here is the morality-economy nexus and, for example, how economic behaviour is morally justified and/or challenged.

One of my research interests, which is still in its infancy, is how moral beliefs and stories concerning (in)equality, sharing, redistribution, etc. shape societies. Discussions on sharing, reciprocity, greed, etc. seem to (indirectly) indicate that in almost all societies, both historically and across cultures, there are moral objections against people who do not share part of their possessions/rewards, whether these are food items gathered or financial wealth. Even in highly unequal societies in which individual wealth is valued, such as in the current US, the rich appear to still feel the (unspoken) need to redistribute part of their wealth (through philanthropy especially). Also, many mythologies and religions, from ancient Greek Gods to Christianity, include tales about the moral tensions between equality and inequality, such as illustrated in the praising of the virtues of sharing vis-a-vis egoism, hubris and greed. It will be great to study in more detail how, next to material inequality itself, wider moral objections and concerns about (in)equality shape interactions between groups as well as individual actors in both historical and contemporary societies.

Tijo Salverda