The Truth about Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order: Jean Comaroff, John L Comaroff


In this book, renowned anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff make a startling but absolutely convincing claim about our modern era: it is not by our arts, our politics, or our science that we understand ourselves—it is by our crimes. Surveying an astonishing range of forms of crime and policing—from petty thefts to the multibillion-dollar scams of too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the collateral damage of war—they take readers into the disorder of the late modern world. Looking at recent transformations in the triangulation of capital, the state, and governance that have led to an era where crime and policing are ever more complicit, they offer a powerful meditation on the new forms of sovereignty, citizenship, class, race, law, and political economy of representation that have arisen.

To do so, the Comaroffs draw on their vast knowledge of South Africa, especially, and its struggle to build a democracy founded on the rule of law out of the wreckage of long years of violence and oppression. There they explore everything from the fascination with the supernatural in policing to the extreme measures people take to prevent home invasion, drawing illuminating comparisons to the United States and United Kingdom. Going beyond South Africa, they offer a global criminal anthropology that attests to criminality as the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular by which politics are conducted, moral panics voiced, and populations ruled.

The result is a disturbing but necessary portrait of the modern era, one that asks critical new questions about how we see ourselves, how we think about morality, and how we are going to proceed as a global society.


“What is ‘crime’? A social pathology? A violation of social order? The object or raison d’etre of law enforcement? …Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff unpack the place of crime in postcolonial, neoliberalized South Africa and beyond… Their argument is that the impact of postcolonial neoliberalism in South Africa, and similar shifts in ideas of citizenship and forms and practices of state sovereignty elsewhere, have led to crime taking on a position of heightened prominence in the social imaginary, serving as a symbol and symptom, cause and consequence of the breakdown in social order.”

Allegra Lab Published On: 2018-03-27

The Truth About Crime [is] a useful book for anyone examining the relationship between the state and the citizenry and how the citizenry responds in the fields of political science, criminology, anthropology and sociology.”

African Studies Quarterly

“The Comaroffs’ constant articulation of sparkling ethnographic vignettes, rich statistical data, and highly imaginative insights makes for a truly effervescent argumentation, creative and, at the same time, thoroughly documented. With this combination they offer a powerful book that newly addresses a theme that is becoming central all over the world: our increasing obsession with (in)security.”

Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust

About the Author

Jean Comaroff is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology and an Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies at Harvard University, where John L. Comaroff is the Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology and an Oppenheimer Fellow in African Studies. Both Honorary Professors at the University of Cape Town, they have authored and coauthored many books, several together, including Of Revelation and Revolution (Volumes 1 and 2), Law and Disorder in the Postcolony and Ethnicity Inc., all published by the University of Chicago Press and, most recently, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa.

Excerpt: CHAPTER 1

Crime, Policing, and the Making of Modernity

The State, Sovereignty, and the Il/legal

Four fragments from different fronts in the so-called “War on Crime,” variously imagined, variously deployed, distinctively diagnostic of their time and place:

The First: British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his summer vacation Monday night and flew back to the U.K. in order to chair a crisis meeting with government ministers as the streets of London continued to see rioting and looting, and as the prospect of further violence spreading to other cities and towns intensified. In a Tuesday statement, the prime minister said that his government “will do everything necessary to restore order to the British streets” and characterized those behind the riots as “pure criminality.” The prime minister said that 450 people had already been arrested and that more would follow. — Kim Hjelmgaard, MarketWatch, August 2011

The Second: [In the wake of the shooting of the unarmed black youth Michael Brown by a police officer, the] people of Ferguson, Missouri, have caused serious complications for the US National Security State. By virtue of standing their ground in their own small city, the demonstrators have forced the police to show their true, thoroughly militarized colors. Ferguson’s rebellious Black youth have succeeded in pinning down the armed forces of racist repression in full view, so that the whole world can bear witness to the truth of what another generation proclaimed nearly half a century ago: that, in the Black community, the police are an army of occupation. … The term “mass Black incarceration” had not yet been coined [then], but it was only a matter of time before a permanent, militarized police offensive against rebellion-prone ghettos would cause unprecedented numbers of Black prisoners to flow into the greatest gulag in the history of the world. Since America tells itself and the world that it does not make war on its own citizens, … the war against Black people had to be called something else — a War on Drugs, or simply a War on Crime. — Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report, August 2014

The Third:This website is called Turn It Around, South Africa, On this website you can receive regular reports of crimes happening in a radius of your home or business and you can also report any suspicious activity or crime incidents online to inform others. … If your neighbour was hijacked or robbed — would you even know about it? High walls and security has [sic] made neighbors strangers to one another. With Turn it Around, you will be informed and aware of the crimes happening around you. … We CAN use crime to bring us together and become one another’s safety zones. … You are not alone — everyone feels the way you do about crime. — Anonymous, Turn It Around, South Africa, October 2011

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ University of Chicago Press; 1st edition (December 5, 2016)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 336 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 022642488X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0226424880
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.36 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6 x 1 x 9 inches

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