Jennifer Cole

Professor, Department of Comparative Human Development

University of Chicago

Chair, Committee on African Studies

University of Chicago

Jennifer Cole is a social and cultural anthropologist whose work examines how personal change and individual development shape, and are shaped by, broader political, economic and cultural transformations: the unruly terrain where person and history meet. Her research focuses on Africa -- specifically the island of Madagascar -- and the legacy of Madagascar’s colonial and now post-colonial encounter with France. As a consequence of her efforts to analyze the interplay between historical change and individual experience, Cole's work addresses the substantive topics of memory and forgetting, youth and generational change, gender, sexuality and transnational kinship.

Cole's first book, Forget Colonialism? Sacrifice and the Art of Memory in Madagascar (University of California Press 2001) examined the ritual practices through which peasants in east Madagascar recollected some aspects of the colonial past while erasing others. It also analyzed how local practices centered on ancestors mediated peasants’ memories of the colonial past. The book offered a depiction of one community’s ways of dealing with a divisive colonial past and a theory of social and cultural memory. But the research presented in that book opened up a new question for me: How did young people who had never lived through French colonial rule imagine their futures?

Cole's second book, Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar (University of Chicago Press, 2010) sought to answer that question by examining the relationship between youth and social change in urban Madagascar. In the work, she traces two competing paths that have become the hallmark of contemporary Madagascar as much of Africa: women’s entry into the sexual economy and their search for European husbands on the one hand, and their conversion to Pentecostal Christianity on the other. Against prevalent narratives of African youth severed from their past, Sex and Salvation showed how “newness comes into the world” not through rupture, but rather as an uneven blend of old and new, fuelled in part by people’s imagination of how change happens. Cole's several co-edited volumes include Generations and Globalization; Youth, Age, and Family in the New World Economy (Indiana 2007), Figuring the Future: Globalization and the Temporalities of Children and Youth (School of American Research 2008) and Love in Africa (Chicago 2009), all of which have examined issues of youth and generations, love, gender and sexuality and their relation to social change in broader comparative perspective.

Cole is currently working on a monograph and an edited volume, both of which draw the former colony and former metropole together within the same analytic lens. The monograph tracks Malagasy women who migrate to France and marry French men, founding transnational families in the process. Set against a backdrop of tightening immigration laws and increased xenophobia, it investigates the complex ways that these marriage migrants participate in new patterns of belonging as well as new kinds of exclusion in rural areas of France. The edited volume addresses the issue of African migrants in Europe, and particularly the intersection between state regulatory policies and migrants’ efforts to build affective circuits, linking them to home.