Violence, Just in Time: War and Work in Contemporary West Africa

Peer Reviewed


The recent war in Sierra Leone and Liberia is connected in both the scholarly literature and the popular imaginary to the global economy via the diamond trade. Yet there is another way to think the connection between war and work. In this article, I ask what it would mean to think of the violence young men in the region's militia movements performed as a mode of post-Fordism. This stands in sharp contrast to recent writing on conflict in Africa, writing that focuses on how violence is a process of identity formation. By contrast, I suggest that “identity” was not a problematic category for fighters in this war. Their own identities could be comfortably contradictory, and the identities of their enemies were a minor issue at best. What mattered was the work of violence, work that increasingly took on the character of emergent modes of what has been called “just-in-time” production.

Editorial Overview

In this issue of Cultural Anthropology, Danny Hoffman once again draws our attention to the particularities and intimacies of war and violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  In “Violence, Just In Time: War and Work in Contemporary West Africa,” Hoffman challenges us to imagine the labor of war as labor and violence as a mode of post-Fordist production.  For young men in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Hoffman shows how opportunism, innovation, and movement — across, social, material, and political boundaries — become necessary to work, whether in the diamond pits, tapping rubber, or as soldiers.  This is the political economy of dreg, where social life becomes increasingly about innovating and preparing for the next job opportunity, to the point where work-life becomes perpetual.  The boundary between the domains of social and work life become blurred, and compensation for work is at best unpredictable.  Although not a perfect fit, Hoffman illustrates how the life for young men in Sierra Leone and Liberia bears striking resemblance to traditional descriptions and analyses of post-Fordist factory life.  This way of understanding war as a mode of labor sheds light onto the fungibility of violence itself, where the performance of violence is undertaken by a floating pool of available young men —  the real fighters in the growing industrial-commercial complex in West Africa.

As a form of just-in-time production, violence in the context of the Mano River War, is not merely the outcome or shaping of identitarian politics. Indeed, as Hoffman stresses, to see militarization in terms of how groups constitute themselves along ethnic lines elides how fighters see themselves and their conditions of possibilities for work — to perform violence as labor.  Violence is neither innate nor a predisposition. In this moving article, Danny Hoffman illustrates how young men must navigate this political economy of dreg in the context of the Mano River war: they must be flexible, innovative, and willing to exchange violence on the market.


Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on war zones in Africa, including Danny Hoffman’s “The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities” (2008), Nancy Rose Hunt’s “An Acoustic Register, Tenacious Images, and Congolese Scenes of Rape and Repetition” (2008), and Rosalind Shaw’s “Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone” (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on labor. See for example, Peter Benson’s “El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps” (2008), Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006), Adeline Masquelier’s “Of Headhunters and Cannibals: Migrancy, Labor, and Consumption in the Mawri Imagination” (2000)

About the Author

Danny Hoffman earned his PhD from Duke University in 2004.  His research interests include: visual anthropology, violence and militarism, experimental ethnography, and West Africa. Currently Hoffman is assistant professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Washington.

Additional Works by the Author

Hoffman has also authored several articles on violence and war in West Africa: "Disagreement: Dissent Politics and the War in Sierra Leone," Africa Today 52(3): 3-24; "Violent Events as Narrative Blocs: The Disarmament at Bo, Sierra Leone," Anthropological Quarterly 78(2): 329-354, and "The Brookfields Hotel (Freetown, Sierra Leone)," Public Culture 17(1):54-74.


CRY FREETOWN was a documentary made about the civil war in Sierra Leone in January 1999. The homepage provides background historical and political information about Sierra Leone, and the filmmaker, journalist Sorious Samura.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What are the characteristics of a post-Fordist mode of production?

2. What specific examples does the author give to show that the life of young men in Sierra Leone and Liberia reflects life in a post-Fordist mode of production?

3. In the article, how does the author describe the relationship between ethnic identity and violence in the context of war in Africa? What does the author find “troubling” about this relationship and way of understanding violence and conflict?

4. What examples does the author give in this article that suggest another way to understand the production of violence?

5. What is the political economy of dreg? How does it relate to ideas about post-Fordist production?

6. Violence is, obviously, a very sensitive and complex topic. In the documentary CRY FREETOWN, the BBC deemed some footage “too violent” to be shown to the public.  What is too violent?  Watch the news or other media.  What about movies and films and videogames?  Can violence be perpetuated through the media?  By anthropologists?  How can address the topic of violence carefully?  What kind of effort does Hoffman do to understand violence in this piece?

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