George Paul Meiu
Spring 2020: Hutchins Fellow
George Paul Meiu is John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His research and teaching focus on sexuality, gender, and kinship; belonging, citizenship and the state; race and ethnicity; and the political economy of postcolonial Africa. In his book, Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017), Meiu explores how the tourist commodification of ethnic sexuality shapes collective attachments and relations of age, gender, and kinship in Kenya. Combining ethnographic and historical methods, he investigates how young Samburu men perform their ethnic identity through colonial images of the "primitive," sexual warrior, in order to initiate intimate relationships with European women, acquire wealth, and build futures. Meiu's book received the Ruth Benedict Prize of the Association of Queer Anthropology and is a finalist of the Elliot P. Skinner Book Award of the Association for Africanist Anthropology. Currently, Meiu works on a second book, entitled Queer Objects of Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in an African Nation, to address a growing trend, in Kenya, that involves political and religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the citizenry in securing collective morality from the so-called “perversions of globalization.” Exploring panics over various objects deemed troublesome, Meiu approaches sexual citizenship in relation to pollution, materiality, sociality, desire, and fear. His work appeared in the American Ethnologist, Ethnos, Anthropology Today, the Canadian Journal of African Studies, and in edited volumes on tourism, sexuality, and the history of anthropology. Meiu holds a BA in anthropology from Concordia University in Montreal and an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, where he won the Daniel F. Nugent Prize for the best dissertation in historical anthropology.
Meiu currently works on a second book, tentatively entitled Queer Objects of Rescue: Intimacy and Citizenship in an African Nation, that expands his interests in sexuality and gender to account for emerging forms of citizenship. A new idiom has animated, in recent years, struggles over sex and citizenship in Kenya. Kenyans’ quests for respectability, social value, and national belonging have involved salient incitements to moral rescue—calls to save intimacy from the corrupting forces of contemporary life and to secure it as a condition of collective vitality and prosperity. Political and religious leaders, the media, development workers, civil society groups, and ordinary citizens have depicted—if in different ways—non-normative sexual intimacies of various kinds as patently responsible for social and economic decay. In response, myriad drives emerged to rescue sociality from the perils of contemporary sex. However, the logics of intimate citizenship have not been exclusively tied to sexuality—at least not explicitly so. Sexuality-rescue projects often borrow the semiotics and sentiments of panics over plastics and pollution; alcoholism and the decline of masculine virility; anal sex and diapers; teenage intimacies and sex education; terrorism and foreigners; and more. The book thus proposes an ethnographic detour through such objects to problematize normative understandings of sexual citizenship as anchored primarily in rights and legal recognition. Queer Objects of Rescue explores these historical and cultural developments to address broader questions about sexuality and citizenship. Why does sexuality become such a central criterion of citizenship? Why does it become so important in defining lines of inclusion and exclusion in the present? How do various social actors imagine the role of sexuality in relation to citizenship? How do NGO workers, church leaders, and paramilitary forces—that are all increasingly called upon to rescue, protect, and discipline citizens—negotiate sexual respectability through everyday encounters with rural ethnic families, sex workers, gays, lesbians, and others? And how do subjects and populations that national public discourses deem morally peripheral imagine livelihoods through and around dominant discourses of sexuality? What is the role of sexual scandals in the reproduction of state power and the generation of particular kinds of citizens? And how do sexually peripheral subjects and populations affect and transform dominant notions of citizenship?