James Ferguson's research has focused on southern Africa (especially Lesotho, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia), and has engaged a broad range of theoretical and ethnographic issues. These include the politics of “development”, rural-urban migration, changing topgraphies of property and wealth, constructions of space and place, urban culture in mining towns, experiences of modernity, the spatialization of states, the place of “Africa” in a real and imagined world, and the theory and politics of ethnography. Running through much of this work is a concern with how discourses organized around concepts such as “development” and “modernity” intersect the lives of ordinary people.
Professor Ferguson's more recent work has explored the surprising creation and/or expansion (both in southern Africa and across the global South) of social welfare programs targeting the poor, anchored in schemes that directly transfer small amounts of cash to large numbers of low-income people. His work aims to situate these programs within a larger “politics of distribution,” and to show how they are linked to emergent forms of distributive politics in contexts where new masses of “working age” people are supported by means other than wage labor. In this context, new political possibilities and dangers are emerging, even as new analytical and critical strategies are required. His book on this topic (Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution) was published in 2015.