Voluntariness and Decolonization

The Regulation of Labor in (Post-)Colonial Ghana

Ghana Young Pioneers, 1964
Ghana Young Pioneers, 1964

This subproject focuses on voluntariness during an era of decolonization and thus on a political principle of (post-)colonial governance. Drawing on the case of the British Gold Coast/Ghana, we explore how voluntary action shaped the political and social order during the transition from late colonial “indirect rule” to independence, while examining how voluntariness became a political and social norm and resource. Our key focus is on the significance of labor in constructing new ideas about citizenship and belonging.

This subproject examines the ways in which Ghanaians were called upon to participate as citizens in the making of a new Ghana and a new Africa. We also investigate select state programs such as the Builder’s Brigades, which deployed citizens to realize developmental goals, while also molding them into new (post-)colonial subjects. The subproject probes how the new regime conceptualized self-mobilization through labor. Further, we seek to determine whether, and if so to what extent, the actors involved considered voluntary labor a constitutive component of a Western mode of acting and thinking or whether it pointed beyond this framework—as the driver of a future African modernity, for instance.

The project investigates the dimensions of voluntary practice and its colonial history, as well as the way this practice was entangled with pan-African movements and with the new socialist states, particularly the German Democratic Republic. We seek to respond to calls for an approach to decolonization supplemented by insights from social and cultural history. By foregrounding the nexus of decolonization and voluntariness, the subproject enables us to better understand the historical significance of voluntariness as a mode of political and social action beyond liberal societies in Europe and North America.

Congruent with studies of governmentality, we scrutinize how people are governed through voluntariness, as well as how they are molded into new political subjects through the interplay of external governing and self-government. Drawing on theories of subjectification, we investigate the specific ways in which voluntary action was linked with external conduct and self-management in (post-)colonial settings. In light of contemporary studies in social anthropology, the project also explores how voluntariness became an object of social scientific inquiry and how this may have impacted on political practices.



West Africa   |   Decolonization   |   Indirect Rule   |   Labor   |   Citizenship

Research Field

Global History

Project Period



University of Erfurt

Department of History

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