Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Jill Harrison

Second Advisor

Liam Downey

Third Advisor

Lori Hunter

Fourth Advisor

Emily Yeh

Fifth Advisor

Mara Goldman


How is it that there are still black Africans laboring in cotton fields in a system that produces benefits for white capitalists yet regularly puts farmers into debt and harm’s way? In 2016, farmers in the West African country of Burkina Faso produced nearly 700,000 tons of cotton for international markets, and spent well over US$100 million on agricultural technologies in the process. Yet a majority of farmers make very little money, often fall into debt, and expose themselves and their communities to chemical pollution. This dissertation seeks to explain why farmers are taking part in this system. More specifically: Why are small-scale Burkinabè cotton farmers adopting new agricultural technologies that deepen their integration into the precarity of capitalist markets and contribute to rising social and environmental inequalities? To answer this, I conducted eight months of participant observation and 125 interviews with farmers and cotton sector actors.

My answer draws on Bourdieu’s cultural sociology, theories of “racialized modernity,” and environmental inequality research to explain and evaluate the dynamics of agrarian capitalism in Burkina Faso. I find that many actors in Burkina Faso are enthusiastic about purchased agricultural technologies (including genetically modified seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, and tractors). I show how a combination of reinforcing political-economic and cultural forces compels Burkinabè farmers to embrace these technologies. First, the global economic system constrains farmer choice, leaving farmers few options other than to try to increase their production of poorly remunerated cash crops. Yet farmers also take part in the distinction politics of Burkina Faso’s postcolonial cultural field, seeking to acquire the symbolic and material status of Western, “white” modernity. As people seek to maintain or improve their own status, they justify passing on exploitation and pressure to increase production to other actors, they embrace “modern” technologies, and their families become increasingly individualized and thus reliant on technology rather than family labor. The novel contribution of this dissertation is to argue that aspirations for status within a racialized and unequal global culture have facilitated the expansion of capitalist agriculture in Burkina Faso, and thus – ironically – the deepening of both environmental and economic inequalities.