Rachel Spronk is professor at the anthropology department of the University of Amsterdam. She is trained as an anthropologist and doing interdisciplinary research on culture, gender and sexuality. Her research focuses primarily on the intersection of three scholarly fields - anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, and African studies. Her various research projects evidence a concern with the historical trajectories that have shaped the present, the production of knowledge about gender and sexuality and, ultimately, how the lived experiences of people inform our theoretical models. Overall, she investigates the interface between sexuality and the middle class in Ghana and Kenya, examining problematic assumptions behind both terms.
One of her research projects deals with the ethnographic study of the love and sexual relationships of young urban professionals in Nairobi, Kenya, since 1997. She will follow up with the cohort that formed her 2001/2 study every five years, which will result in a longitudinal study of the formation of the middle classes in Kenya, of growing into adulthood in the 21st century and of the role of gender and sexuality herein.
In her second project she focuses on shifts in the practices and imagination of intimacy and how these relate to the notion of modern personhood, from an intergenerational perspective, for which she studies family histories in Ghana since 2011. She has been awarded with a NWO VENI grant for the research project “Transformations in intimacy. Sexuality and modern personhood among middle-class Ghanaians from 1940 to the present”.
The third project is entitled "Sexuality and the making of the middle class. A comparative study of desire and status in three African countries", for which Spronk has been awarded with a NWO VIDI grant. This project will investigate the interface between sexuality and the middle class. A four-generation historical perspective will be used to provide a vantage point from which to analyse changing notions of sexuality and of class distinction. Four contentious questions stand central: homosexuality, bride-wealth, female circumcision and polygyny – issues that are often conceptualised as traditional and therefore assumed to be stable. Groups that aspire middle class status play a salient role in the debates about these issues, as ideas and practices of distinction are typically articulated via gender and sexuality. The study will examine the continuum between same-sex and opposite-sex desires, practices and experiences. It will further theorise the middle class as a desirable position and thus as a classification in the making, emerging from (shifting) ideas of distinction. The topic is investigated from a comparative perspective, in three countries: Ghana, Kenya and Senegal. A comparison of these three countries is challenging because of similarities and differences in economic profile, colonial legacy and cultural-religious contours. The innovative aspect is that the synthesis provides a productive ground for theorising sexuality and the middle class from the South: this project aims to re-locate discussions on modernity using the terms ‘South’ and ‘North’ to denote a set of relations rather than geographical locations by incorporating the North as one of many sites and cultures in a world of plurality. See also https://aissr.uva.nl/content/research-groups/globalizing-culture/globalizing-culture.html#Queerying-gender--sexuality-from-Africa-Sexuality-and-the-making-of-the-middle-class-A-comparative-study-of-desire-and-status-in-three-African-countries
In 2012 the FWOS grant was awarded for the study titled “Sexualities and diversities in the making, among young adolescents in the Netherlands”. Rather than taking up a priori categories of diversity (such as race / ethnic groups) and sexuality (such as homo- and/or heterosexuality), the aim is to follow young people's cultural and sexual practices in order to flesh out the lived realities of identities in the making. The focus is on two kind of spaces that are crucial in adolescents' lives: online worlds, i.e. social media, as well as offline worlds, in this case the school grounds. This project is a cooperation between the University of Nijmegen and the University of Amsterdam.
In 2015 the NWO Open Competitie grant was awarded for the study titled “Sexuality, religion and secularism. Cultural encounters in the African Diaspora in the Netherlands”. In the Netherlands, as in Europe generally, debates on migration often problematize the role of religion and ‘tradition’, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. Religion and tradition are seen as sources of taboos and unsafe practices. This study investigates the ways religion and secularity are (re)shaped through cultural encounters between the African Diaspora and Dutch health institution in post-colonial Europe. This project is a cooperation between the University of Groningen and the University of Amsterdam, see https://www.culturalencounters.nl/about/.
A last project is a collaboration with (art) film maker Paul Gomes. In 2017 we will make a film about a former leprosy colony in northern Nigeria that is, almost literally, located at the edge of the world. The first cohort of cured adult patients were trained as hospital staff and over the decades the leprosy clinic has become a general hospital. Many of this first generation have passed away but not all; their life stories are fascinating and provide a window into a unique place. The following issues will be central: the contrast between their (sometimes very) mutilated faces, hands and feet, while they have thrived socially; the divergence from originally being outcasts to becoming respectable women and men; the disparity between this community that is inter-ethnically and inter-religiously organized in the context of increasing religious clashes and/ or ethnic conflicts; the commitment of the staff (who are civil servants in Nigeria) to continue to work for months and sometimes up to years without a salary.
Intersections of sexuality and the middle class:
Deconstructing representations of gender and sexuality, especially the global western pre-occupation with “African sexuality” and how these continue to colour much research, is a main motivation of her research. Rachel takes up sexuality as a prism to study social transformations and how these generate new subjectivities. She works out the complexities of sexuality and culture by focussing on public debates about sexuality and culture on the one hand, and personal sexual relationships, intimacy and self-perceptions on the other. Rather than using a priori categories such as homo- or heterosexuality, she investigates people’s practices and perceptions. As such, the diversity of sexual experiences, same- and opposite-sex, becomes central. Her work is part of a small but developing field of research on sexuality that seeks to correct the hegemonic trend of simplifying sex in Africa and consequently de-erotising it to an act devoid of meaning.
Reflecting on current sexuality research in Africa has helped her to rethink how to study the experiential qualities of sexuality. The dominant structuralist approach in gender & sexuality studies and African Studies aims to study sexuality and identity as discursive practice and to show how subjectivity is the outcome of discursive practices. However, it tends to neglect the bodily, experiential and sensory qualities of life due to its pre-occupation with unveiling power relations and cultural patterns. Using a variety of theoretical perspectives, Rachel is working on how to study sexuality and identity as mediators and shapers of social knowledge. In other words, complementary to the Foucauldian approach which emphasizes the self as an effect of subjectivation, we need to incorporate an analysis of the self by including the experiential aspect of being, which is constituted through the interaction between bodily experience and cultural milieu.
Middle class-formation is an important theme in Rachel’s to study sexuality as a prism for understanding social transformations in Africa. She studies class as it is ‘practised’, that is, she explores the middle class as an aspirational category: how ideas and practices become a way to self-realization and distinction. This theme offers both an intriguing perspective on how people participate(d) in a globalizing world, as well as makes an innovative contribution to African Studies, where the analysis of middle class remains elusive. It also provides an important contribution to debates about modernity, cosmopolitanism and sexuality from a cross-cultural perspective.
In 1999 she obtained her Master's degree ( cum laude) in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Her MA thesis, entitled Aids, a disease of modernity. Adolescent narratives about Aids in middle class Nairobi dealt with the interpretation of Aids among adolescents, whose narrations reveal social tensions and personal discontent and ambivalences.
For her PhD project she took up the subject of middle class in postcolonial Kenya again, and this time in combination with the topic of sexuality. In 2006 she obtained her PhD ( cum laude) at the Amsterdam School for Social-sciences (ASSR), also at the University of Amsterdam. In her dissertation entitled Ambiguous pleasures. Sexuality and new self-definitions in Nairobi she brought together two domains; sexuality research and the debates in African studies about postcolonial societies. She analysed sexuality as a prism to study societal transformations by exploring how sexuality is constituted socially and experienced personally: as such she showed how the social group ofyoung professionals can be seen as being in the vanguard concerning reconfigurations of gender, sexuality and culture. Young professionals embody postcolonial transformations and in their ensuing lifestyles it becomes clear how constructions of gender, sexuality and culture have come to shift and how these engender different modes of being. By focussing on public debates that are preoccupied with issues of African heritage, gerontocratic power relations and conventional morality on the one hand, and personal sexual relationships, intimacy and self-definitions on the other, she worked out the complexities of sexuality and culture in the context of modernity.
In her current project, Transformations in intimacy. Sexuality and modern personhood among middle-class Ghanaians from 1940 to the present, she further explores the matter of sexuality as an embodied practice that is related to processes of social transformation, in Ghana. She uses an historical-ethnographic approach to understand middle-class Ghanaians' ideas and practices of love and sexuality, starting with late colonialism, through early independence, and up to the current era of globalisation. With the notion of intimacy as its generative concept, the research will offer in-depth insights into different trajectories of modernity and at the same time develop post-constructionist analyses of sexuality. It focuses on how and why Ghanaians have used the discourse of love and progressive marriage to claim a modern identity, and analyse how this has shaped their sexuality. Two kinds of transformation will be specifically addressed: historical shifts in sexuality, and changing notions of personhood. By studying the histories of ten families over three generations, the topic is be approached from a diachronic perspective in order to chart changes over time, and from a synchronic perspective in order to relate sexual patterns to the cultural context and patterns of social mobility. The focus on three generations will avoida lineardevelopment from tradition to modernity, as suggested by current theories on the transformation of intimacy in Western societies, and focus rather on changes in the imagination of intimacy, and how people have embodied them and enacted upon them. The central research question will be how processes of middle-class formation have enabled people to explore new terrain in sexuality, how such people position themselves in relation to traditional customary practice, and how these changes are reflected in their self-perceptions and bodily dispositions. See also https://aissr.uva.nl/content/research-groups/globalizing-culture/globalizing-culture.html#Queerying-gender--sexuality-from-Africa-Sexuality-and-the-making-of-the-middle-class-A-comparative-study-of-desire-and-status-in-three-African-countries
Between 2006 and 2010 she combined a part-time postdoctoral position at the Amsterdam International School for Social Sciences (AISSR) with being a lecturer at the Sociology and Anthropology Department, at the University of Amsterdam. She was the director of the MA programme 'Gender, Sexuality and Society' at the Graduate School for Social Sciences, and she taught gender and sexuality studies as well as anthropology. The postdoc research focussed on HIV/Aids policy-making among international and national stakeholders in Ghana. Together with two PhD students we studied the state of the art concerning Voluntary Counselling and Testing and Antiretroviral Therapy among people living with AIDS in Ghana.
I teach anthropology -theory and methodology- at the anthropology department. I am also involved with the organisation of teaching gender and sexuality courses at bachelor and graduate level in anthropology, sociology and political science.
Gender and sexuality studies are devoted to enhancing our understanding of the differences among certain groups of women and certain groups of men - as well as between women and men - in an era of globalization and transnational migration. A range of social distinctions among and between women and men, and the particular forms of agency available to them, are grounded in their ethnic and religious identities, age categories, class location, sexual orientation, or access to political power. These distinctions produce different experiences and entitlements in civil society and citizenship; they endow most human beings with contrasting perspectives ontheir options inthe environment in which they live, work, and forgesocial andsexual bonds. This scholarly endeavor represents a systematic attempt to address structurally embedded prescriptions concerning gender relations and sexual behavior on a par with other analytical variables such as class, ethnicity, religion, age, or political ideology. It is generally accepted that differences between rich and poor, between white-skinned and black or brown-skinned people, or between Christians and Muslims are undeniable factors in people's lives. Functioning as either a woman or a man, or as a heterosexual or homosexual person, holds comparable significance.
Together with Kim Knibbe and Brenda Bartelink we have developed a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Religion and Sexual Well-being, https://www.futurelearn.com/invitations/university-of-groningen/religion-sexual-wellbeing-private/rcekds8ds4y3xnqjvdusyn148sikqpv
Current PhD supervisions
- Myra Bosman, ‘Heteronormativity from within: negotiating norms and pleasure during heterosexual sex’ (with Giselinde Kuipers)
- Carolyne Egesa, ‘Gender, power and male-targeted “gender-based violence” prevention efforts in urban informal settlements in Kenya’ (with Eileen Moyer and Chimaraoke Izugbara)
- Dilys Amoabeng, ‘Marriage across time: transformations in the ideals and practices of marriage among Ghanaian middle classes’ (with Julie McBrien)
- Peter Miller, ‘Dakar’s desires: intimacy, distinction & middle classness in Senegal’s capital’ (with Peter Geschiere)
- Janine Häbel, ‘Living below the radar: gender, desire and social support among single women in an east African town’ (with Eileen Moyer and Fatima Bapumia)
- Loes van Oudenhuijsen, ‘“Wicked’’ women in Senegal from 1950 to the present: religion, sexuality and its gendered contestations’ (with Rijk van Dijk)
- Ke Ma, 'Performing whiteness in China's media, fashion and entertainment industries' (with Shanshan Lan and Jeroen de Kloet)
- Bo Wang, 'Men who play with men: a study on contemporary Chinese masculinity in the age of rising cyber contact' (with Jeroen de Kloet)
- Lysanne Charles, When Island(er)s le(a)d: An ethnographic exploration of the interaction between local knowledges and practices and the Water, Food Shelter, Energy Nexus on Policy Preparation and Execution during and the hurricane season (Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten) (with Antonio Carmona Báez, Ellen van Bueren, Francio Guadeloupe)
Completed PhD supervisions
- Lieve de Coninck, ‘Making change against the odds, Entrepreneurial pursuits among young professionals in South Africa’ (with Oskar Verkaaik)
- Amisah Bakuri, ‘In pursuit of well-being. Sexuality and religion among Ghanaian-Dutch and Somali-Dutch in the Netherlands’ (with Rijk van Dijk, 2021)
- Wang Shuaishuai, ‘Media discourse of gay men and their everyday practices in China’ (with Jeroen de Kloet, 2019)
- Willemijn Krebbekx, ‘Sexualities and diversities in the making in secondary schools in the Netherlands’ (with Amade M’charek, 2018)
- Benjamin Kwansah, 'Safety in the Midst of Stigma. Experiencing HIV/AIDS in Two Ghanaian Communities' (with Sjaak van der Geest, 2013)
- Jonathan Dapaah, 'HIV/AIDS Treatment in Two Ghanaian Hospitals. Experiences of patients, Nurses and Doctors' (with Sjaak van der Geest, 2012)
Local supervisor of visiting PhDs and postdocs
- Marlyse Debergh, postoc research project on women’s experiences of late-term abortion in Switzerland from an ethnographic and feminist perspective (2022-2024)
- Heather Tucker, “The courageous sisters": Erotic subjectivity, and the manoeuvring of NGO frictions in Accra, Ghana' (2017)
- João Soares Pena, 'Beyond the window: the production of the city, control and prostitution in the Amsterdam Red Light District'. College of Architecture of the Federal University of Bahia' (2015)