The teacher state: Remaking the nation amidst political instability and policy change in Eritrean secondary schools

Jennifer Riggan, University of Pennsylvania


The construction of a viable nation-state has been a challenge for most post-colonial nations. Schooling is key part of projects of nation-state making; however, the nuanced, complex and contradictory role of teachers in these projects has rarely been studied. This two-year ethnographic study looks at how secondary school teachers in a remote town in Eritrea constructed the Eritrean nation-state amidst contradictions brought about by a period of political instability and educational reform. In Eritrea, which became independent from Ethiopia in 1991, popular nationalism during Eritrea's thirty-year war for independence and the post-independence years was transformed by the renewed outbreak of war with Ethiopia in 1998, which led to widespread disillusion and gave rise to alternate ways of imagining and producing the Eritrean nation-state. At this turbulent time, the Eritrean government implemented a comprehensive educational reform, which was asynchronous with the teachers' traditional approach to education and nation-building. Through interviews and participant observation, I explore how teachers functioned as part of the state apparatus by enacting beliefs about nation building that deviate from those the government. This approach to understanding nation-state making contributes to a body of literature that understands nation-states as constituted through practices of state functionaries in multiple locales. I argue that nation-state making is a social process that occurs through the intersection of three things: first, governing elite's ideas about the nation and the state-making mechanisms they have put into place to promote these ideas and construct their own version of the nation; second, ideas about the nation and related practices of discipline enacted by state functionaries at the "street level"; third, the dynamic material of various transnational flows. Teachers produce the nation-state through a complex combination of resistance to educational reforms and government policies, and reproduction of educational ideologies. This tension results in teaching practices that reflect a deep questioning of the relationship between the Eritrean nation and the Eritrean state. Because the work of teachers encompasses both the production and dissemination of a particular national imaginary and entails their enacting state technologies, it inherently calls into question the hyphen between the nation and the state.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|African history|Educational sociology

Recommended Citation

Riggan, Jennifer, "The teacher state: Remaking the nation amidst political instability and policy change in Eritrean secondary schools" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3260974.