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Before coming to Hopkins, Guyer taught at Northwestern University, Harvard University, and Boston University. She has published extensively on economic development in West Africa, on the productive economy, the division of labor, and the management of money. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 and serves on several international and national committees, including the International Advisory Group to the World Bank and the governments of Chad and Cameroon on the Chad–Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project, the Lost Crops of Africa panel published by the National Academy, and the Board and Executive Committee of the African Studies Association. Her research has been celebrated for her contributions not just to empirical research but theoretical discourse on several topics.
Guyer was born in Scotland and attended the London School of Economics, earning a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1965. She then attended the University of Rochester, where the department focused on the British social anthropological tradition, and studied under Robert Merrill and Alfred Harris. She completed her graduate training in 1972. Her dissertation was titled The Organizational Plan of Traditional Farming: Idere, Western Nigeria. Guyer earned her first teaching position at the University of North Carolina before she had completed her studies.