P 59

What Is Africa a Case of? Connecting General Theory and Local Contexts

Panel abstract
The panel discusses papers that reflect on theory building, epistemology, and methodology in African Studies. Its starting point is an antinomy: Research on Africa engages with settings that differ markedly from those of Europe, North America, and perhaps other parts of the global south while at the same time drawing from theories and concepts developed in and, more often than not, for the global north. Postcolonial debates have shown the problematic nature of the knowledge produced under these circumstances. However, the critiques have stressed epistemological issues and failed to accord as much importance to methodological issues. One way of redressing the balance is to ask what Africa is a case of, i.e. how the hidden descriptive and analytical assumptions of in research practice can be made more explicit.
Our panel addresses African connections from a theoretical perspective. It discusses papers that look into (a) how Africa is inscribed into the world developed by social science concepts and theories, (b) the methodological challenges produced by such inscriptions, and (c) the role which knowledge produced in Africa can play in subverting or elaborating further on social science theories and concepts.

Time: Saturday, 30/06/2018, 8.30 - 10.30 am, 11 am - 1 pm (double session)
Venue: Hörsaalgebäude, HS 14

Florian Stoll (University of Bayreuth)
Elísio Macamo (University of Basel, Switzerland)

Stefan Skupien (WZB Social Science Center Berlin)
Jörg Wiegratz (University of Leeds, UK)
Ingrid Samset (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Adam Cooper (Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa)
Cindy Lam (University of Lisboa, Portugal)
Stefanie Bognitz (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle)
Benedikt Pontzen (University of Bayreuth)
Florent Xavier René Frasson-Quenoz (Pontifical Xavierian University, Bogotá, Colombia)
Simone Schnabel (Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt/Main)


Paper abstracts

Stefan Skupien
Taking Stock of Endogeneity and Its Place in Southern Theories of Sciences

‘Indigenous Knowledge’ became a buzzword in international development discourse some twenty years ago. With the World Bank investing in collection, scientification and global distribution of ‘local’ knowledge, the discourse also became a powerful one –with negative repercussions for the indigenous communities whose knowledge was targeted. In this debate, African ‘indigenous knowledge’ is one case among others. Arun Agrawal has described the negative effects of such collections by dominant international organizations and has developed a political critique of the difference ‘scientific vs. indigenous knowledge’ that is worth reconsidering to answer questions of what is considered to be endogeneity. Following up on this political critique, I want to draw on the similar critique of Paulin Hountondji through his concept of ‘extraverted scientific activities’ that are structural effects of international scientific communities and their economic circuits. His proposed way out of such scientific dependencies allows adding another dimension to endogeneity, one that recognizes indigenous communities to be reflexive, self-confident, positive and scientific when re-appropriating their own knowledge. With his persistent emphasis on universal scientific practices, open horizons and acknowledgement of pluralism, Hountondji does not fall back into an extra-scientific, non-Western endeavour as practiced by earlier anthropologists and ‘ethnophilosophers’ cum cultural nationalists. On the contrary, his approach also undermines the binary differences established in development discourses, as apparent in the World Bank’s approach to ‘Indigenous Knowledge’. Africa’s and other’s indigenous societies become a more open case for scientists and intellectuals, political agents in their own right with strong implications for theory-building.

Jörg Wiegratz
Post-Neoliberal Africa? On the Usefulness and Limits of the Neoliberalism Concept

The concept of neoliberalism has been used for decades to analyse various dynamics across the African continent. The respective research and debate have produced important insights. Yet, given the current academic and public discussion about the ‘end’ of neoliberalism and the beginning of a post-neoliberal era in Africa and elsewhere, it is timely to explore whether this concept has indeed run its course in African studies. It is also necessary to ask whether relevant African societies are by now neoliberal market societies, post-neoliberal societies, or something else altogether. This paper discusses the analytical usefulness, difficulties and limits of 'neoliberalism' as a concept and research agenda. The presentation draws on Africa wide material as well as more detailed case study analysis of Uganda.

Ingrid Samset
Concern for Dark Pasts: Pitfalls of Researching Historical Wrongs in Africa

The choice of Africa as a case should be guided by the research question: what phenomenon we wish to shed light on, and whether there are incidents of it in Africa that can illuminate the phenomenon. Often, however, the choice to study Africa is guided by other motives, including concern for ‘Africa’ and the researcher’s wish to come across as someone who cares about the presumed distant, ‘black’ other. Such motives may derive from the cultural value ascribed to showing that ‘I care’ and that this care is universal. This way of using Africa as a case risks reducing the quest for discovering new aspects of the phenomenon to that which will confirm the researcher’s concern and identity as a helper. While this concern across space may thus boost a sense of ‘white innocence’ on the part of researchers, this paper will extend the argument to concern across time, exploring the contemporary politics of regret. Expressions of regret by politicians, from Clinton to Cameron and Macron, about acts committed in the name of their governments in the past have been lauded a sign of progress. Meanwhile, researchers have paid growing attention to postcolonial calls for redressing historical wrongs. Such research can also be read as form of concern: directed not toward the distant other of today, but toward the other in the distant past. By applying today’s standards to the past, the researcher signals that s/he sees people of that past as equally deserving of justice. Concern is extended from the black ‘other’ to the dark past. If Africa is in focus, the effect is amplified: the researcher not only signals concern for the black, distant ‘other’ but for this other in the past. Can there be any stronger signal that ‘I care’? Quests for justice for historical wrongs thus make relevant the problem of speaking for others. Presumed victims of past acts today considered wrong, or their testimonies, may not be available. To substantiate claims of historical wrongs, the researcher will seek people today who can be claimed to represent those victims. The paper will explore the ethical and epistemological problems of such representation, to develop the argument that research on historical wrongs in Africa risks generating more heat than light. It risks confirming the researcher’s sense of white innocence, contrasted not only with the today’s black others but also with dark pasts, and with others in today’s West who are claimed to be denying historical realities. The result is an activist, j’accuse! form of research in which Africa again fades into the background.

Adam Cooper
Theory for Africa

In this paper, I ask what theory ‘for’ Africa entails, drawing on Burawoy’s distinction between Sociology ‘in’, ‘of’ and ‘for’ the global South. Sociology in the South is simply Northern theory transplanted into Southern contexts, practiced in such way that its universal relevance remains unquestioned. Sociology of the South engages deeply with the local, showing how the use of theory in a different context has different meanings. What may be conservative in one place may be radical in another context, what is true when applied to the North, may actually prove to be false elsewhere. Sociology for the South is not content with showing local particularities, but moves towards universality in its theorising. It demonstrates how the interests of the South might be in the interests of us all. I apply these ideas to theory for Africa, unpacking the paradox implicit in Burawoy’s work, namely that theory for Africa necessarily requires universal relevance. Shifting the geopolitics of knowledge to become Africa-centred means more than simply striving for a particular local aspiration towards universality. It requires reflection on how the ontological assumptions, political agendas and value priorities underpinning theoretical work impacts on Africa and what needs to be done such that these operate in the interests of scholars on the continent and the societies in which they live. Explicitly acknowledging the political effects of our scholarship illuminates that the ‘how’ we produce knowledge and ‘what’ we use for its production –theory and method– is a false dichotomy, a technocratic fallacy that sidelines issues of social and epistemological justice. ‘What Africa is a case of’ may therefore heavily depend on our intentions as scholars and on what we perceive to be the purpose of our work.

Cindy Lam
Food, Foodways, and Foodscape of a West African Creole Society

In fact, studying its food is a way to approach topics related to urban-rural links, local-global connections, and similar processes and dynamics. The dishes on the Cape Verdean table today are the products of many forces operating and competing in a creative field. We shall witness the adoption and appropriation of what is global, modern, industrial and foreign through an investigation of the food, foodways and foodscape of contemporary Cape Verde. Methodologically speaking, Cape Verde is a valuable test ground. It is an intermediate case in various aspects. On the one hand, it does not possess Italy’s or France’s international gastronomic reputation and creativeness; and it compares poorly with China’s or Japan’s ethnic food versatility and mass popularity. On the other hand, it does not face the dire hunger problems of many other African countries; and humble as the country is, it successfully imports rather than grows a large of part of what the population consumes daily. In other words, a large part of food studies literature does not fit the Cape Verdean case readily, but insights from the latter could potentially contribute with new perspectives to current knowledge and theories.

Stefanie Bognitz
Ambivalent Afterlives: Towards an Anthropological Inquiry into Scenes of Denial

This paper draws on the assumption that denial is considered a transgression of commonly shared beliefs and humanism. Scenes of denial can be captured as a state of silencing, ignoring or refuting critical information; modes of knowing or truths to maintain; and ways of being and convictions of the self in the world that are sustained and comfortably situated in a presence that is worth being defended against multiple critiques or ontologies. The paper evolves ethnographically from scenes in the everyday access to justice and ordinary interaction with legal institutions in Rwanda. It proceeds with an attempt to introduce regimes of denial to social/anthropological theory. I show how institutions in Rwanda live with memory imbued with idiosyncratic trust and belief in what happened during the time of genocide. The ‘single story’ of the Rwandan genocide –an established convention– firmly embraces contemporary Rwandan society and insists on new names, such as ‘genocide against the Tutsi’ or ‘the new Rwanda’. This inquiry into scenes of denial is not only an exercise to debunk the ambivalent afterlives of genocide. What is more of interest for anthropological theory is to inquire into the modes of significations of denial in attempts to legitimize or manifest ways of seeing the world and therefore acts of world making by engaging in deliberate descends into denial. I argue that denial is a mode of relating to the world. This calls into question our shared humanity and ethics when persuasiveness, ignorance, or convictions trespass epistemological boundaries.

Benedikt Pontzen
Religion in Africa and ‘African Religions’

Religious presences are manifold in Africa and the differences between the various religious phenomena encountered across the continent are vast. Yet, while most studies classify and analyse these as religion(s), many African languages have no term for ‘religion’, as religious phenomena are ubiquitous in their respective lifeworlds and an integral part of people’s lives. How are we to describe and study these phenomena then? I first discuss two rather unconvincing approaches to study religion(s) in Africa: ‘African Islam’ and ‘African Traditional Religion’. These tend to reify and exceptionalize Africa and are, therefore, of little analytic or comparative value. Furthermore, the Western understanding of religion as a separate sphere of life is also rather impeding than furthering our understanding of religious phenomena in Africa. Ethnographic theory offers a way out of this impasse: describing actual phenomena and paying close attention to the practices and renderings of the people themselves allows us not only to grasp these phenomena on their own terms but also to consider them in their context. A critical reconsideration of our preconceived analytic concepts and engaging with local terms and ruminations serve at the same time to provincialize Europe and to de-exceptionalize Africa. This, in turn, should not lead us into positing distinct ontologies, but allow us to engage in open conversations with interlocutors in Africa and elsewhere in which all sides stand to learn about and from each other.

Florent Xavier René Frasson-Quenoz
African Security Identity: A Decolonial Assessment

What is the African Security Identity (ASI)? My argument focuses on the way African international organizations are reducing the cultural gap that exists between the Global North’s way of thinking about security and the African one. It also focuses on the defining effects –both constructive and deconstructive– it has on the ASI. However, in the current global context of ideological fluidity, the mix of transnational dynamics and local grievances is decreasing states’ capacity for good security governance. That is why I will assess the implementation process of exogenous international rules –collective security, human security, and peacekeeping – and enforcing – on the African continent. I will respond to related questions such as: is the idea of ASI spreading through the whole continent? Does the rise of global asymmetric violence have repercussions on the ASI? Do African states still wall themselves off behind their borders, and if so, why? This paper further the reflection I started with my doctoral thesis in 2011 and a book on regional security complexes and security communities published in 2014. Understood through the decolonial lens, the ASI seems to be more a reproduction of Eurocentric concepts than a real opportunity for Africans to organize their relations on a specific ‘African conceptualization of security’. This process seems to have a beneficial effect on the insertion of African countries in the international security architecture but a counterproductive effect on the African capacity to promote alternative visions about security issues on the global stage.

Simone Schnabel
African Regional Organizations Seen from Below: Theorizing Legitimacy Beyond the European Nation-State

Despite a long and rich history of African-led conflict interventions, very little is known about whether regional organizations (RO) such as the AU and ECOWAS are considered legitimate authorities in today’s conflicts. There is hardly any interest on the reaction, perception and contestation of RO’s conflict management by those directly affected –citizens, civil society, local authorities, etc. Whereas a growing literature deals with the legitimacy of the UN’s peace operations as well as with grassroots perceptions of their blue helmets, similar studies relating to African RO’s are scarce. However, apart from this empirical blind spot, there is also a more fundamental, epistemological problem. What unites the existing literature is either a functional understanding of legitimacy, such as Scharpf’s in- and output legitimacy, or a subjective conception of legitimate order inspired by Max Weber. Recent scholarly debate has highlighted the importance of different audiences, sources and practices of legitimation understood as a dynamic process rather than an attribute. However, they all relate to a theoretical background that is embedded in Western concepts of legitimate (democratic) order and thus limit our grasp of eventually other ‘benchmarks’ of legitimacy as perceived, shaped and contested by those directly affected by interventions. Studying the legitimacy of African RO’s might inspire theory building as 1) African RO’s have a larger authority to intervene in domestic conflict compared to other regional organizations, thus directly affect state-society relations. 2) The latter are –in contrast to the European nation-state– hardly characterized by democratic representation and legitimate authority but by the fluidity of power relations, and a constantly changing set of actors, even more so in a post-conflict setting. This paper argues that a bottom-up perspective on legitimacy could feed into novel theorizing of the meaning, and function, of regional organizations’ legitimacy and thereby enrich the debate about legitimacy beyond the nation-state that deliberately draws on and theorizes from non-Western experiences.