This piece is available in full on Next Generation Social Science, the blog of the SSRC. Below is an excerpt.

In this presentation I will argue that African scholarship on Africa is operating at only a fraction of its true potential, and that it is hampered by the preferences, policies and politics of the western academy.

I will make three major points. First, the state of knowledge about African economics and politics is poor because in the higher reaches of the western academies, the focus is not on generating accurate information, but on inferring causal associations at a high level of abstraction, from datasets. And that those datasets are in fact far too weak for any such conclusions to be drawn.

Second, the structure of academic rewards and careers systematically disadvantages those who either do not have the skills or capacities for this kind of high-end quantitative endeavor (although it is profoundly flawed), or have serious misgivings about it. One result of this is a severe dissonance between actual lived experience, and academic work validated by the academy.

Third is what I call ‘Occidentalism’ in theory and policy. Occidentalism is the variant of Orientalism, it is the tendency to ascribe a cogency to the intellectual and cultural products of the west, that it does not in fact possess. Despite sustained critique by historians and anthropologists, the western experience of state formation remains the standard against which the rest of the world is indexed.


Read the entire contribution on Next Generation Social Science.

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3 Responses to A Social Science in Africa Fit for Purpose

  1. Herbert Weiss says:

    I wanted to congratulate you on your courageous attack on the current state of social science research on Africa in the American academy. I completely agree with you.

    An old personal story that illustrates your point might amuse you: Around 1967 or so, I was a newly appointed Assistant Professor at NYU when I was asked for the first time to be part of a committee that was called to give the green light to a PhD candidate’s dissertation proposal. I was distressed upon reading the project proposal because it was an entirely quantitative analysis, as it happened focused on violent attacks in Africa. I had no training whatsoever in that methodology. Well, I did not understand a word of the proposal and yet felt I had to say something. So I asked what data he proposed to use. He said proudly that he was using five years of the NY Times Index and Facts on File. That of course gave me my opening and somewhat cruelly I said “You really don’t need to do this analysis because I can tell you what it will conclude – that violence in Africa is overwhelmingly perpetrated against whites. And that happens to be completely false” None of the professors present were very impressed by my thrust, I am sure his dissertation was approved and no doubt quoted by some in subsequent years.

  2. Alex de wall deserves our thanks for raising this issue – the more we challenge the imposition of Northern templates on the global South the better.

    I feel, however, that Alex’s critique does not go far enough. Everything he describes happens, as any of us who have worked in international projects knows. But the hierarchy of acceptable knowledge is far more deeply entrenched than he suggests. Yes, the obsession with abstract modelling and dubious numbers is one way in which a Northern template is placed on Southern realities: many Northern colleagues agree enthusiastically that the quantitative abstract modelling he describes is simply an ideological construct – Northern opponents of this approach, such as Theda Skocpol and James Scott, organised the Perestroika movement to challenge it. But, with a few honourable exceptions, few Northern scholars challenge a hierarchy which assumes that it is the job of scholars in the global South to describe their societies, that of their Northern counterparts to think through what that all means. The result is not only that brilliant African and Asian thinkers are ignored unless they relocate to American universities (thus cutting themselves off from their societies) but that it is very rare for innovative understandings of the world generated in the South to have any impact outside their own societies (and often in their own societies too).

    The reality at present is that, unless you are based at a Northern university, if you want to write theory about Africa or anywhere else in the global South, you had better relocate to the US or Europe if you want journals to publish your work or colleagues in the North to take you seriously. And that means that what we have to say about our societies is taken seriously only if we extract ourselves from the societies we seek to understand

    There is obviously far more to be said about this but I am responding because I hope it might be possible to begin a serious conversation about what we could do to challenge the tyranny of place which ensures that Africa and the rest of the global South is viewed through the lenses of the American and European academy. I know this is often said but I feel we often fail to recognise how deeply insidious it is and so we learn to live with it. We should not.

  3. The structure of academic careers is in need of serious attention and reform. We are all familiar with the biases in academic reward and promotion, that undervalues teaching, and that rewards peer reviewed publication, biased towards high-ranking journals that prefer certain methodologies and questions. Those methods are typically quantitative, building beautiful castles in the air, or palaces on foundations of sand.

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