African Studies

Professor Paul Zeleza, Penn State:


Recently, I have been thinking a lot about African studies partly because I just finished editing a two-volume collection of essays on The Study of Africa (Volume 1: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Encounters; Volume 2: Global and Transnational Engagements), which will be published later this year, and partly because over a ten day period between late February and early March I made a number of presentations on the subject (workshop at Wooster College in Ohio on 'Introducing the Problematique of Africa in the American Classroom'; keynote address at the 'National Conference on the Strengthening of African Studies in Africa and South Africa in Particular' organized by the Department of Education, Republic of South Africa; and keynote address at the 'Conference on Literature and Historical Imagination' organized by the Center for African Studies at the University of Cambridge, as well as a seminar presentation). In discussing African studies or any field for that matter, it is important to note that the economies and cultures of knowledge production are an integral part of complex and sometimes contradictory, but always changing, institutional, intellectual and ideological processes and practices that occur, simultaneously, at national and transnational, or local and global levels. This is simply to point out that African studies-the production of African/ist knowledges-has concrete and conceptual, material and moral, political and discursive contexts, which create the variations that are so evident across the world and across disciplines.

Today, African studies is a vast international enterprise. Half a century ago, there were few institutions of higher education whether in Africa itself or abroad that took the study of Africa seriously. Despite all the noises we hear about the crisis of African universities in general or African studies in particular (both true), there can be little doubt that thousands of people all over the world in multitudes of institutions earn their living teaching, researching, writing, or even celebrating and condemning Africa, in a way that would have been unimaginable at the end of the Second World War when Africa was still under colonial rule. And countless books, journals, reviews, and reference works are published on Africa in dozens of languages across virtually all the fields of academic inquiry. It is practically impossible now for any one individual, however prodigious, to read all that is produced in any discipline or area of specialization in African studies as may have been the case forty or even thirty years ago.

Yet, the periodic temptation to take intellectual stock of African studies, indeed of any academic field, is always great. The production of disciplinary histories serves to commemorate the founders, socialize newcomers, and establish boundaries and guideposts for the future. I have been particularly susceptible to such temptations partly for institutional reasons-for eight years I headed the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois and I was paid to keep track of where the field was going; for intellectual reasons-I have always been fascinated by intellectual history, both the history of ideas and the history of knowledge producing institutions; and for personal reasons-as an African scholar based in the global North who has been intimately engaged with academic networks and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. It is important for us to remember that the struggle over ideas, over academic paradigms, is not a quaint scholarly affliction or affection of no import to the wider society; it involves competing visions, priorities, and policies on how best to organize society for specific social interests and projects.

Since the 1970s there have been several English-language assessments of African studies. But many of them are narrowly focused in their disciplinary and regional coverage and they tend to focus on the U.S. Notwithstanding the size and global tentacles of the American academic system and its African studies establishment, it is always important to remember that there are other academic worlds out there with their own scholarly traditions and trajectories. My book was motivated, in part, by the need to capture and demonstrate the diverse and complex configurations of African studies in different world regions, in addition to encompassing and examining African studies on a much wider disciplinary and interdisciplinary canvas than has been attempted thus far (the disciplines covered include Anthropology, Sociology, Literature, Linguistics, History, Political Science, Economics, Geography, and Psychology, and the interdisciplines and interdisciplinary paradigms include women's and gender studies, art studies, religious studies, public health studies, communications studies, cultural studies and postcolonial studies).

African studies is both disciplinary and interdisciplinary in the sense that Africa is studied in specific disciplines and through disciplinary paradigms and in interdisciplines and through interdisciplinary paradigms. This duality reflects the very duality, or rather complexity, of the modern scholarly enterprise. The academy in much of the world is typically divided into disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields. But the institutional and intellectual boundaries between the two are neither always clear nor uniform across universities let alone across countries. In fact, the origins, definitions, and trajectories of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are often confused and contested. Interdisciplinarity is seen either as an unwelcome interloper or the savior of the disciplines.

It tends to be assumed that, for better or for worse, interdisciplinarity is a recent phenomenon. In reality, the two have existed in dialectical tension and the dynamics of their interaction have changed ever since the emergence of the modern research university in the nineteenth century that laid the architecture of contemporary knowledge production and consumption. Notwithstanding the passions with which the gatekeepers often guard their disciplinary boundaries, duly fortified with internal legitimating histories, it is evident that both disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are not static phenomena, but changing epistemic constructions that evolve as part of the continuous transformations in the nature and function of the academy, which in turn, reflect the changing dynamics in the wider society and the wider world.

It is remarkable how new both most of the disciplines and interdisciplines are. Many acquired their distinctive institutional and intellectual identities in the course of the twentieth century, a process that was driven as much by administrative as by academic imperatives to divide knowledge production and pedagogy into manageable units, to departmentalize and discipline scholars and students into specific branches of knowledge, each with its own epistemic cultures and communities, foundational projects and commitments, and mechanisms of authorizing new knowledge. The disciplines erected guild boundaries, with varying degrees of permeability, around their objects and methods of inquiry, and developed specialized discourses and theories, training and credentialing systems, discursive practices, publishing protocols, professional networks, regulatory mechanisms, and autonomous departments.

In their encounters with Africa, the disciplines have traveled a considerable distance from their unadulterated Eurocentric origins, but many traces remain which continue to envelope Africa in the analytical shadows of difference and even derision. Eurocentricism is rooted in the very origins of the Enlightenment project and its unyielding hierarchical geographies of knowledge. We all know the role of anthropology in the construction of African exceptionalism, in the racialization of Africa and the struggles the discipline has waged since the anti-colonial wrath of decolonization to liberate itself from colonial complicity. At the height of empire anthropology was of course not the only discipline that sought to exonerate colonialism from the cultural, cartographic, and cognitive violence it wrought on Africa, there were other disciplines from literature to history to psychology.

Not surprisingly, one of the dominant features of African studies and scholarship since independence has been the deconstructive impulse to dismantle the hegemony of European thought as part of the struggle to reconstruct the historicity and integrity of African thought, to affirm African humanity long denied by the European geopolitical self and the metaphysics of white normativity. Clearly, African and Africanist scholars have been preoccupied with the need to decolonize African studies, to renegotiate the epistemic terms of knowledge production, to rid the disciplines and interdisciplines of the civilizational and cognitive conceits of Europe and Eurocentricism. Obviously some disciplines have been more successful than others, the humanities such as history and literature more successful than the social sciences like economics and political science.

Whatever the differences, the strong deconstructive imperatives of African/ist scholarship partly account for the interdisciplinary tendencies of African studies. In other words, the insurgency of African studies, together with the other so-called area studies in the academies of the global North, have been critical to the decomposition of the western epistemological order, the paradigmatic disorder that has been so evident over the past few decades, which is often attributed, incorrectly in my view, to the belated rise of the 'posts'-postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcoloniality. The interdisciplinary inclinations of African studies can also be attributed to intellectual necessity, the need to construct an African 'library', a body of knowledge that can fully encompass, engage, and examine African phenomena. When this drive began in earnest in the postwar era the existing disciplinary methodologies and theories were found seriously wanting.

There is hardly a discipline that was not forced to reformulate its concepts and methods in the endeavor to excavate and elevate Africa from the onerous weight of Eurocentric epistemology. This is quite evident in history, the discipline I know best. Africanist historians were more open to the use of multiple sources including archaeology, documentary evidence, oral tradition, historical linguistics, and data from the natural sciences in their reconstruction of the histories of African societies some of which lacked the kinds of written sources prized in European historiography. Some of their methods, questions, and perspectives were later incorporated into Euro-American historiography and in several interdisciplinary fields such as women's studies that prize deconstruction, reflexivity, and oral narratives. This openness, not to say eclecticism, is also evident in my own specialty, economic history. Africanist economic historians have a generous definition of economic history, one which embraces anthropology and political history as well as economics. What is interesting is that economic historians of other regions and older historiographical traditions appear to be moving in the Africanist direction. Readings on European economic history suggest growing interest in reconnecting economic and social history, indeed, in integrating economic, social, and political history.

No less important are the institutional contexts in which African studies have developed. Outside Africa, the field has developed in area studies programs. Also, Africanists isolated in their various disciplines have found solace in interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations with each other. Within Africa itself, powerful political, social, and economic forces have shaped the growth of scholarly communities and traditions prone to interdisciplinarity. From the beginning the postcolonial university was under strong pressures to help advance-consciously, constructively and creatively-what Thandika Mkandawire calls the historic and humanistic tasks of African nationalism: decolonization, development, nation-building, democracy, and regional integration. This meant that 'ivory' or 'brick' tower scholasticism was deeply distrusted. The instrumentalist orientation of African scholarship and knowledge production facilitated the embrace of problem-solving interdisciplinarity.

The widely reported crisis that afflicted African universities from the 1980s reinforced this trend, as desperate academics sought pecuniary support, and occasionally political refuge, in consultancies for donor agencies, which often required interdisciplinary skills, or at the very least the skills to mediate scholarly research and policy prescriptions. The drift towards the privatization of universities from the 1990s, as reflected in the explosion of private universities and the privatization of programs in public universities, spawned in part by dwindling fiscal support for public education, provided an added spur for departments and programs to sell themselves to a rapidly expanding and increasingly diverse clientele of students consisting of young people seeking professional skills and professionals seeking career enhancement. Departments in the less marketable fields, especially in the humanities, found themselves reconfiguring their identities and adding on potentially lucrative courses or even inventing new disciplinary labels.

Almost invariably, the construction and conceptualization of knowledge have social, spatial and temporal contexts and referents. Few would disagree that knowledge, whatever the prevailing disciplinary labels, is produced through specific paradigms that are developed by certain groups of people in particular places and periods. Knowledge production is, in this fundamental sense, a social practice marked by period and place, notwithstanding the vigorous, but often vain, attempts by some scholars to free their disciplines, specialties, theories and models from the supposedly suffocating confines of time and space. As even a cursory glance at the history of any discipline will show, the disciplines and interdisciplines are rather porous and changing branches of knowledge; they are epistemic and social constructs whose intellectual, institutional, and ideological configurations are mediated and mapped by the unyielding demands of historical geography.

In the academies of Euro-America the argument between the interdiscipline of area studies, in which African studies is located, and the disciplines of the academic departments is essentially about the territoriality and temporality of knowledge and knowledge production: universality is claimed for the disciplines and contextuality for the area studies. And 'area' itself is parsed further: the disciplines are a preserve of the 'West' and 'area studies' of the 'Rest'. This hierarchy of knowledge provides a powerful fiction that is appealing to many, one that is institutionally sanctified in the relatively low positioning of area studies faculty and programs. It is reproduced in the perennial debates between the disciplines and the 'area studies', which are praised or pilloried, rather simplistically, for their propensity to descriptiveness and detail, local knowledge and exoticism, or complicity with imperialist impulses or multiculturalist political correctness.

This division of academic labor has a territorial dimension: within Africa itself there are few African studies programs as such because Africa is lodged within the disciplines, unlike what prevails in Euro-America where the area studies model was invented and African studies programs provide a crucial institutional base for studying Africa. This parallels the relatively weak position in the American academy of American studies as an interdiscipline compared to the incorporation of American studies in the disciplines. In both cases, 'area studies' refers to, by and large, an 'outside' study, in the case of Africa study of the hegemonic imperial 'other', in the case of Euro-America the study of the colonial or postcolonial dependent 'other.'

There are other crucial differences in the organization of 'area studies' in Africa and Euro-America: the latter's overdetermination of African knowledge systems remains palpable, while the African influence on Euro-American scholarship is quite negligible. This points to the uneven and unequal ways in which the disciplines and interdisciplines are internationalized between the global North and much of the global South, including Africa. It suggests that the terms of global intellectual exchange, like the terms of trade for the so-called developed and developing economies, are decidedly unequal: African studies in the North are a peripheral part of the academy, whereas the Euro-American epistemological order remains central in the African academy.

Since the colonial encounter, the construction of scholarly knowledge about Africa has been internationalized both in the sense of it being an activity involving scholars in various parts of the world and the inordinate influence of externally generated models on African scholarship. More often than not the scholars who have tended to set the terms of debate and discourse in African studies, prescribing much of what is deemed authoritative knowledge, framing the methodological and theoretical terrain of the field, and shaping the infrastructures of scholarly knowledge production are Euro-American rather than African. There is perhaps no other region in the world that has suffered more from what Paulin Hountodji once called 'theoretical extraversion' than Africa, where imported intellectual perspectives, preoccupations, and perversions play such a powerful role in scholarship, not to mention policy formulation and even popular discourse.

The chapters in volume 2 of my book explore these issues in detail: the ways in which Africa has been engaged in international studies and in international contexts characterized by shifting analytical fads and different national tendencies. The first part briefly explores the possibilities and perils of the area studies model as developed in the United States by examining some of the debates about area studies. Part two looks at the study of Africa in international studies, that is, the state of African studies as seen through the paradigms of globalization, transborder formations, and diaspora studies, as well as the implications of some of these paradigms on actual development processes in Africa, and the challenges of translation in transnational African studies scholarship. The last part analyses African studies in different global regions: Europe-Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Russia; the Americas-the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil; and finally the Asia-Pacific region-India, Australia, China and Japan.

Clearly, today African studies or the study of Africa is a vast international enterprise encompassing Africa itself, the former colonial powers of western Europe, countries with large African diasporas in the Americas, as well as countries in Europe and Asia that have had no overt imperial relations with Africa. As a house of many mansions, a field with diverse, complex and infinitely fascinating disciplinary, interdisciplinary and global dimensions, the days when one country, one center, or one paradigm for that matter dominated African studies are long gone. For some this apparent fragmentation is a source of deep concern, for others it represents scholarly pluralization that is a cause for celebration. For me it is a sign of the field's maturation. The key pitfalls and possibilities of African studies in the twenty-first century, I would argue, lie in the crises and changes in the systems of knowledge production in Africa itself and the emergence of new African diasporas-including the academic diasporas-riding on the ravages of neo-liberal globalization and the age-old solidarities of Pan-Africanism.

Fundamental to the future of African studies, or rather African and Africanist scholarship, is the revitalization of African universities and scholarly communities on the continent that have been devastated by more than two decades of misguided structural maladjustment policies. In short, African studies-the production of knowledges on and about Africa-will, ultimately, only be as strong as African scholarship on the continent is strong. For their part, the new academic diasporas are going to be crucial to the processes, however painful and difficult they may be, of establishing new, perhaps more equitable, transnational intellectual relations between Africa and the rest of the world. Much is indeed in flux in the architecture of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption. The disciplines are in as much of a 'crisis'-undergoing profound changes-as the interdiscipline of area studies. For those of us committed to the study of Africa in whatever institutional arrangement of the contemporary academy, and for whatever reason-epistemic, existential, or even economic-we must pay close attention to these changes and ensure that our beloved Africa is fully integrated in whatever intellectual configurations emerge in the new century.