07.- 11.06.

P 51: Critical Reflections on Knowledge Production and Representation in African Studies


Critical Reflections on Knowledge Production and Representation in African Studies

Alzbeta Sváblová, University of Bayreuth
Diana B. Kisakye, University of Bayreuth
Serawit B. Debele, MPI, Göttingen

Short abstract:

By challenging dichotomies of the West and the rest, we call for critical reflections on the
problematics that continue to permeate knowledge production within African Studies. We
welcome theoretical and methodological approaches transcending the power imbued
binaries while acknowledging alternatives on what constitutes knowledge on Africa.


Long Abstract

This panel questions the underlying processes and practices of knowledge production in
and on Africa today. Over the years the continent has been characterised by peculiar
absence or lack. The ideology, myth and discourse that invented ‘Africa’ reduce ‘it’ to an
‘entity’ destined to follow the footsteps of and wait to catch up with the West, the dominant body that sets the standards. The continent is depicted as a site not worthy of any serious historical, philosophical, epistemological and theoretical engagement but as one that deals with the immediacy of life, not moving forward and hence devoid of ‘progress’. This is supplemented by ongoing forms of knowledge production as the means by which “the West” distinguishes itself from “the rest”. Theory and method are used to posit Africa within the “kingdom of ethnography”, making it a site from where data are generated to test theories developed in the West. Despite a relentless critique of such notions, the continent is still juxtaposed as traditional, uncivilised, backward and so on against the modern, civilised, literate and so on West. Research practices and theory building within African Studies are trapped by this dichotomy, as well as by numerous negations and exclusions, repeatedly associating Africa with precarity (such as weak states, disease, civil war etc).

In keeping with the theme of the conference, we call for decolonial approaches to
challenge the Eurocentric assumptions that still linger within African Studies. We seek to
challenge existing ontological assumptions, epistemologies and representations in order to
ask how Africanist scholarship can move away from perpetuating (neo)colonial relations in the realm of knowledge production. We welcome contributions that interrogate hierarchies of knowledge by introducing methodological and theoretical approaches that transcend the hierarchical dichotomies.


01 Vanessa Wijngaarden: An integrated approach towards decolonisation of higher education: A perspective from Anthropology

The call to decolonise knowledge has often been perceived as a call for cognitive justice, which is the right for a multitude of knowledges to exist, be valued and used to serve the needs of people in their societies, and is thus deeply related to the struggle for global social justice. Its proponents aver that all knowledge is partial and complementary, and cognitive justice forms a dialogic approach that gives meaning to the relationships between different knowledges. We take up this call by arguing that if  science (natural, social and humanities) is to be a truly global knowledge system, scientific endeavours have to move beyond dualistic binaries of Western versus Indigenous, towards a dynamic dialogic approach that centralizes intersubjectivity, relationship and contextualization. African Studies can play an important role in the decolonial transformation of science and the transcendence of hierarchical dichotomies, and higher education in Africa is an important factor to achieve this. In this paper we propose tools to contribute to science as a knowledge system where ‘truth’ is constructed, not through a claim to objectivity, but through a commitment to a radical multivocal, deeply methodological divergent and adamantly reflexive dialogic process of intersubjective validation. As a result, higher education will alter from a place where people are excluded, socialized and subdued to accommodate a certain knowledge system, into a space of expansive self-transformation. We propose that despite its historic engagement with the reproduction of Western norms and reinforcement of Western dominance, contemporary anthropology is a social scientific field that is specialized in dealing with a multitude of knowledge, and suitable to facilitate cross-cultural dialogues as well as highly critical reflections on its own knowledge constructions. Drawing on insights and practices from this discipline, we describe the interrelated strategies of 1) radical multivocality and 2) adamant reflexivity, and how they may be useful in facilitating decolonisation within higher education. We reject the replacement of one knowledge system with another and refuse subjugation of one form of knowledge to another frame of reference. Instead, we envisage science as a co-creative dialogue among a multitude of knowledges that enables a new generation of academics to use Indigenous and Western knowledges and methods in a reflexive and critical dialogic synergy, thus fostering academia as a space where new narratives arise, meta-narratives are challenged and different narratives are related to each other.

Vanessa Wijngaarden is a social anthropologist and affiliated as a Senior Research Associate with the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg.


02 Carole Ammann, Fiona Siegenthaler: Centring the Margins(s) – Marginalising the Centre(s). Reflections on Knowledge Production in and on Africa

Knowledge in African Studies is not produced in an egalitarian way. Some voices are popular and loud, others almost inaudible and thus marginal. To claim a perspective from ‘the margins’ has become a trend, if not a necessity in different fields. This claim emphasizes the need to decentre and rethink (Mignolo 2010, Comaroff & Comaroff 2012, Cooper & Morrell 2014) knowledge production, to value ‘alternative’, ‘other’ and ‘subaltern’ views, interpretations and representations of the world and thereby challenge hegemonic discourses and dominant epistemologies. However, while this certainly contributes to an awareness of unequal power relations globally, researchers in the ‘Global North’ attempting to decentre or decolonise their approach are constantly reminded of the difficulty to shift their own positionality. This positionality is not only marked by their geo-political base in the ‘Global North’ but also by the intellectual traditions, epistemic foundations and academic structures they operate within. 

This paper addresses these positionalities and analyses the multiple and intersecting axes of margins and centres when it comes to academic knowledge production. Based on conceptual reflection of the notion of the ‘margin’ and the ‘centre’ (e.g. Hadfield-Hill 2019, Andrucki & Dickinson 2015), we analyse how ‘other forms of knowledge’ are often systemically (and sometimes systematically) marginalised in and beyond African studies. First, we discuss our own positionalities in a fast-paced and output-oriented neoliberal academic system of the ‘Global North’ (e.g. Mountz et al. 2015). Where do we find ourselves in a (dis)empowered, marginalised or central position, for example when trying to challenge predominant academic structures? Secondly, we provide examples of academic professionals at African universities (Guinea, Uganda) and reflect upon centralities and marginalities from the perspective of their positionalities and in relation to different forms of knowledge. Thirdly, we ask what possibilities and challenges there are in practice to enter into a dialogue with and ‘centralise’ seemingly marginal forms of knowledge and embrace them as constitutive of our own academic practice (e.g. Nolte 2019). How can we overcome geopolitical centrism, discursive hegemony and dominating epistemologies in our everyday academic life as Africanists, (co-)editors of conference panels, special issues and edited volumes, as applicants for funding, as members of research collaborations and as authors of articles and books? We will conclude on a note about the potential of transdisciplinary approaches to collaborative research that de-centres knowledge and reshuffles current academic structures.

Carole Ammann is a postdoctoral researcher in social anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.

Fiona Siegenthaler is an adjunct professor and researcher at the Universiy of Basel and a research associate at the University of Johannesburg.


03 Margaret Babirye: South African anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff call for a “theory from the South”. But who can think “from” Africa?

Jean and John Comaroff present “theorizing from the South” as principally about displacing a Euro-centric conceptual framework, which long dominated the social sciences. Due to the high co-relation between knowledge production and development in Africa, the Comaroffs specifically challenge conventional interpretations of modernity and modernization, which perpetuate Euro-centric assumptions about progress as involving convergence on a Northern model of industrial development and enlightenment ideals. The notions that the Comaroffs present are valuable and in synch with a growing body of post-colonial literature, which also calls for a provincialization of Europe so as to challenge Eurocentric assumptions in the social sciences. However, the Comaroffs approach to “theorizing from the South” has its weaknesses. For one, scholars like Ferguson (2012) argue that there is something ironic about the Comaroffs “theorising from the South” because they are white and have their base in Northern universities. Building on Ferguson’s analysis, I argue that the Comaroffs’ interpretation of what it means to “theorize from the South” is incomplete because they do not identify who exactly can think from the South. I assert that thinking from the south should involve Africa-based scholars in knowledge production and development through their institutions. In this paper, I first present the Comaroffs’ argument, how they propose to move away from the Eurocentric theoretical assumptions and how their argument echoes a similar post-colonial literature. Second, I argue that who thinks from Africa does matter, first, for epistemic reasons because the identity and location of those involved in knowledge production affect the nature and the dissemination of the knowledge produced. Secondly, I argue that it matters for ethical reasons because of the need for knowledge production patterns to privilege the South. Finally, I outline why “theorizing from the South” also requires that we address imbalances in the prevailing political economy of knowledge production because of the systemic inequalities that currently disadvantage African scholars, research institutions, and development organisations.

Margaret Babirye is a Fellow with the Third Generation Project: a climate and social justice think tank based in the school of International Relations at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


04 Joram Tarusarira: Critical Reflections on Knowledge Production with reference to African Studies and the Study of Religion

Modern science claims that knowledge production is based on neutral, objective and universal academic principles. At the center of these principles is the hitherto overlooked epistemological Enlightenment architecture - ideas of method, progress and historicism - that undergirds the production of knowledge. The idea of method claims that a subject-object split procedure will produce universal, neutral and objective knowledge; progress is understood as sociocultural development, historical learning and moral political progress; and historicism is the idea that to understand anything it has to be seen both as a unity and in its historical development. These arguments raise questions, not only about academic freedom, but more importantly academic democracy (the right to participate in academic/knowledge decision-making) and epistemic freedom (the right to think and produce knowledge from various epistemic sites (Mazrui 1978, Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). Connecting African Studies and Religious Studies, I argue that how scholars developed theories and defined ‘religion’, in relation to Africa, did not dispassionately describe ‘religious reality’, but rather reflected and reinforced the presuppositions of those with the power to make such proscriptions. The paper draws on decolonial intellectual cultures, movements and philosophies such as pluriversality (Mignolo 2018), deprovincialization (Chakrabarty 2007), convivial scholarship (Nyamjoh 2017) and ecologies of knowledge (Santos 2014) to show the implications of the modern processes of producing knowledge, not only on the development of science, but also on dealing with societal challenges such as climate change, peace and development, inter alia, in Africa.

Joram Tarusarira is an Assistant Professor in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.


05 Isabel Eiser: Control and Accessibility of Knowledge Stocks. Newspaper Archives as Material Sources for a Digital Analysis on the Discourses on the ‘Benin Bronzes’ in Nigeria, Great Britain and Germany

At this Panel at VAD 2021 I will present the current research status of my PhD thesis entitled “Becoming an Emblem. From Colonial Propaganda to Decolonial Movement. A Discourse Analysis on the ‘Benin Bronzes’”. By showcasing an initial structural analysis of the Nigerian and British discourse, this presentation will illustrate how a digital discourse analysis as a methodological approach can lead to a ‘decolonial’ approach that produces knowledge that goes beyond a merely European discourse reproduction. The Corona pandemic and the resulting limited access to archival records highlights the need for digital and barrier-free access to knowledge archives. The vast material basis of British and Nigerian archival records that should have been collected between February and September 2020 in Nigeria and London could not be gathered to a large extent due to the cancelation of the trip by the outbreak of the pandemic. In addition to this development, this paper will also reflect on experiences gained with analogue and digital newspaper archives with focus on the accessibility to archival records from Nigeria, Great Britain and Germany will by critically reflected upon.

Isabel Eiser is a doctoral student in global history at the research center „Hamburg’s (post-)colonial legacy“ at the University Hamburg.


06 Anais Angelo: Decolonising and Africanising the history of presidentialism in postcolonial African countries

While African presidencies became the almost exclusive territory of (western) political scientists, the general public became familiarized with a caricatured vision of presidential powers. Media coverage, films and literature portrayed African presidents as power-hungry at best, or bloody megalomaniacs at worst, a picture once again eluding the historical origins of the extreme concentration of executive powers into the hands of the presidents. The success of a film such as The Last King of Scotland (2006) or, more recently the wide broadcasting of Trevor Noah’s sketches of Donald Trump as “America’s African President” (2015)are but meaningful examples of how “larger-than-life, exotic characters such as Amin“ (Ugandan dictator from 1971 to 1979) are used to either scare or amuse a (white) audience, while African politics remain “too difficult to get to grips with”, to use David Calhoun’s words (2007). The discourse is not only polarized along lines of race. Archetypes of African presidents also are portrayed by African novelists such as Ahmadou Kourouma in En Attendant le Vote des Bêtes Sauvages or Nugi wa Thiong’o in The Wizard of the Crow, respectively depicting presidents as hypermasculine, violent leaders or as so infatuated with themselves that their bodies expand to the point of being at risk of blowing up.

This paper argues for the need to trace the origins of presidential powers, so as to depart from narratives of colonial legacies and exaggerated archetypes of African presidents, and open new avenues for the conceptualization of both the decolonization process and the formation of postcolonial states in Africa. Building on the research I have conducted for my book Power and the Presidency in Kenya: The Jomo Kenyatta Year (Cambridge University Press 2020), I will shown how thorough archival research on presidential powers can refine the conceptualization of the decolonization process and state formation in postcolonial Africa.

With this paper, I will reflect on the methodology and new questions a historical approach entails for the study of presidential powers in African postcolonial states and emphasize the necessity not to take presidential powers for granted but to ask, instead, why, when and how they emerged.  I will first show how an interdisciplinary dialogue between political science and history can open new avenues for research on African presidentialism. I will then show how retracing the history behind presidential powers necessarily calls for a reconceptualization of narratives on decolonization and postcolonial state formation. Finally, I will consider the ways in which archives, despite their apparent unevenness or incompleteness, can reveal both a president’s style of ruling but also the boundaries of presidential powers. I will conclude by emphasizing the importance of writing the history of presidents and presidential power, to further decolonize narratives of state building, to empower African elites as historical actors, and to enable African citizens to reclaim their own (presidential) history.

Anais Angelo is a post-doctoral researcher in African Studies at the University of Vienna. 


07 Rose Kimani: Can participatory research transcend knowledge dichotomies? Some Reflections

As a researcher located in Africa and researching on Africa, one finds themselves embroiled in specific processes and practices of knowledge production. Depending on one’s institutional affiliation and location on the continent, one may find themselves in a setting where particular methods are deemed more ‘scientific’ (quite often quantitative methods), than other methods (often qualitative methods). There is little deliberate effort to encourage methodological or theoretical innovation, and western scientific theories and methods are often regarded as a form of 'received knowledge' that cannot be challenged, tweaked or maybe even downright wrong for the context. On the other hand, rural Africa is the home of numerous development projects, often premised on the modernization idea that those on the ground lack the knowledge and resources that they need to make better choices for their ‘development’.  In such settings the researcher is positioned as a knowledgeable outsider whose role is to ‘bring out’ emic perspectives. However, this begs the question:  how accurately can a researcher foreign to the researched community interpret what they have heard, observed and experienced during their research in a way that truthfully represents the views of the people researched on? Does a researcher have the right to attempt to play that role in the first place? Some schools of thought both on and off the continent advocate for participatory research as a way of balancing out development research settings. Participatory research aims to posit the researcher not as an expert investigating non-experts, but rather, as a co-producer of knowledge with the people and institutions where the research is being carried out. Ideally, in participatory research, all voices are valorized and treated with equal weight, and each has the power to shape the course and outcomes of the research. However, while recommended on paper, such research is not so straightforward to implement. It runs the risk of merely ending up as a reflection of the researcher’s unique standpoints and biases and continuing power imbalances, rather than as a truly democratic research process that incorporates all voices and knowledges. Challenges when conducting research as an outsider to a physical locale include how to best identify respondents, how to ensure that all voices are heard and taken into account, how to communicate respectfully all round, and how to distinguish ‘genuine’ from instrumentalized research participation and contributions. Theoretically, the idea of ensuring a climate of reciprocity, respect and inclusiveness should be at the back of the researcher’s mind. However, research contexts are not homogenous and neither are they free from prior influences and power structures. Grasping and navigating these structures and influences, and accessing those who do not have a voice in that setting and taking their views into account is not straightforward. This paper aims to reflect on the pitfalls in trying to implement participatory research, and on the ways in which a researcher could seek to have a more egalitarian research process. The reflections draw on research carried out in Kenyan community radio stations between 2014 and 2017.

Dr. Rose N. Kimani is a lecturer in Journalism and Mass Communication at Chuka University, Kenya.


08 Lyn Ossome: Feminist interdisciplinarity and decolonial possibilities in the study of violence

The thematic question of violence is a primary lens through which the colonized world has been understood and theorized, and is a major one in feminist studies, with the range of insights reflecting the diversity of disciplinary fields through which the scholarship has sought to understand its nature. The methodological lenses through which violence is theorized mandate the ways in which violated subjects appear: on the one hand as ‘proper’ subjects of history (the modern Western subject), and on the other, as ‘problem people’ (the colonial modern subject). While much feminist scholarship critiques the latter position, methodological approaches to feminist studies of violence remain incarcerated within the disciplines, with the risk of reproducing the biases and violence inherent in the disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is thus increasingly proffered as a sublation of this impasse. A number of related questions arise in this regard: first, what is it that a specifically feminist intervention contributes to the study of violence? What possibilities does feminist interdisciplinarity present to studies of violence as a social problem – that is, locating it within the historical structures, conditions and institutions which structure social life as a whole – as such linking gendered subjectivities concretely to the social worlds that produce them? This paper is concerned with feminist interdisciplinary interventions into the problem space of violence, and more specifically, with particular insights that might emerge from an interdisciplinary approach in which the (gendered) subject of violence is simultaneously understood from multiple vantage points. How might such an approach reflect the question of decolonization as a feminist imperative in the study of violence? Which specifically feminist interventions into studies of violence might we identify as responding to the colonizing force of the disciplines, and thus as decolonial interventions? And what might a feminist critique of violence illuminate in relation to the structures, conditions and institutions that produce violable subjects?

Lyn Ossome is a senior research fellow at Makarere Institute of Social Research, Makarere University. She is the author of the book “Gender, Ethnicity, and Violence in Kenya’s Transitions to Democracy: States of Violence”.

June 8 @ 10:30
10:30 — 14:00 (3h 30')

Zoom Room 1

Alzbeta Sváblová, Diana B. Kisakye, Serawit B. Debele

Export to private calendarAdd to my timetable

    Your bookmarks
    No bookmarks