22.- 25.9

Seeing like a space: A methodological challenge for African Studies

Susann Ludwig, University of Leipzig
Julia Büchele, University of Basel


24/09/20 11 – 12.30 pm Room 1.812 (Casino building)


Short abstract:

This panel explores the methodological challenge of a spatial perspective and seeks to go beyond the dichotomies such as urban and rural, center and periphery, global and local. How can we see like a space? And how does such a perspective challenge established concepts within African Studies?

In seeing like a state, Scott analyses state’s vision as patterns of simplification designed to address concrete problems. In seeing like a city, Thrift and Amin foreground complexity and operationalize it as a pattern to investigate how cities work and think. Seeing has been proposed as a tool in different fields and we wish to develop such a tool for seeing like a space. We do so in an attempt to account for the making and unmaking of spaces. Thus, in seeing like a space, we single out just one aspect, i.e. space, and ask: What does this enable us to see? What does this perspective allow us to account for?

In this panel, we wish to go beyond the dichotomies of urban and rural, center and periphery, global and local or open space and particular place. Instead, we approach the spatial lens as a methodological challenge in African Studies. For instance, how can we get to an understanding of the dynamics of “becoming” of spaces or how can we methodologically grasp the connections between and within spaces towards thinking with space space? In short: How can we see like a space? And to what extend does that allow us to productively challenge established concepts of Africa in the world and the world in Africa?

We invite papers from various disciplines in African Studies that take up and explore the challenge of space both phenomenologically and methodologically.


The ascription of meaning to social realities is done from diverse disciplinary perspectives, which makes meaning multidimensional. This study proposes an approach to understanding this multi-dimensionality using the Yoruba “talking drums” known as the gángan.

The gángan imitates the tri-tonal pitches of the Yoruba language. This enables it to, literally, talk. While past studies have focused on its aesthetics, rituals and its communicative role among Yoruba, sufficient attention has not been paid to the methodological principle of interpretation derivable from the actual drumming of the gángan. In filling this gap, two Yoruba proverbs are carefully selected for critical analysis. The criteria for selection are that one has “gángan” as a component, while the other has “àyàn”, Yoruba term for a professional talking-drummer, as a component. The proverbs are: (a) Ohun tó k’ọjú sí ẹnìkan, ẹhìn ló kọ sí ẹlòmíràn bì ìlù gángan (what, to one, is a face, is, to another, a back); and (b) Kò s’ẹni tó mọ èdè àyàn bí ẹni tó mú kọǹgọ ìlù l’ọwọ (No one understands the language of a talking-drummer as the drummer himself/herself).

The first proverbs describes both the physical structure of the gángan and the contents of its messages. Both from its physical structure and the message passed through it by the àyàn, the gángan projects the idea that multiplicity of perspectives is the order of meaning. This suggests that, to every issue, there are possibilities of multiple perspectives. The second proverb, however, cautions that not all perspectives to an issue have equal worth in terms of their representations of the issue in a proper light. In spite of the possibility of different perspectives to an issue, certain perspectives are to be taken more seriously than the others.

Demonstrating the first proverb, the study will analyse ten messages of the gángan drum, purposively selected from my interactions with two professional gángan drummers, one of them an artiste-in-resident with the Department of Music, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, while the other is an àyàn from the gángan professional drummers’ family in Oyo town, Oyo state, Nigeria. In analysing these messages, the study’s primary objective is to reveal how individual interpretation is influenced by certain information at the disposal of the interpreter, being here referred to as the epistemic exposure of the interpreter. The over-all aim of this study, therefore, is to argue that, in African studies, interpretation of data should be seen as a collaborative venture between, or a synthesis of, the representations of the original creator of the interpreted work, and the creative imagination of the interpreting scholar, which is a product of the work’s aspect to which he/she is epistemically exposed.

Babalola Joseph Balogun is a philosopher at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife; Nigeria.

This paper seeks to investigate how scales are discursively constructed and referred to in conflicts over mining. In an empirical analysis of conflicts over gold mining in Burkina Faso—a paramount example of the recent commodity boom and its pervasive socio-economic effects—the relevance of scalar constructions, notably of the ‘local’, is explored. It starts from an understanding of the global and the local as constitutively related to one another. The principal question, therefore, is not whether global processes such as the commodity boom result in contentious political action, but rather how they are related to collective social action on the local scale.

Based on an empirical study, this paper seeks to contribute to research on ‘glocal’ conflicts; that is, the ways in which global structures and processes relate to local collective action. The paper intervenes in the debate on scale in the study of contentious politics by suggesting that global–local relations are not restricted to scale-jumping and re-scaling by actors in socio-political conflicts. Drawing on Georg Towers’ (2000) conceptual differentiation between ‘scales of regulation’ and ‘scales of meaning’, it is argued that scalar ascriptions and discourses as such are already an integral part of conflicts and protests. This applies even when conflicts are not specifically characterised by shifts between different scales of political power and institutional arrangements. In the case of mining-related conflicts in Burkina Faso, the scale of regulation is hardly challenged; rather, conflict actors contest the scale of meaning, particularly the notion of the ‘local’.

Bettina Engels is junior professor empirical conflict research Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

In the 1950s, Casablanca’s slums became the birthplace of a new ideology of organizing space and people. Treating the Moroccan colony as a blank slate, whose history of contact with Europe was wilfully ignored, a group of young colonial technocrats transformed the city’s margins into a canvas for utopian, modernist fantasies. As their main laboratory for experimentation with new planning and housing forms, they chose the neighborhood of Hay Mohammadi (formerly Carrière Centrale).

Built on the gaping holes of a colonial era quarry and home to North Africa's once oldest and largest slum, the neighbourhood holds a mythical status for its role in the anti-colonial struggle. During the political violence that defined the post-independence period, it came to house one of Morocco's most infamous underground torture and detention centers, while more recent structural adjustment reforms have left behind decaying infrastructure and disenfranchised spaces.

Given its layered history, the neighbourhood's socio-geographical space has been subjected to a plethora of conflicting and competing architectural, administrative, heritage, political, and social discourses, representations, and (unfinished) interventions. Neither fully urban nor rural, modern nor traditional, both planned and unplanned, this Casablancan space challenges facile assumptions and analyses rooted in the historiography of the African and Middle Eastern city.

Drawing on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Casablanca (2013-2014), that combined participant-observation with archival and multi-modal methods, in this paper I will discuss three intersecting methodological objects: a colonial urban housing plan, a collection of collaboratively drawn maps, and a gameboard. My aim is two-fold: Firstly, by drawing on these varied, historically, socially, and politically situated objects, my intention is to offer a corrective to the ways in which contested North African spaces have and continue to be conceived and addressed by various actors. Secondly, by wrestling with the challenges that such vantage-points of/from space throw up for the researcher, I hope to contribute to a more nuanced, but methodologically robust understanding of what it means to think and see as a space more generally, and as a North African space more specifically.

Cristiana Strava is University Lecturer in Anthropology and Islamic Studies at Leiden University; the Netherlands.