What’s Distinctive About Africanist Historiography?

Swarthmore has an elaborate system of Honors seminars. The basic premise of the system is that third and fourth year students participating in the system take four small, intensely focused double-credit seminars, three in a major subject, one in a minor subject. At the end of their time at Swarthmore, they take written and oral examinations in these subjects designed and given by experts in the field who are not faculty at Swarthmore.

I’ve always found it a very difficult challenge to design a syllabus for these seminars. I’d like to ensure that I’m not just teaching a proto-graduate seminar primarily aimed at students who will be going on to work on a Ph.D in history or anthropology: I want there to be some intellectual value in the seminar beyond knowledge of a canonical literature in my specialization. But I’ve had a hard time deciding what the appropriate framing of my specialization is to accomplish that purpose.

What I’ve settled on for the last decade and a half is a seminar focused on the history of colonial Africa, beginning roughly with the 1870s and concluding with contemporary Africa. Since I do not have a prerequisite course for the seminar, I get students with widely varying levels of prior knowledge of African history, and I have to teach the seminar with no presumptions on that score.

This is a basic pedagogical dilemma for Africanists in most institutions, with most kinds of courses. The central concept of the Honors program is that courses are being taught at an advanced, challenging level, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time just laying out a bare-bones sequential history of modern Africa. But this tends to lead to students who have some interesting, sophisticated things to say about the contradictions of indirect rule or the role of gender in colonial society but who are somewhat uncomfortable about the difference between Togo and Botswana.

It’s hard to redesign these syllabi because external examiners are often dealing with two years’ worth of students, and need to have a stable syllabus that applies to both groups equally. I’m in a “gap year” now, though, so my chance for a big overhaul has arrived. I’ve tended in the past to rely on a few big overview texts that I think have strong, interesting arguments and then to throw in a collection of books and articles that I find challenging or interesting, worth debating or discussing, with a relatively minimal organization. So, for example, two weeks on the social history of colonial Africa with a changing selection of required and extended readings.

I’ve been considering a classic strategy for redesign, which is either to go smaller, to the history of southern Africa, or to go bigger, to the history of the British Empire, with the hope of resolving the main focal point of the course discussions. One major axis of discussion has tended to be, “What’s empirically distinctive about the history of modern Africa?”, the other axis has been “How can we use African history to talk about the character, causes and consequences of modern imperialism or even of modernity in general?” The problem with the former discussion it is implicitly comparative in two ways: to premodern Africa and to other modern societies. The problem with the latter discussion is that it requires attention to theoretical and empirical debates about imperialism and modernity that aren’t limited to African examples.

The flaw with the “going smaller” approach is first that it potentially buys into the area-studies parochialism of African Studies. I don’t know that I want to solve the problem of comparison by abolishing comparison and taking a region of Africa as historically self-referencing. Second, there’s a practical problem. I’ve enjoyed inviting friends and colleagues who work on other regions of Africa to be examiners. Southern Africa locks me into a much smaller group of people (many of whom I like very much) which can just pose difficulties in terms of availability. On the other hand, however, I think I could get students to a point at the end of the semester where they were not only literate in high-level historiographical and analytical debates in this subfield, but very comfortable with concrete questions about who did what to whom at what date in which location.

The flaw with the “going bigger” approach is that it will accentuate that sense of vagueness about specificity save for a command over the history of empire as it developed in metropolitan Britain itself. E.g., I think I could get students in an Honors seminar to a point where they were very comfortable telling me about the impact of Gordon’s campaign in Sudan on British politics and on the later development of British imperialism, but at the cost of knowing little or nothing about the Mahdi or Sudanese society. Which is the classic trade-off of imperial history versus area-studies approaches to the colonial era of history in a particular region or place.


I’m close to settling back where I started, with a seminar that’s focused on colonial Africa as a whole. But I’d like to sharpen up the way the course is organized and see if I can’t work harder to give students in the course a comfort level with concrete knowledge of specific places, times and events.

In preparation for this redesign, I’ve been asking myself: what’s intellectually distinctive about African history as a field of scholarly knowledge? What questions has it posed in particularly interesting or compelling forms compared to the wider discipline of history? I really want to focus on one big theme of this kind rather than trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink in the mix, which has been more of my approach in the past. I come up with several possibilities. I’m thinking here of ways to organize the existing body of scholarly publication around debated or contentious propositions, not arguments which reflect my own sympathies or views.

1) The historiography of Africa is methodologically and/or epistemologically distinctive. Africanists have to think through problems of archival interpretation in creative ways, have to think about the status of oral narrative in new ways, have to grapple with debates about nomothetic and ideographic knowledge in a unique way, have distinctive issues with the validity of comparative or universal history, have to struggle with the “constructedness” of their field of knowledge in special ways.

2) The particular character of colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modern institutions in African history raises a distinctive range of questions for historians and anthropologists which has some comparative significance for understanding colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modernity in general.

3) The marginal or failed position of many African societies within contemporary global systems is a special challenge for many comparative or universal frameworks and requires historical investigation into the roots or causes of this marginality and thus to possible resolutions or addresses to these problems. (Or illuminates the extent to which all modernity is an incipient failure or in a state of unresolvable crisis, in some more pessimistic or critical frameworks.)

4) African societies (or some subset of African societies) have some distinctive material, cultural, philosophical character over their longue duree; studying the colonial era is just a way to focus an exploration of the particular character of African societies as they experienced new pressures from external forces and institutions.

This entry was posted in Academia, Africa, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What’s Distinctive About Africanist Historiography?

  1. brendankarch says:

    I don’t know if you’ve changed the title of the seminar since I took it, but I distinctly remember the name “Colonial Encounter” – and felt, at the time and in retrospect, that this was a really perfect description. Quite honestly, I had a negative visceral reaction to you turning this into an Empire in Africa course. I think the sacrifice in terms of knowledge about society beyond imperial boundaries would be too great. What I most enjoyed about the course was the pushback against unreflexive assumptions about the deep impact of Colonialism on African societies. I thought your course did a marvelous job of opening up to us some of the complexity in the colonial relationship(s); this is certainly what I most took from the class. I would hate to see you lose that.

    I think your questions also get to the role of a Swat honors seminar more broadly. I wouldn’t say that your seminar is an outlier in terms of the ratio of specific historical knowledge to theoretical debate. Other profs might tackle classic works in the field more methodically, while you tended toward newer, and in some cases quirkier, monographs, but in all cases the basic goal feels the same: to engage students in exciting historiographical debates in the field. In retrospect, I think perhaps this came slightly at the expense of robust historical knowledge, but this is a criticism that would apply to my other seminars as well. It’s also a criticism coming from a graduate student in history, so I can’t speak for the majority of students who have no direct academic engagement with the subject after their BA – but I might presume that they would take even more from a creative, debate-driven approach that comes slightly at the expense of specialist knowledge.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Still the same title, and yeah, I think the relationship between colonizers and colonized (which I think can be messed up sufficiently so that neither of those is a stable category) is also a good focal point, if a very unstable and shifting historiographical target to shoot at. I worry sometimes that I’m trying to question or subvert the historiography before you guys even get a feel for what’s being questioned.

    The whole Honors system has had a bit of an underlying problem ever since there stopped being solidly fixed canons in various specializations which one could reliably assume any external expert would know or rely upon.

  3. jpool says:

    This is good question and an interesting frame. Here’s my take on what’s interesting/distinctive about Africa’s experience of colonialism.

    Africa was the last major world region to undergo modern colonialism and experienced it over the shortest period of time. It also had less in the way of larger-scale political centralization than most other areas that went through 19th century colonization did. (Herbst, I think, badly misreads the character of colonialism by taking all of his examples from the early- and proto- periods — he is the anti-Crawford Young — but his argument about the organization of territory is very important.) This lead to a colonial experience that was more intensive in some areas and more scattershot over all.

    This is partly your #2, but also gets to the rapid institutional and social changes that Africans experienced/took part in. I don’t want to give in to modernization theory hand-waving, but I feel strongly that there is Something there in the argument that Africa went through economic and demographic changes in about 50 years that Europe went through in 200 or more, with real consequences for #3. (I think in particular of something like Jane Guyer’s “Representation without Taxation” essay, in terms of how post-colonial nations take on the form of modern states, but without the supporting institutions.)

  4. Profane says:

    I wonder how unique #1 really is? The following would, for example, work quite well:

    1) The historiography of early medieval Britain and Ireland is methodologically and/or epistemologically distinctive. Anglo-Saxonists and Celticists have to think through problems of archival interpretation in creative ways, have to think about the status of oral narrative in new ways, have to grapple with debates about nomothetic and ideographic knowledge in a unique way, have distinctive issues with the validity of comparative or universal history, have to struggle with the ??constructedness?? of their field of knowledge in special ways.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, I think every subfield in history could make a claim of methodological distinctiveness, but the specifics of that claim would vary somewhat from field to field, I think. Plus the claim is usually bound up in the particular history of that field of study–how old it is, its connections to other disciplines, its key texts.

  6. srd says:

    My first Africa course was in history and structured as historiography — taught by Chris Youe and using Bill Freund’s book as a basic framework. I’ve revised my opinions about some of it [although I still think the book is fabulous, I no longer think TOR is evil :)] But, I still find myself telling students things that I learned in that first course, even though I teach pol sci not history, and structuring my own courses around themes that originate from it. The historiographical approach captures some of the real strengths of African studies for making students think critically about methods, comparisons etc, especially in thinking about nationalism, ethnicity etc which are the real strengths of African studies. I don’t know if it is distinctive, but it has important lessons for other approaches, and is very useful pedagogically in helping us think about them in concrete ways.

Comments are closed.