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African academics face a huge divide between their real and scholarly selves

Too much of what we know about Africa is still coming from outside the continent. Shutterstock

This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society

African scholarship on Africa is operating at only a fraction of its true potential. It is hampered by the preferences, policies and politics of the Western academy. There are three reasons for my assertion.

The first relates to the poor state of knowledge about African economics and politics. Western academics tend not to focus on generating accurate information, instead using datasets to infer causal associations on a highly abstract level. But these datasets are actually far too weak for any such conclusions to be drawn.

Secondly, the structure of academic rewards and careers systematically disadvantages those who do not have the skills or capacities for this kind of high-end quantitative endeavour or have serious misgivings about it. This causes severe dissonance between actual lived experience and the academic work that is validated by universities.

Finally, there’s what I call “Occidentalism” in theory and policy. This ascribes a cogency to the West’s intellectual and cultural products that doesn’t exist. Quite simply, the Western experience of state formation remains the standard against which the rest of the world is indexed.

1. A dearth of data

Too much social scientific “fact” about Africa is actually fiction because it is not based on real data.

In his recent book, Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong, Morten Jerven argues that the economic data used for studying African econometrics are highly unreliable. Econometricians have tried to compensate for this deficiency by using sophisticated statistical techniques. For instance, economists have spent much time and effort trying to explain the supposed African chronic growth deficit. They take governance data from the late 1990s or early 2000s and use it to try to explain why Africa grew more slowly than the global average over the past 50 years.

But, as Jerven points out, cause should come first and effect later. A lack of data and of awareness about the data’s deficits led econometricians to make a simple error. They are trying to explain something that didn’t actually happen. Africa’s chronic growth deficit didn’t happen.

Instead – as everyone who lived on the continent at the time knows – African economies grew in the 1960s and early 1970s, stalled in the 1980s and early 1990s, then grew again, albeit in a different fashion. This isn’t a story of chronic slow growth but of boom, bust and boom again. There was a time-specific economic crisis that was deeper and more protracted in Africa than elsewhere in the world. That is what needs to be explained. African economies’ dominant feature is their extremely high sensitivity to global economic conditions.

That conclusion would lead to radically different economic policy prescriptions at the World Bank and other international financial institutions and donors.

2. What knowledge is valued

The structure of academic careers needs serious attention and reform. Consider the biases in academic reward and promotion. Teaching is undervalued. Peer-reviewed publication is rewarded, particularly if it appears in high-ranking journals that prefer certain methodologies and questions. Those methods are typically quantitative. They build beautiful castles in the air or palaces on foundations of sand.

This career structure marginalises African scholars. Supervisors in foreign universities rarely have the subject matter expertise, so they tend to guide students towards more theoretical approaches. Examiners and peer reviewers likewise reward and reinforce their own disciplinary biases. On the other hand, it is common to see junior Western scholars doing rather uninteresting quantitative studies or superficial case studies. Despite their shortcomings these studies are published. These scholars, then, become the group that undertakes peer review.

The African scholar of political science may be compelled to adopt a schizoid personality. To become an academic in a Western university she or he may be obliged to unlearn important knowledge, and learn frameworks and skills that are actually irrelevant to the situation at hand but are necessary for being considered a professional academic.

3. Occidentalism

Western scholars have long exoticised eastern and, by extension, African societies. “Occidentalism” is the inverse of this.

One prime example of Occidentalism is the concept of “the state”. Historians and anthropologists have tried to problematise this concept, but it carries with it a strong teleology: a one-way process of state formation and state-building. It is a process of turning robber barons to landowner barons to constitutional government, moving from a traditional patronage-based political order toward theorist Max Weber’s definition of a state. This is essentially an imitation of a north-west European state, or France or the US. These are all countries that established their modern statehood at the zenith of imperialism.

The rise of Asia will definitely challenge this. There will be a diversity of destinations for the consolidation of governance, sharing only the common factor of international recognition. This diversity reflects the fact that most countries’ vernacular doesn’t contain a word for “state” but rather for power, authority, government, the regime of the day and so on.

It is the same in Africa: political vernaculars have words for many things, but if we are to talk about “states” it must be in English or French, in the domain of scholarship or the practice of international law and international relations.

Occidentalism also occurs in policy engagement. Analysis is shaped to suit the audience, and scholars end up speaking their language. Rather than evidence-based policy, there is policy-based evidence-making. The paradigm of this is engaging with western governments, the World Bank or the United Nations. Much of the policy-related discourse on good governance, post-conflict reconstruction and development takes place in a fantasy land that exists only in the minds of international civil servants.

Towards an African scholarship

Everything I have said does not lessen the need for rigor. To the contrary, it is more difficult to produce first-rate scholarship by being true to the realities of this continent than it is to slot into the established track.

Generating accurate data about African economies, conflicts and political systems is hard. It is harder than pretending that the datasets which actually exist are good enough. It requires doing fieldwork, gathering information in a thorough and painstaking way.

Writing and publishing good quality, fact-heavy accounts of African realities is also not easy. Detailed accounts of what is actually happening don’t fit neatly into 5,000- to 8,000-word journal articles. The market for books is very small, so that there is not much chance of publishing the kinds of local histories or detailed political memoirs that are commonplace in Europe.

Constructing frameworks for explaining how societies actually function is intellectually demanding. It involves challenging the dominant frameworks and replacing them with better ones.

I am confident that these things will happen and, as they do, that scholars in Africa will feel less divided between their real and their scholarly selves.

This article is based on a keynote address that the author delivered to the 2015-2016 cohort of Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows during the fellowship workshop held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in partnership with the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University.

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