Monday, 4 July 2011

A thought about the marginality of African studies…

My good friend Paul Fean has always told me that in academic life, one must find one’s ‘tribe,’ that elusive group of scholars that will make one feel happiest and most inspired. As in other things, happiness isn’t just a matter of increasing one’s own individual utility but of being part of a community. This is very much how I live out my academic life. I cannot work without a tribe around.

I have been to quite a few different kinds of conferences over the duration of my PhD. As someone on the boundary of the ‘African’ and ‘Arab’ world and whose research concerns the nature of the ‘African state’, the utility and use of ‘social networks’ and the nature of communication and information structures, I have tried to find my tribe in many places. I have been to ‘Middle Eastern studies’, Sudan Studies, ‘Anthropology of Money’, ICT for Development, Microfinance, Education, Anthropology and this month, I finally went to an ‘African Studies conference: ECAS 4.

This was the best. I was on two panels, one on 'tribalism' and globalization/liberalization and one on ethnographic approaches to African states.

This was also the first time I had been to a conference with my department and it was also the first time I saw so many young ‘Sudan Studies’ people in one place (‘Sudan Studies’ conferences generally tend to include more senior academics)- but it was also the panels and the other papers from across Africa. I really ‘felt at home’ in ECAS.

To offer an example. When I attended WOCMES (World Congress on Middle Eastern Studies) last summer, I found almost no panels on corruption, statehood, unemployment, entrepreneurship/liberalization or even, politics. Whereas at ECAS (European Congress on African Studies), there were plenty of panels on corruption, statehood, entrepreneurship/employment- and lots and lots of papers on politics. How can two parts of the world produce such different research interests?

In some ways, I think this is partly due to sources of funding. While Africanists often complain that Africa is marginalized by academia and by the big disciplines like History, Sociology and to a lesser extent, Anthropology, I feel that this ‘marginality’ might actually be a source of strength for the discipline.

My biggest gripe with ‘Middle Eastern studies’ conferences has been the lack of political discussions (this will hopefully change now that the Tunisian and Egyptian youth have disturbed the obsession with religion, Israel and ‘culture’ as the dominant topics of the region). My biggest gripe with Development and especially, ICT/Microfinance conferences has been the fact that everyone really really wants mobile phones and microfinance to transform Africa. ICT4D also suffers from a bias that ICT is ‘measurable’ and therefore allows economists a renewed opportunity to look at economic growth in a numerical way. Other parts of the economy that are less ‘measurable’, are thereby not equally attractive to economists. There is therefore a strong sense of hopefulness behind much of this work that shields it from deeper discussions of political economy. You get the sense that the researchers need to show that their research is ‘helpful’ in order to secure further support and funding from mighty international organizations and governments.

Both of these ‘gripes’ are due to research funding. This has been made plainly clear over the past year. Show me the money Saudi Sheikhs and Libyan autocrats!

‘African studies’ as a discipline might be marginalized and it may not benefit from the patronage of rich state families but this marginality also provides a critical space within which scholars can study what they like.

I hope that Middle Eastern studies will change or perhaps the North African specialists would be wise to migrate and come join in more African studies arenas. We are ready to welcome you! We have been studying corruption, statehood and the effects of liberalization on politics for some time.

OK, now I must get back to finishing that draft!