Notes on researching Africa

Notes on researching Africa The research methods used to study Africa have changed radically over the last thirty years. In the 1970s, the vast majority of historical, political, and anthropological work on the continent was predominantly qualitative. Whilst theoretical influences were diverse, and reflected contemporary debates between liberals and realists, Marxists and pan-Africanists, much work in African studies was primarily empirical and mainly relied on archival, interview or directly observed material. Although there are some important exceptions, the majority of articles and books that were published and cited in these areas focussed on explaining one or two cases in depth on the basis of a long period of fieldwork. There are a number of reasons for this. The absence of quantitative analysis was not always out of choice but rather necessity: comparative data was limited in quantity and low in quality so Africanists were forced to collect their own. This was a lengthy and laborious process, and combined with limitations in the scope of the secondary literature, tended to make researching more than one or two countries logistically unfeasible. There has also been an element of impatience toward lengthy theoretical debates in some branches of African studies, with direct engagement in ‘the field’ valued over armchair theorising, given the urgency of the political challenges to be faced.1 In sum, as Nic Cheeseman has argued elsewhere, ‘It would probably be exaggerating things a little to say that to be a good Africanist in the 1980s was to be a good fieldworker, but … not by too much’.2 Today, the way that Africa is studied is very different no matter what discipline we look at. Within Political Science, quantitative approaches have become common and, in some universities, the norm. This includes broad cross-national comparisons using a combination of economic and political databases, survey research, and experimental methods such as the deployment of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Within History, the rise of global and comparative history, often written using secondary literature combined with a small burst of archive work, has moved the discipline away from a case study focus. In this sense, the discipline of History has become more comparative and has come to adopt a greater focus on the ‘global movement of people, goods and ideas.’3 Work done within this framework not only brings African states into conversation with each other, but with countries in other parts of the world. Within Anthropology, spending time on the ground is still prized above all else, but a number of new techniques have emerged to facilitate the process of understanding African societies and communities such as the use of film or online forms of communication, which were rare or absent in the 1980s. Within International Relations (IR) quantitative approaches have also become more common (especially in the US), drawing on datasets such as those provided by the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme or the World Bank and WTO, whilst qualitative IR research has tended to become more explicitly theoretical and draw upon insights from critical security studies, feminist theory, postcolonial literatures, and many others. Indeed, articles on African international relations are now quite likely to focus on discursive power relations using methods like textual analysis.4 The overall impact of these changes has been profound: with the exception of anthropology, it is now far less clear that to be a good Africanist is to be a good fieldworker. These changes are partially attributable to new technologies and greater funding available to researchers, along with changing fashions within academia and changing relationships between Africa and the west.5 In particular, the pressure to adopt new and more ambitious methodologies in order to publish in the best journals has generated a strong professional incentive to pursue methodological innovation. To take Political Science as an example, changes within African studies have been driven by the quantitative turn within American politics from the 1970s onwards, which gradually reshaped the discipline. Today, it is very rare for work to get published in the top ranking comparative politics journals such as the American Political Science Review unless it is seen to break new ground, which makes it harder for qualitative case studies to be accepted. New techniques have also been made possible by the greater availability of research funding, from universities, research councils and international donors, to pursue ambitious projects. For example, an ambitious research project on the impact of providing additional information about the performance of legislators on the political attitudes and behaviours of citizens in Uganda involved a number of costs: developing a scorecard to reflect the performance of MPs, collecting the necessary data, making it available to citizens, and measuring the consequences. Although the research was led by a team from Columbia University and Stanford University in collaboration with the African Leadership Institute in Kampala,6 it was heavily supported by the International Growth Centre – a research programme funded by the Department for International Development (DfID) of the UK government. As a result of these kinds of academic/policy collaborations, those working within Political Science have been given both the incentive and opportunity to pursue larger projects using more ambitious methods. To take a different sort of example from International Relations, funding provided by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) enabled a series of workshops and an edited book on ‘African agency’ led by Sophie Harman and William Brown in 2011–12.7 This interest in new ways in which African political actors were shaping global discourses (including through online social media) led Harman to a new research project which used film to create a novel form of representation for HIV positive women in Tanzania, supported by the AXA research fund.8 The impact of this project, including its potential global reach and online presence through facebook and blogs, was a core element of its rationale as a type of activist scholarship. It seems worlds away from the mainstream IR scholarship on Africa of the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, the extent of these changes should not be exaggerated. The trends described here are not uniform or linear, and have impacted on scholarship in some parts of the world more than others. On the one hand, there are examples of pioneering early work that operationalized methods such as survey research as early as the 1970s, such as Joel Barkan's research on the beliefs and behaviours of voters in Kenya and Tanzania.9 On the other, a great deal of research continues to be produced that builds upon more traditional forms of fieldwork or archival-based research. Academic work in some parts of Europe and within Africa itself has remained more immune to the quantitative turn within the United States, while the limited funding available to the university sector in Africa means that many of the methods now being employed by American researchers are simply unaffordable. Although the Afrobarometer survey project has done a great deal to increase the training available in survey techniques on the continent, and to make data freely available to African researchers,10 the vast majority of work produced and published on the continent in the areas of politics, international relations and sociology continues to be qualitative. Indeed, the majority of pieces published in Africanist journals – including African Affairs itself – continue to adopt a qualitative case study approach. These variations hint at some of the tensions that the methodological changes of the past thirty years have given rise to. The differences in the research methods and funding between Western and Africanist academia highlight the presence of severe global inequalities in the knowledge economy and raise a number of thorny important questions that those who work on Africa must confront. Is it ethical for western researchers to study Africa using techniques that are often out of reach for African-based scholars?11 Should we accept a situation in which very few Africans are publishing in the best cited journals?12 What are the responsibilities of non-African researchers to share their knowledge, skills and resources with African partners? If outside researchers are using African research assistance on the ground, how can they best make sure that this relationship is not exploitative or dangerous?13 Moreover, the questions raised by the evolution of research techniques are not just ethical. Many researchers remain sceptical of the value of the new methods that are being developed. To take the example of the increasingly quantitative and comparative nature of Political Science, serious questions have been raised about the quality of the data that some of this analysis is based on.14 There is also a risk that new research methods that allow people to conduct analysis using databases and surveys that they were not involved in compiling – while sitting at a desk thousands of miles away from the country that they are writing on – will lead to research that oversimplifies the reality on the ground.15 Taken together with the decreasing number of articles appearing in the top ranked journals by authors based in Africa, there is a real risk that some scholars from outside of the continent are missing out on rich local scholarship that is essential for a more rounded understanding. The idea that new ways of analysing the continent have created a greater distance between the researcher and the people they are researching is a particularly significant concern given the capacity of academic work to influence the arguments of other scholars, the media, and the policy making process. Thus, new research techniques may have helped to enrich our knowledge of Africa, but they have also created new controversies in terms of the nature and quality of the findings that they generate. It is to explore and discuss these controversies that African Affairs recently launched a new series of Research Notes to encourage debate and analysis of methodological and ethical issues in African studies, with a view to enabling researchers to share their experiences and to document and critique cutting-edge developments in the field. These are peer-reviewed publications of around 4,500 words in length that are intended to cover fresh trends and disputes, whether they be logistical, technical, or ethical. This virtual issue collects together the first four Research Notes published by African Affairs, which speak to some of the controversies highlighted in this introduction. It is intended that this will be an ongoing conversation, of use to and with pieces from emerging scholars as well as more experienced researchers. Please contact the journal editors (african.affairs.editors@googlemail.com) with suggestions for contributions. 1. Very different takes on this are provided in John Lonsdale, ‘African Studies, Europe, and Africa’, Afrika Spectrum 40, 3 (2005), pp. 377–402; and Adebayo Williams, ‘The postcolonial flaneur and other fellow-travellers: Conceits for a narrative of redemption’, Third World Quarterly 18, 5 (1997), pp. 821–41. See also Carl Death, ‘Governmentality at the limits of the international: African politics and Foucauldian theory’, Review of International Studies 39, 3 (2013), pp. 763–87. 2. Nic Cheeseman, ‘Understanding African politics: Bringing the state back in’, in Nic Cheeseman (ed.), Institutions and democracy in Africa: How the rules of the game shape political developments (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017), p. 3. 3. This trend is demonstrated by the rise of courses in Global History. This quote comes from the Centre for Global History at Oxford University, which was set up in June 2011. See <http://global.history.ox.ac.uk/> (30 August 2016). 4. See Rita Abrahamsen, ‘African studies and the postcolonial challenge’, African Affairs 102, 407 (2003), pp. 189–210; Ian Taylor, ‘Sino-African relations and the problem of human rights’, African Affairs 107, 426 (2008), pp. 63–87. 5. For one lament on the decline of fieldwork, see Mark Duffield, ‘From immersion to simulation: Remote methodologies and the decline of area studies’, Review of African Political Economy 41, 1 (2014), pp. 75–94. 6. Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy Weinstein, ‘Policing politicians: Citizen empowerment and political accountability in Uganda – preliminary analysis’ (IGC Working Paper, London, 2012), <http://www.theigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Humphreys-Weinstein-2012-Working-Paper.pdf> (30 August 2016). 7. See Will Brown and Sophie Harman (eds), African agency in international politics (Abingdon, Routledge, 2013) and http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/bisa-africa/african-agency/ (30 August 2016). 8. Sophie Harman, ‘PILI: HIV from the female perspective’, Huffington Post (UK), 27 July 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sophie-harman/pili-hiv-from-the-female-_b_11192502.html (25 August 2016). See also Sophie Harman, ‘Research note: Film as research method in African politics and international relations: Reading and writing HIV/AIDS in Tanzania’, African Affairs 115, 461 (2016), pp. 733–750. 9. Joel. D. Barkan, ‘Comment: Further reassessment of ‘conventional wisdom’: Political knowledge and voting behavior in rural Kenya’, American Political Science Review, 70, 2 (1976), pp. 452–5. 10. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. It was set up in 1999 by researchers at Michigan State University, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana. See http://www.afrobarometer.org/ (30 August 2016). 11. Amina Mama, ‘Is it ethical to study Africa? Preliminary thoughts on scholarship and freedom’, African Studies Review 50, 1 (2007), pp. 1–26. 12. See the debate on publication and citation rates for African-based researchers at http://blog.oup.com/2016/08/gender-location-african-scholarship/ (30 August 2016). 13. Christopher Cramer, Deborah Johnston, Carlos Oya, and John Sender, ‘Research note: Mistakes, crises, and research independence: The perils of fieldwork as a form of evidence’, African Affairs 115, 458 (2016), pp. 145–60. 14. Morten Jerven, ‘Research note: Africa by numbers: Reviewing the database approach to studying African economies’, African Affairs 115, 459 (2016), pp. 342–58. 15. For a discussion of how to avoid these risks when conducting original surveys, see Insa Nolte, Rebecca Jones, Khadijeh Taiyari, and Giovanni Occhiali, ‘Research note: Exploring survey data for historical and anthropological research: Muslim–Christian relations in south-west Nigeria’, African Affairs 115, 460 (2016), pp. 541–61. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png African Affairs Oxford University Press

Notes on researching Africa

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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
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Abstract

The research methods used to study Africa have changed radically over the last thirty years. In the 1970s, the vast majority of historical, political, and anthropological work on the continent was predominantly qualitative. Whilst theoretical influences were diverse, and reflected contemporary debates between liberals and realists, Marxists and pan-Africanists, much work in African studies was primarily empirical and mainly relied on archival, interview or directly observed material. Although there are some important exceptions, the majority of articles and books that were published and cited in these areas focussed on explaining one or two cases in depth on the basis of a long period of fieldwork. There are a number of reasons for this. The absence of quantitative analysis was not always out of choice but rather necessity: comparative data was limited in quantity and low in quality so Africanists were forced to collect their own. This was a lengthy and laborious process, and combined with limitations in the scope of the secondary literature, tended to make researching more than one or two countries logistically unfeasible. There has also been an element of impatience toward lengthy theoretical debates in some branches of African studies, with direct engagement in ‘the field’ valued over armchair theorising, given the urgency of the political challenges to be faced.1 In sum, as Nic Cheeseman has argued elsewhere, ‘It would probably be exaggerating things a little to say that to be a good Africanist in the 1980s was to be a good fieldworker, but … not by too much’.2 Today, the way that Africa is studied is very different no matter what discipline we look at. Within Political Science, quantitative approaches have become common and, in some universities, the norm. This includes broad cross-national comparisons using a combination of economic and political databases, survey research, and experimental methods such as the deployment of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Within History, the rise of global and comparative history, often written using secondary literature combined with a small burst of archive work, has moved the discipline away from a case study focus. In this sense, the discipline of History has become more comparative and has come to adopt a greater focus on the ‘global movement of people, goods and ideas.’3 Work done within this framework not only brings African states into conversation with each other, but with countries in other parts of the world. Within Anthropology, spending time on the ground is still prized above all else, but a number of new techniques have emerged to facilitate the process of understanding African societies and communities such as the use of film or online forms of communication, which were rare or absent in the 1980s. Within International Relations (IR) quantitative approaches have also become more common (especially in the US), drawing on datasets such as those provided by the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme or the World Bank and WTO, whilst qualitative IR research has tended to become more explicitly theoretical and draw upon insights from critical security studies, feminist theory, postcolonial literatures, and many others. Indeed, articles on African international relations are now quite likely to focus on discursive power relations using methods like textual analysis.4 The overall impact of these changes has been profound: with the exception of anthropology, it is now far less clear that to be a good Africanist is to be a good fieldworker. These changes are partially attributable to new technologies and greater funding available to researchers, along with changing fashions within academia and changing relationships between Africa and the west.5 In particular, the pressure to adopt new and more ambitious methodologies in order to publish in the best journals has generated a strong professional incentive to pursue methodological innovation. To take Political Science as an example, changes within African studies have been driven by the quantitative turn within American politics from the 1970s onwards, which gradually reshaped the discipline. Today, it is very rare for work to get published in the top ranking comparative politics journals such as the American Political Science Review unless it is seen to break new ground, which makes it harder for qualitative case studies to be accepted. New techniques have also been made possible by the greater availability of research funding, from universities, research councils and international donors, to pursue ambitious projects. For example, an ambitious research project on the impact of providing additional information about the performance of legislators on the political attitudes and behaviours of citizens in Uganda involved a number of costs: developing a scorecard to reflect the performance of MPs, collecting the necessary data, making it available to citizens, and measuring the consequences. Although the research was led by a team from Columbia University and Stanford University in collaboration with the African Leadership Institute in Kampala,6 it was heavily supported by the International Growth Centre – a research programme funded by the Department for International Development (DfID) of the UK government. As a result of these kinds of academic/policy collaborations, those working within Political Science have been given both the incentive and opportunity to pursue larger projects using more ambitious methods. To take a different sort of example from International Relations, funding provided by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) enabled a series of workshops and an edited book on ‘African agency’ led by Sophie Harman and William Brown in 2011–12.7 This interest in new ways in which African political actors were shaping global discourses (including through online social media) led Harman to a new research project which used film to create a novel form of representation for HIV positive women in Tanzania, supported by the AXA research fund.8 The impact of this project, including its potential global reach and online presence through facebook and blogs, was a core element of its rationale as a type of activist scholarship. It seems worlds away from the mainstream IR scholarship on Africa of the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, the extent of these changes should not be exaggerated. The trends described here are not uniform or linear, and have impacted on scholarship in some parts of the world more than others. On the one hand, there are examples of pioneering early work that operationalized methods such as survey research as early as the 1970s, such as Joel Barkan's research on the beliefs and behaviours of voters in Kenya and Tanzania.9 On the other, a great deal of research continues to be produced that builds upon more traditional forms of fieldwork or archival-based research. Academic work in some parts of Europe and within Africa itself has remained more immune to the quantitative turn within the United States, while the limited funding available to the university sector in Africa means that many of the methods now being employed by American researchers are simply unaffordable. Although the Afrobarometer survey project has done a great deal to increase the training available in survey techniques on the continent, and to make data freely available to African researchers,10 the vast majority of work produced and published on the continent in the areas of politics, international relations and sociology continues to be qualitative. Indeed, the majority of pieces published in Africanist journals – including African Affairs itself – continue to adopt a qualitative case study approach. These variations hint at some of the tensions that the methodological changes of the past thirty years have given rise to. The differences in the research methods and funding between Western and Africanist academia highlight the presence of severe global inequalities in the knowledge economy and raise a number of thorny important questions that those who work on Africa must confront. Is it ethical for western researchers to study Africa using techniques that are often out of reach for African-based scholars?11 Should we accept a situation in which very few Africans are publishing in the best cited journals?12 What are the responsibilities of non-African researchers to share their knowledge, skills and resources with African partners? If outside researchers are using African research assistance on the ground, how can they best make sure that this relationship is not exploitative or dangerous?13 Moreover, the questions raised by the evolution of research techniques are not just ethical. Many researchers remain sceptical of the value of the new methods that are being developed. To take the example of the increasingly quantitative and comparative nature of Political Science, serious questions have been raised about the quality of the data that some of this analysis is based on.14 There is also a risk that new research methods that allow people to conduct analysis using databases and surveys that they were not involved in compiling – while sitting at a desk thousands of miles away from the country that they are writing on – will lead to research that oversimplifies the reality on the ground.15 Taken together with the decreasing number of articles appearing in the top ranked journals by authors based in Africa, there is a real risk that some scholars from outside of the continent are missing out on rich local scholarship that is essential for a more rounded understanding. The idea that new ways of analysing the continent have created a greater distance between the researcher and the people they are researching is a particularly significant concern given the capacity of academic work to influence the arguments of other scholars, the media, and the policy making process. Thus, new research techniques may have helped to enrich our knowledge of Africa, but they have also created new controversies in terms of the nature and quality of the findings that they generate. It is to explore and discuss these controversies that African Affairs recently launched a new series of Research Notes to encourage debate and analysis of methodological and ethical issues in African studies, with a view to enabling researchers to share their experiences and to document and critique cutting-edge developments in the field. These are peer-reviewed publications of around 4,500 words in length that are intended to cover fresh trends and disputes, whether they be logistical, technical, or ethical. This virtual issue collects together the first four Research Notes published by African Affairs, which speak to some of the controversies highlighted in this introduction. It is intended that this will be an ongoing conversation, of use to and with pieces from emerging scholars as well as more experienced researchers. Please contact the journal editors (african.affairs.editors@googlemail.com) with suggestions for contributions. 1. Very different takes on this are provided in John Lonsdale, ‘African Studies, Europe, and Africa’, Afrika Spectrum 40, 3 (2005), pp. 377–402; and Adebayo Williams, ‘The postcolonial flaneur and other fellow-travellers: Conceits for a narrative of redemption’, Third World Quarterly 18, 5 (1997), pp. 821–41. See also Carl Death, ‘Governmentality at the limits of the international: African politics and Foucauldian theory’, Review of International Studies 39, 3 (2013), pp. 763–87. 2. Nic Cheeseman, ‘Understanding African politics: Bringing the state back in’, in Nic Cheeseman (ed.), Institutions and democracy in Africa: How the rules of the game shape political developments (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017), p. 3. 3. This trend is demonstrated by the rise of courses in Global History. This quote comes from the Centre for Global History at Oxford University, which was set up in June 2011. See <http://global.history.ox.ac.uk/> (30 August 2016). 4. See Rita Abrahamsen, ‘African studies and the postcolonial challenge’, African Affairs 102, 407 (2003), pp. 189–210; Ian Taylor, ‘Sino-African relations and the problem of human rights’, African Affairs 107, 426 (2008), pp. 63–87. 5. For one lament on the decline of fieldwork, see Mark Duffield, ‘From immersion to simulation: Remote methodologies and the decline of area studies’, Review of African Political Economy 41, 1 (2014), pp. 75–94. 6. Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy Weinstein, ‘Policing politicians: Citizen empowerment and political accountability in Uganda – preliminary analysis’ (IGC Working Paper, London, 2012), <http://www.theigc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Humphreys-Weinstein-2012-Working-Paper.pdf> (30 August 2016). 7. See Will Brown and Sophie Harman (eds), African agency in international politics (Abingdon, Routledge, 2013) and http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/bisa-africa/african-agency/ (30 August 2016). 8. Sophie Harman, ‘PILI: HIV from the female perspective’, Huffington Post (UK), 27 July 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sophie-harman/pili-hiv-from-the-female-_b_11192502.html (25 August 2016). See also Sophie Harman, ‘Research note: Film as research method in African politics and international relations: Reading and writing HIV/AIDS in Tanzania’, African Affairs 115, 461 (2016), pp. 733–750. 9. Joel. D. Barkan, ‘Comment: Further reassessment of ‘conventional wisdom’: Political knowledge and voting behavior in rural Kenya’, American Political Science Review, 70, 2 (1976), pp. 452–5. 10. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. It was set up in 1999 by researchers at Michigan State University, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana. See http://www.afrobarometer.org/ (30 August 2016). 11. Amina Mama, ‘Is it ethical to study Africa? Preliminary thoughts on scholarship and freedom’, African Studies Review 50, 1 (2007), pp. 1–26. 12. See the debate on publication and citation rates for African-based researchers at http://blog.oup.com/2016/08/gender-location-african-scholarship/ (30 August 2016). 13. Christopher Cramer, Deborah Johnston, Carlos Oya, and John Sender, ‘Research note: Mistakes, crises, and research independence: The perils of fieldwork as a form of evidence’, African Affairs 115, 458 (2016), pp. 145–60. 14. Morten Jerven, ‘Research note: Africa by numbers: Reviewing the database approach to studying African economies’, African Affairs 115, 459 (2016), pp. 342–58. 15. For a discussion of how to avoid these risks when conducting original surveys, see Insa Nolte, Rebecca Jones, Khadijeh Taiyari, and Giovanni Occhiali, ‘Research note: Exploring survey data for historical and anthropological research: Muslim–Christian relations in south-west Nigeria’, African Affairs 115, 460 (2016), pp. 541–61. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved

Journal

African AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Mar 6, 2017

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