Anthropological Historical Research in Africa: How Do We Ask?

By Drønen, Tomas Sundnes | History In Africa, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Anthropological Historical Research in Africa: How Do We Ask?


Drønen, Tomas Sundnes, History In Africa


The appeal of history to us all is in the last analysis poetic. But the poetry of history does not consist of imagination roaming at large, hut of imagination pursuing the fact and fastening upon it. That which compels the historian to "scorn delights and live laborious days" is the ardour of his own curiosity to know what really happened long ago in that land of mystery which we call the past.1

I

This paper is about qualitative research methods, and thus more about hard labor than about poetry and imagination. But to those scholars to whom the above citation gives meaning there is a clear connection between hard labour, imagination and poetry. As scholars, we are looking for facts, and looking for facts can be hard work. As scholars, we also know that facts must be ascribed with meaning in order to become sources, a process of interpretation which demands both imagination and poetry.

I will present some of the challenges we face when doing anthropological historical research in Africa, and I will argue that the tools of qualitative methods will have to be sharpened and modified with this particular goal in mind. The main aim will be to discuss how we can acquire information in an African setting by analyzing the role of the interview as a communicative event. Other important topics to be treated are African oral tradition, the culture and tradition (the metacommunicative competence) of the respondents, and their use of metaphors to convey meaning. My approach to the discipline of history will also need some further introduction, and this will be the starting point of our journey into this mysterious landscape called qualitative methods.

II

The traditional (or conventional) modernist historian's project has been to write history "wie es eigentlich wesen" (Hansen 2000:3). The main problem of the historian has been to find the historical sources available, and once found, to evaluate them critically. The historian, unlike the sociologist, has not been able to "create" her own sources, for instance by faceto-face surveys. The academic approach has focused on the originality, authenticity, credibility, and validity of the sources, and historians investigate who has produced the sources, and why they were produced (Dahl 1973:48). But parallel with this conventional historical approach a more loosely connected tradition, often called "cultural history," has emerged. This tradition has promoted a somewhat different focus from the conventional historians, focusing on the under-privileged, on sub-cultures, and on the encounter of cultures (Kjeldstadli 1989:51). As to the naming of this tradition, no consensus has been reached. Cultural history has been mentioned, but the recent movement is towards the methods used in anthropology and the labels used vary according to the content of the academic work. Kjeldstadli (1989) talks about historical anthropology, Robert Darnton (1986) about the symbolic element in history, and Peter Burke (1997) about anthropological history. Maybe the most precise thing we can say about this subject is that it concerns scholars of both history or anthropology who use methods from both disciplines (Kjeldstadli 1989:50).

To accentuate the necessity of qualitative methods in this approach to the discipline of history, I will in the following give a brief introduction to anthropological history, leaning on Burke's presentation in his Varieties of Cultural History. Burke introduces the topic by stating that in a time of fragmentation, specialization, and relativism, a cultural approach to history has become even more necessary, and that this is the reason why scholars from several disciplines from literary criticism to sociologists have been turning in this direction (Burke 1997:191-92). Several new approaches have been utilized by historians; focus on the importance of symbols, "close reading" of texts, and semiotics. The use of symbols, and especially the interpretation of symbols, has been much debated among historians. …

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Anthropological Historical Research in Africa: How Do We Ask?
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