Western Research Is Failing Africa

Article excerpt

Africa is a source of great interest to researchers. It is favoured as a place in which to do research, almost as an experimental laboratory for social as well as natural scientists.

In the 21st century, questions of poverty, development, governance and globalisation are still asked about Africa. Researchers are often based elsewhere though increasingly there are many researchers who are based locally.

While research is to be welcomed, its purpose has often been questioned. Is research really being conducted for the benefit of Africa's population or its environment, or is it simply being used to perpetuate the status quo?

In response to this justifiable concern a whole genre of social-scientific work has emerged.

It addresses the social experience of the world "periphery" - that is, the majority world - giving it more genuine attention than it received before in scholarship that currently dictates sociological orthodoxy.

Most of the new research still theorises through categories developed in the metropole, the rich, capital-intensive, high-energy economies of the global North.

Much of this work is excellent social science. Recent works, for example, have applied metropolitan debates about the state to reflect on industrialisation and have used queer theory to survey the turbulent politics of global sexuality.

This work, however, is still thinking from the metropole.

Social science built in this way still follows the colonialist model of knowledge, critiqued by the philosopher from Benin, Paulin Hountondji. Data collection and practical application of science occur in the periphery, but the crucial step of theorising occurs in the metropole.

To change this pattern requires a change in expectations, both in the North and the South, which needs a willingness to attend to the intellectual production of the periphery.

There are material obstacles, as well as attitudes, to change. For one thing, books published in the periphery rarely circulate in the metropole, and hence to other parts of the periphery.

What might change the default attitude of social scientists (in both metropole and periphery) so that it is the intellectual production of the metropole that has to be attended to?

There are some very prominent intellectuals from the periphery who have gained recognition in the metropole and a degree of worldwide fame. Paulo Freire, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Samir Amin, and Amartya Sen are among those important to the social sciences.

This is certainly a long step forward from complete disregard; yet the presence of a few prominent figures is still far short of what we need. Such a group can easily be marginalised, indeed are usually seen as practitioners of a kind of regional specialty - "post-colonial studies" or "development economics". Metropolitan science is excused from taking their concerns into its central conceptual work.

The failure of mainstream social science to pay attention is strikingly shown in theories of "globalisation" in the last two decades.

Although they set out to talk about the world as a whole, almost none of the hundreds of books and thousands of articles on globalisation take the intellectual production of the majority world into account.

Mainstream sociology, ironically, has theorised globalisation mainly by projecting its pre-existing analyses of metropolitan society onto a global scale.

Themes and problems that become prominent in the social analyses of the periphery are often less central and sometimes very muted in the social science of the metropole.

Colonialism is, in this regard, the most obvious example.

Africa cannot avoid confronting problems around colonialism and the post-independence forms of subordination and marginality.

Themes that flow from this reality include: the experience of loss, and the un-making of institutions and social orders; discontinuous time, and the carrying forward of rupture into post-colonial social order; the significance of the land in social structure; the social machinery that allows rich countries to perform the function of global metropole; the replication of the North's governmental and epistemological apparatus within the social relations of the periphery; the emergence of new social actors in struggles with - and inside - this social machinery. …