Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Doing Conceptual History in Africa

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Doing Conceptual History in Africa

Article excerpt

Fleisch, Axel and Rhiannon Stephens. Doing Conceptual History in Africa. New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016. vii + 243 pages. Hardcover, $120.

Doing Conceptual History in Africa is a pioneering effort to apply the methods of conceptual history to the languages of Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa. The interdisciplinary contributions in this volume, edited by Axel Fleisch and Rhiannon Stephens, explore language as a historical source. In their introduction ("Theories and Methods of African Conceptual History"), Stephens and Fleisch note that "Conceptual history is about understanding discursive formations at a given point in time. It is about the prevalent views held and interpretations made by people at that time, including the expectations upon which they acted" (p. 16). The editors recognize the salience of the methodological tool of conceptual history and linguistics in pushing back into the history of a region beyond two centuries, even in the absence of extensive documentation. Given the pejorative notion that Africa had no history before its encounter with Europe, conceptual history and linguistics help to go beyond the divergence between postcolonial, colonial, and precolonial. Although the volume examines the application of conceptual history, the chapters offer various scope in tackling methodological challenges in analyzing categories like wealth, work, marriage, circumcision, land, Ujamaa, and decolonization.

In the first chapter, Stephens focuses on the concepts of 'wealth' and 'poverty' among Nilotic language speakers in Eastern Uganda from 1000 CE. There is a phenomenal diversity of words, according to Stephens, people use to talk about 'wealth' and 'rich person' and for 'poverty' and 'poor person' across the Eastern Nilotic and North Nyanza languages. She notes there are at least fourteen separate roots for poverty and poor person, including the following: lacking in cattle, pauper, has no home, not established, no women, misery, beggar, lives on others, etc. These terms suggest a distinguishing gradation of poverty. Contrastingly, there is no Eastern Nilotic term for 'wealth' or 'wealthy person,' but Stephens found diverse linguistic derivations that imply wealth: livestock, cattle, affluence, property, successful in business, luxury, riches, generosity, happiness, etc. Thus, a conceptual history approach reveals "the ways in which people have understood, and so have responded, to the rich and to the poor in their societies" (p.43).

Axel Fleisch and Anna Kelk Mager (Chapters Two and Three) track the concept of 'work' and 'labor' among Nguni-speaking communities (isiXhosa and isiNdebele) in Southern Africa. Conceptions of 'work' in colonial South Africa conflicted with indigenous values and notions of work in the cattle economy. Over time, with the cooption of indigenes in the sphere of missionary and colonial orbit through labor tax, Nguni terms such as ukusebenza and ukuphangela in their contemporary usages overlapped with precolonial notions and colonial experience of work (i.e. paid work in the modern sector).

Marne Pienaar (Chapter Four) discusses the contested domain of 'marriage' in Afrikaans. That there are three laws regulating marriage points towards a history of tension, dispute and varying practices in South Africa. The three conflicting ideas concerning marriage were linked to Christianity (monogamy), civil union, and polygyny. While South African law recognizes all three forms of marriage, the concept of 'marriage' remains contested among the Afrikaans speech community. …

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