Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

The Notion of the "Field" and the Practices of Researching and Writing Africa: Towards Decolonial Praxis

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

The Notion of the "Field" and the Practices of Researching and Writing Africa: Towards Decolonial Praxis

Article excerpt


Traditionally fieldwork involved journeys to the "field" far from home, possibly picturesque, probably small and rural, and very likely inhabited by people who bore little relation to home society, class, profession, or employing institution (Forsythe 2001). Although with the end of colonialism, with the reduction in funding for academic institutions, with increases in student enrolments and with difficulties in accessing the fields, there has been an increase in fieldwork at home (Munthali 2001), the notion of the "field" has been resilient. Fieldwork has been defined as the laborious agricultural tasks, though it has also come to designate the act of inquiring into the nature of phenomena by studying them at first hand in the environment, in which they naturally exist or occur (Georges et al 1980). Moreover, the notion of fieldwork also conjures up adventures (Gerber et al 2000) with the primary task being to "gather", to "collect" and to extract "raw data" from extreme environments, for subsequent analysis and processing back home (France et al 2015).

Thus, Africa as a "field" has, for centuries now, been considered to be a "magnificent natural laboratory" where animals and human beings can be examined in the laboratories of their natural environments (Tilley 2011: 1-2). Africa has been considered to be a region in which the human sciences: anthropology, archaeology, philology, psychology, and even racial science might flourish. It has thus been argued during the colonial era by Jan Hofmeyr thus: " Africa as nowhere else, the factors which constitute these problems can be studied both in isolation and in varying degrees of complexity and inter-relationship, that in Africa we have a great laboratory in which to-day there are going on before our eyes experiments which put to test diverse social and political theories as to the relations between white and coloured races" (Tilley 2011: 2).

The colonisation of Africa was thus imbricated with field research, colonial practices and theories of research fed into the imperial machine, enriching imperial and colonial administrators whose effectiveness depended on the availability of reliable information. Much as we have them in the contemporary era, African people were enlisted in their numbers as translators, research informants, and assistants: the researches were ultimately meant to assist the imperial projects across the swathes of the continent (Tilley 2011: 4). Thus, " It was largely field scientists-geographers, anthropologists, botanists, and specialists in medical geography-who took part in the partitioning of tropical Africa, and field research that informed many of the investigative projects that were part and parcel of colonial state building" (Tilley 2011: 13).

This continued imbrication of African research in the global matrices of power speaks to the broader issues of coloniality over which scholars in the Global South are increasingly gathering over. The increasing researches over Africa, particularly at a time when African governments have lost policy space to Northern donor organisations (Abbas 2009; Oya 2006) therefore necessitate a series of questions by African scholars.

One of the questions is that if research in the Global South is supposed to feed into policy making and implementation, into whose policy making and implementation are researches in Africa feeding since the implementation of neoliberal reforms that retrenched African states? The issue is that increasingly research over Africa is [like colonial research, continuing] feeding into policies of Northern donors, some of whom have arrogated and monopolised policy making over the continent. In other words, behind researches on the continent there are manifestations of global imperial designs and technologies of subjectivation which masquerade as emancipatory while in reality serving the perpetuation of coloniality (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2012). Thus research has increasingly become a tool for indirect rule via the invisible global matrices of power [into which research feeds] over Africa. …

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