Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa's Economic Past

By Austin, Gareth | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa's Economic Past


Austin, Gareth, African Studies Review


Abstract:

This article argues for constructive responses to the dominance, in the analysis of African economic history, of concepts derived from Western experience. It reviews the existing responses of this kind, highlighting the fact that some of the most influential ideas applied to African economies, past and present, have been coined in the context not of Europe or North America but rather of other relatively poor regions formerly under European colonial rule. These "Third World" contributions have been enriching for African studies, though they have been duly criticized in African contexts, in accordance with the usual scholarly pattern. It is argued here that the main requirement for overcoming conceptual Eurocentrism in African history, in the interests of a more genuinely "general" social science and "global" history, is reciprocal comparison of Africa and other continents-or, more precisely, of specific areas within Africa with counterparts elsewhere. Pioneering examples of such comparisons are reviewed and, to illustrate the possibilities, a set of propositions is put forward from African history that may be useful for specialists on other parts of the world. The article concludes with suggestions for ways in which Africanists can best pursue the project of reciprocal comparison, and with a plea for us to be more intellectually ambitious.

This article considers how Africanists, of various disciplines, can best respond to the continuing "conceptual Eurocentrism" in the study of African history: the reliance on analytical tools derived from reflections on European or, by extension, "Western" experience. At African studies seminars it is often remarked, and lamented, that one or another theory adopted by researchers on sub-Saharan Africa has been borrowed from the conceptual toolkit of scholars working on Europe or North America. What is worse, for historical understanding everywhere, is that this flow has not been reciprocated. Florence Bernault has summarized the situation starkly:

Aujourd'hui pas plus qu'hier, le continent [l'Afrique] ne parvient a s'imposer comme un foyer producteur de normes epistemologiques. Les concepts continuent de s'y imposer dans le seul sens nord-sud: c'est a qui brandira son Foucault, Gramsci ou Weber (Marx ayant temporairement disparu de la circulation) pour decortiquer l'histoire sub-saharienne, mais l'aller-retour fonctionne mal ou pas du tout. (Bernault 2001:128)1

Conceptual Eurocentrism exists at different levels of abstraction. Besides the elaborate explanatory and/or interpretive theories, there are specific tools of analysis which may be heuristically useful even to scholars unconvinced by the master frameworks to which they are linked (but upon which they are not necessarily dependent). Most basic to the working historian, for instance, are the received expectations about historical sequences. Whether it is the evolution of the nation-state or of intensive agricultural technology, what economists would call the "stylized facts" of Western history have influenced the questions historians of Africa have asked and the ways they have formulated their answers. This tendency, to be sure, is much less predominant than it once was: nation-states and agricultural technology are, indeed, two examples of subject areas that today display a growing historiographical autonomy-a point to which we will return. More generally, while no overarching social science theory with potentially universal claims has yet stemmed from Africa, the first half century of widespread professional scholarship on Africa has seen Africanists establish critical distance, and a degree of conceptual autonomy, from imported preconceptions, at least at the lower levels of abstraction.2 The main intention here is to examine, and contribute to, the next step: the formulation or identification of propositions from the study of Africa that demand critical appraisal in other geographical and historical settings. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa's Economic Past
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.