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The Field of African Studies and Interdisciplinarity Part 1. Aims and results of Africanist research


Admission requirements

Free and compulsory for students enrolled in the RESMAAS program. Those from other MA programs may be admitted with prior registration (contact coordinator)


The course addresses the epistemology of African Studies (construction of knowledge in/on Africa) in a series of related themes that all researchers in Africa needs to know: (a) the imagery of Africa in different disciplines and the influences on/of images in the arts; b) the longue dur?of the ecology and economy of the African continent; © the persistence and history of the dichotomy of the “modern” and the “traditional” (d) armed conflicts and the state in Africa, (e) the study of society and environment in Africa and (f) local forms of knowledge in Africa. These themes will be illustrated on the basis of ongoing and recently completed research.

Module 1. Epistemology of African Studies.

1. Constructions of Africa in the social sciences and in the arts.
The first module introduces the field of Africanist studies by raising questions such as “What does it mean to do research and investigate/ acquire/ construct knowledge in / on Africa?” and “What is the role of interdisciplinarity in Africanist studies?”. Constructions of Africa are discussed through (video) images created in different disciplines and their styles of representation, such as the humanities, the social sciences and the biological sciences. The intertextuality of scientific and artistic images of Africa is further engaged by asking how far scientific images critically/uncritically shape the construction of Africa in the arts and vice versa. Understanding, applying and judging the various ways Africa was and is looked at throughout time is indeed a necessary element of knowledge of the nature and controversies of African Studies.
2. Language, cognition, and forms of knowledge in Africa
The lectures will focus on forms of knowledge and interpretation located in African languages and African philosofy. In the first part, attention is paid to the relationship between language, worldview, and cognition. In the second part, we look at ethnophilosophy i.e. indigenous knowledge and cultural norms.

Module 2. “Africa” and the historical processes that gave it its (appearance of) unity

The second module addresses images and meaning(s) of “Africa” and what were the historical processes that gave it its (appearance of) unity. The lectures scrutinize knowledge and understanding of various images of Africa through an analysis of (1) carthographic maps and of (2) accounts of slavery and colonial rule in the 19th and 20th century. The former part starts with what seem scientific images of map projection and then continues with the practice of projecting Africa, from Ptolemy’s map of Africa through maps from the voyagers of discovery and from the period of colonization until carthographic representations in the development era, which tend to follow uncritically previous representations. The latter part starts with analyses of the change in the image of Africa during the abolition of the slave trade, and continues with the ways in which colonial rule and the geopolitics of decolonization have produced the image of Africa that is used in African Studies today.

Module 3 The longue durée of Africa

Two issues will be addressed: the biological and social co-evolution, mainly concerned with West Africa, and with such matters as malaria, human genetics and farming systems; the notion of ‘wealth in people’ – that involves political power and political accountability, civic virtue and interdependence – as developed pre-colonially and transformed in various manners over time until the present.

Module 4 The persistence and history of the dichotomy of the “modern” and the “traditional”

The lectures will deal with various dimensions of the modern production of African traditionality, but will also venture to demonstrate that the modern-tradition divide is in itself a modernity’s construction that has its roots in Western academia as well. In addition, the lectures will demonstrate that a concept like ‘the African tribe’, usually regarded as ‘ traditional’ may have unexpected modern and dynamic dimensions, whereas the second lecture will critically address the tradition/modern dichotomy in the transnational and ‘global’ character of contemporary African religions

Module 5 The study of society and environment in Africa

There are important debates about the relation between society and natural resources in African Studies. It evolves around two issues: resources as the basis of economy and the intrinsic value of nature. 80% of the African population lives in rural areas and urban economies are dependent on agricultural activities. Important variables are ecology and climate. The intrinsic value of African nature has become part of important policies around mangement of resources: the installation of parks, Eco-zones and eco-tourism, around which a heated debate developed on the relationship between societies, their economies and nature.

Module 6 Africa’s armed conflicts: causes and possible solutions.

Africa’s armed conflicts: causes and possible solutions. The lectures and class will concern armed conflicts in Africa over the past 15 years. These are sometimes considered prime examples of a new type of war that is both postmodern (in the sense that it is not controlled primarily by armed forces organized by a state) and traditional (in the sense that it contains elements of very old conflicts). These and other points of view will be analysed. The lectures will also consider the ways commonly adopted by the international community for countering such conflicts.

Course objectives

The course provides students with insights into the various ways Africa was and is looked at throughout time. It makes them familiar with the nature and controversies of African Studies.



Mode of instruction

The course runs for six weeks, consisting of six weekly blocks. A block consists of a double lecturer on the Monday (13.30- 17.00) after which precise assignments are handed out to students. In workshop meetings (13.30-17.00) on Fridays the students give presentations on the basis of the assignments. They will draft a text of about three pages that serves as an aid-memoire for their presentation. Assignments will be different for MA students than for MPhil students.

Assessment method

Weekly assignments


Available for registered students.

Reading list

To be announced on Blackboard


Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Dr. Azeb Amha
Academic Coordinator
P O Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, NL
Tel. +31-71-527-3364