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The field of African Studies and Interdisciplinarity Part 2. Processes of Africanist research


In the first three modules, students are confronted with tangible cases of interdisciplinary methodology of research groups in and on Africa. Two of the cases are historical, while the others concern gamma-alfa intedisciplinary methodology or recent gamma-beta research collaborations in which the lecturers themselves have been involved. These examples illustrate how historically specific circumstances are of influence on research agenda’s, and how these agenda’s require the elaboration of new methods of research and new forms of collaboration between scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds. The last three modules provide students with examples of approaches and methods that have been developed in specific fields of research. The lecturers cover a range of methodological issues stemming both from the social sciences and the biological sciences. They will teach the students in which disciplinary field these research methodologies were developed and for what purposes.


Mondays : 13.00-16.30 and Thursdays 11.00-15.00

Mode of instruction

The course consists of six weekly blocks. A block contains a double lecture on the Monday (13.30- 17.00) after which precise assignments are handed out to students. In workshop meetings (13.30-17.00) on Thursdays the students give presentations on the basis of the assignments. They will draft a text of about three pages that serves as an aid-memoir for their presentation.

Course objectives

Students will learn how to situate research groups, research agenda’s and methodological choices in their historical and social contexts.Students will have to learn (a) in what way epistemology differs from, but relates to “methods and techniques”; (b) how they can think about the differences between qualitative and quantitative research (validity vs. representativity); © specific relevance of these methodological issues for research in Africa.


To be announced on Blackboard

Assessment method

Weekly assignments


Information will be provided at the start of the course


Module 1 Methodologies of studies in Africa: past and present.

The British Africanist Studies and the actuality of the research methods developed at the Rhodes Livingstone Institute.
The starting point in this session is the relationship between theory and method. Anthropologists at the Rhodes Livingstone institute in Lusaka developed during the 1950s and 1960s a vision on Africa that was new at the time: African societies were not seen as determined by kinship structures but kinship was seen as an aspect of society that did not have a determining characterer. The attention shifted to kinship in action. Secondly, African society was not seen as seperate from European society but the European (or modern) sections of society were an interrelated whole. The emergence of these ideas was linked to the development of particular research method. Originally this was called social drama, later extended case study or situational analysis. This method does not aim at generalisation but intends through intensive analysis of a limited situation to reveal structuring elements in social practices.
Methodologies issues concerning research on urbanization: past and present of African Cities
To many people Africa is the last great un-urbanised continent on earth. Research carried out by UN-HABITAT, and reported in their Global Report on Human Settlements 2003 shows that the reality of Africa is very different: with an annual average urban growth rate of 4 percent Africa has the world’s fastest annual rate of urbanisation. In this module, we will approach methodological issues in the study of the ‘African city’ analysed from two thematic view-points, namely ‘the city as historical product’, and ‘the city as a living organism’.
The Francophone Griaule School: representation in the field and in the text
In this week we will concentrate on French africanists. We concentrate on one specific debate that developed around a specific school: the ‘Griaule school’. This debate focuses on problems of representativity in the field and in the way we construct texts about the ‘people’ we study.

Module 2. Interdisciplinarity in gamma-beta research

People and Pests in Africa: the importance of understanding human-insect interactions in African studies
Lecture and workshop, taught by an anthropologist and an entomologist, will explore the theme by considering co-evolution of malaria and agriculture in West Africa, the causes of the late 19th/early 20th century sleeping sickness pandemic, locust and armyworm outbreaks and their control (with some lessons on how to prepare these insects as food), and examples of the role of insects in religion, oracles, medicine, music and other cultural expressions in Africa will be given.
Research on Climate Change in West Africa, an interdisciplinary effort (discussion seminar)
What is “interdisciplinarity” in practice? The project on (the impact of) climate change will serve as example; the module deals with the background and goals of the project, that will serve to contextualise the disciplines involved. The discussion will center around the various ways in which different disciplines perceive social realities in Africa and how these differences influence communication between the various researchers in a team. Can we speak of complementarity of knowledge and methodologies? Is interaction between disciplines really possible? We will also review different combinations of disciplines. In this particular project: climatologists, agronomists, economists, geographers and anthropologists.

Module 3. Interdisciplinary in alfa-gamma research

Methodological issues concerning African films and documentaries: text and context
Interdisciplinarity will be discussed thanks to different methodological angles that can be used in order to analyse textual and visual aspects of film products, as well as social aspects of film production and reception. In the first part we will discuss methodological and theoretical questions on narratology, analysis of images, and literary contexts. In the second part, we will situate film production in the context of social processes in which meaning is created and transferred. Methodological questions in the study of remediation will be discussed in the context of African popular films.
Methodological issues concerning the study of written, oral and video sources in African studies.
In this lecture we will discuss the problems inherent to historical and quasi-historical research, generalising from our individial practice. In the first instance we will talk about the basic questions which have to be answered for the evaluation of written documents—when, why, where, who to, who by, was it written, and how has it come to survive—and continue with disucssions of the particular advantages and problems inherent to the evaluation of oral testimony. We will stress that such concerns are as important for the evaluation of modern material, and thus for political scientists, sociologists, development studies people etc, as for historians.

Module 4. Methodological issues in Rural Sociology

This module will address problems and methods in rural sociology and development studies. Food production benefits from agricultural research, but the question is whether also the poor benefits from it. We will discuss methods for evaluating the impact of agricultural research on poverty in the context of different agricultural technologies and within different social, and institutional settings.

Module 5. Interviews and Focus group as qualitative analysis

This module will explore two important research techniques that have been part of the development of the ethnographic method in African studies: interviewing and focus-group discussions. In addition to discussing some of the basic features of the these research techniques the students will be invited to do some actual practical training regarding both techniques. Emphasis will be placed on making students aware of some of the particular conditions and constraints that apply to the use of these techniques in an African context of interdisciplinary empirical research.

Module 6. Standardized methods of research

This week’s module focusses on standardized methods of research and structured as well as semi-structured data-collection techniques, particular sample survey with standardised questionnaires and various participatory appraisal techniques. Issues to discuss are: type of research questions addressed in research using these methods; representativeness of the data; and analysis of the data.