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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Dangers of unquestioning use of Western conceptual schemes and theories in African studies

In 1997, a problem was named: “Western conceptual schemes and theories have become so widespread that almost all scholarship, even by Africans, utilizes them unquestioningly.” (Oyewumi, Invention of Women)

25 years later, how might we respond to this provocation?

We might say that there is a more sustained critique of leadership structures and systems within African studies. We might say there are more Africans working on African projects. We might point to African Queer studies and African Feminist studies!

I still worry that these empirical things — count how many people are doing x, tally the critiques of institutional structures — fail to address the conceptual problem that was noted.

To offer only one example: “queer people have always existed in Africa” names a political desire more than it does a conceptually rich method and practice.

If “queer” takes its meaning from a variety of medical and legal exclusions that did not exist in Africa, then we would need different languages to think about and discuss gendered and erotic practices.

Even as we’d need to think more deliberately about the types of cultural and spiritual practices that might exclude people within those African contexts, with a similar effect to what we know think of as “queer”.

And we know these things:

  • x clan might not be intimate with y clan
  • x forms of embodiment are not legible within y contexts
  • w practices remove one from social legibility and erotic availability

That is, we must refuse a salvage anthropology approach that grabs a sentence here or there from whatever book and, instead, study practices of legibility.

And, sure, it’s more attractive to grab a sentence from here or there than sitting with a bunch of books and trying to figure out something to say, but method matters, which is to say, it’s weird every time I read something with a primarily African focus that frames the thing through thinkers who’ve never thought about or studied Africa—a lot of conceptual translation is needed, and it rarely happens, so the thing reads as very incoherent.

“Cite more Africans” does not solve this problem, because as was pointed out, “even Africans” use western conceptual schemes and theories unquestioningly.

(This article has been compiled from the tweet thread of @keguro_)

(Featured image for representational purpose only. Source: ucl.ac.uk)

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