Undermining Colonial Knowledge Structures

ROAPE’s Laura Mann introduces the Citing Africa Podcast Series that explores different aspects of knowledge production in and about African countries. Mann asks some profound questions about Western Africanists and their so-called expertise – how can we be sure that the research, conference presentations and journal articles produced by European and North American researchers are not based on flawed, flimsy and problematic research? The series is an important resource for young researchers from Africa.

By Laura Mann

My colleagues, Syerramia Willoughby, Tin El Kadi, Khutso Tskiene and I are very pleased to share our podcast series, ‘Citing Africa’ with readers of roape.net. Five episodes have already been released and the last four will be released in June of this year (one of our producers is taking a break to revise for exams). These episodes will be accompanied by a blogpost series and transcripts of each episode in English and French. You will be able to find all of our outputs here as they become available.

Our series explores different aspects of knowledge production in and about African countries. For example, episodes one and two discuss the falling acceptance rates of African based scholars within the leading ‘international’ academic journals and how austerity, structural adjustment and commercialisation have reshaped research on African economies. Throughout, we try to draw attention to the deeply problematic nature of a system that relies on the perspectives and research activities of non-African researchers. Speaking personally, I have come to the conclusion that much of what I read about African countries involves shallow, quick, and sometimes problematic approaches.

Yes, I have a PhD in African studies and yes, I convene and co-teach a course on ‘African Development’ (along with Professor Thandika Mkandawire). Yet all my research must be squeezed into short periods between teaching and precious little family time. At most, I have spent two years in the countries that I research. My language abilities are imperfect and sometimes I rely on translators to help me understand my data. I did not grow up in the countries that I study. There are big gaps in my knowledge, which I struggle to fill with existing studies or conversations with ‘experts’. Data is incomplete and lots of the books and data sources I need to read are unavailable in the UK. And when I submit my work to ‘international’ journals, it is entirely possible that the reviewers won’t catch inaccuracies, falsehoods or prejudices because much like me, they operate within the same restrictions. At best, we are just scratching the surface of empirical reality.

If I compare this state of affairs with that of my partner, an engineer who conducts research on offshore wind energy, I feel quite disheartened and a bit jealous. Offshore wind has gotten dramatically more efficient and affordable over time. There is real forward momentum and this progress is due to stringent quality control over R&D. The mechanisms to check and validate my partner’s research are well organised and tough going. He frets about them. If he produces weak or inconclusive evidence, his peers will hold him to account and he will not get published. He will not be invited to go to nice conferences in Hawaii, Accra or Paris. And most importantly, when it comes to the ‘impact’ he hopes to unleash upon the world, he is not going to be allowed to introduce dangerous, wobbly, or flammable wind turbines in the sea. His academic peers and their industry counterparts will not let him unleash chaos on the world! I fear the same cannot be said of African studies.

When I go to conferences on ‘African studies,’ I often watch presentations by scholars who have done even less fieldwork than me (or may never have even been to the country in question), who do not speak the language of the people they study, and who would probably feel very nervous about presenting their same conclusions to a public audience in that country. And yet all these non-African researchers (including me) are trusted as the real experts, as the people who the Foreign Office and BBC invite along to discuss unfolding events or phenomenon in African countries. Meanwhile, our governments make it extremely challenging for African based experts to come and speak at our events. Similarly, we describe European and North American journals as ‘international’ while African based journals are merely ‘local’. We seem to value the perspectives of outsiders over the perspectives of insiders. How certain can we be that dangerous, wobbly, or even flammable ideas are not being released into the world?

If we are really serious about creating strong, empirically sound and publicly engaged research on African countries, we need better data systems in African countries. We need to digitize archives and improve access to publications across borders. But perhaps most importantly, we need African based researchers and experts to participate (and really LEAD academic debates) so that all perspectives and understandings can be checked, validated, challenged and improved. We need to build our own strong structures in the sea! Without their leadership, I fear mainstream networks, journals and conferences are reinforcing a very distorted understanding of African development and dangerous, wobbly, flammable ideas are being allowed to circulate at will in the world.

Our podcast series is not going to change these colonial knowledge structures over night, but we hope our episodes will provoke some soul searching and, quite frankly, some dissatisfaction about the status quo. We also hope that our podcast series will provide concrete advice to young African scholars on the peer review process. It is completely unfair (and colonial) that written English serves as the medium through which knowledge is validated within the social sciences and yet many academics depend on journal publication to access employment, promotion and the authority to speak as experts. Episodes 6 and 7 of the podcasts therefore give practical advice about how authors can identify the right journals for their work, avoid immediate rejection and structure their ideas and arguments in ways that will make them clear to editors and peer reviewers. A successful academic does not just need good ideas or interesting data; she also needs to express her ideas in clear, simple and concise fashion. We hope our series will help young scholars to get through this difficult task and succeed.

If you feel that you have an interesting perspective on these issues and would like to contribute something to our blog series, please reach out to us.

Citing Africa has been funded by the LSE Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund, the LSE Department of International Development and the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) journal.

Laura Mann is a member of ROAPE’s Editorial Working Group and a sociologist whose research focuses on the political economy of markets and new information and communication technologies in Africa. She is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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