The Great Omission: Debating Anglophone African Studies

In this blogpost, ROAPE’s Jean Copans discusses his paper (available to read for free) on social class, African studies and linguistic divides. While lamenting how radical views have largely disappeared from the French intellectual scene, he notes that anglophone African studies almost entirely neglect work in French.  Copans argues that we must transcend from the start the constraints imposed by geopolitical and linguistic zones.

By Jean Copans    

Access for free Jean Copans’ paper, ‘Have the social classes of yesterday vanished from Africanist issues or are African societies made up of new classes? A French anthropologist’s perspective

Why such a long, very personal, and now that Brexit is probably on the way, exotic title for my ROAPE paper? Some brief explanations.

99% of the researchers and academics published in ROAPE are of Anglo-Saxon training and culture. Very, very few French and francophone Africans publish in the Review. Many cannot write in English (though I have to thank my English readers and editors, especially ROAPE’s Clare Smedley, for having brought necessary corrections to my paper) but today there is a more tragic reason.

Radical views and radical commitments have largely disappeared from the French intellectual scene and especially from social sciences. But as the readers of this blogpost and of the Review know well, or should know, there was a time when ROAPE was more engaged with the radical French intellectual scene and francophone Africa.

So, let us begin as in a fairytale style:  Once upon a time …

French Africanists are aware, and most of the time are well aware, of the works of their English, American, Nigerian, South African, Ghanaian etc colleagues not only those dealing with the anglophone African countries but more generally when dealing with the general themes of their discipline whatever the social science. A second concern of mine is that very few anthropologists (or even sociologists) can be listed among the authors of ROAPE.

Of course many political scientists or political economists are ‘cultured’ in those disciplines and read thoroughly but they do not feel overly concerned by the methodological and empirical problems involved in social science research at least in the Africanist experience and tradition. The same can be said also to some extent of French scholars but the familiarity with the contexts, the unconscious traditions and the ‘habits’ of other ‘methodological nationalisms’, as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck describes them, is in general very limited throughout the whole world.

To come to the point: Anglo-Saxon researchers know in fact little of the French way of thinking about anthropology and sociology and even if Pierre Bourdieu is translated extensively into English. The general thrust of French disciplinary developments and tendencies is understood only after much delay and in a very partial way.

Once again this is an extremely ordinary state of affairs but sometimes this ignorance or schematic understanding of the traditions of the ‘others’ can be very misleading. In the Sage Handbook of Social Anthropology edited in 2012 by Richard Fardon and his colleagues (two volumes and more than 70 authors), 2950 names are listed in the name index. Yet only 40 of them are French or Francophone and in fact more than half of those are philosophers and political scientists. If we discount the name of our ‘great ancestors’ such as Mauss or Durkheim only 0.5% of the total number of names in the index are French anthropologists born in the 1940s.

Therefore, it is a sad conclusion: contemporary French and Francophone social anthropology is nowhere to be seen in such a panorama. It is not the result of a sinister plot but the very nature of the secret state of professional culture outside the French speaking world.

Not a very anthropological attitude to say the least!

There is no French or francophone ROAPE anymore and the only domain where a radical paradigm can still be read in French is southern American studies.

These basic reflections thus explain my quite complicated title: I have written my paper not only to promote my personal views on the uses of the concept of class in African studies but more specifically to explain to those not particularly informed of the French tradition in this field (which of course come out largely of African studies). Why my/our – French –  views are so distinct from the anglophone traditions when tackling the domain of social class analysis.

This ignorance is in my view quite paradoxical for the authors and readers of ROAPE are deeply concerned by the Marxist understanding of the world and the French have written extensively on this topic but … long ago!

The development of the French Marxist framework of thinking (1960-1980) is so specific that this story needs to be told. Only by recalling this history can I explain my point of view, reasoning and discussion of the papers published in the Review or in the blog section on capitalism in Africa. Everyone should be aware that my paper reflects a more collective and historical situation and not simply my ‘on-the-other-side-of-the-Channel’ idiosyncrasies.

I cannot summarize a paper that is already a summary of sorts. I will therefore only restate one of my major points at the end of the article: Such a vision of methodological issues and tools implies further reflexivity on the day-to-day impact of so-called methodological nationalism and, more generally, on the perverse effects of the traditional division of studies by culture or continent (here African Studies). In addition, we must transcend from the start the constraints imposed by geopolitical and linguistic zones: West Africa or East Africa; francophone or anglophone Africa; or, on a continental scale, Africa versus Latin America or South-East Asia. This approach also demands collective and ‘democratic’ research, independent of any ideological or teleological goals, since all societies would be, or would be in the process of becoming, class societies.

Throughout the article I also try to analyze the relationships between academic Marxism and militant and ideological versions of Marxism (both in the West and in Africa). My bibliography lists 106 references (38 from my works and 40 from French or French writing authors, only four of these being francophone African researchers). Of course I have read serious research works and the much more numerous purely ideological books dealing with purely imaginery classes. To paraphrase my conclusion, Marxist theories must not be automatically discarded with the bathwater of history, on grounds of globalised hypermodernity and continuous modernisation. If history is remodelling classes, then social scientists must rise to the challenge of systematically constructing but also reconstructing the objects of their reflection and research.

Access Jean Copans’ paper for free here: ‘Have the social classes of yesterday vanished from Africanist issues or are African societies made up of new classes? A French anthropologist’s perspective.’

Jean Copans  carried out fieldwork in Senegal over 40 years (1967–2006). He has been on the editorial board of several journals (including Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, Politique Africaine and Revue Tiers Monde); has been a contributing editor to ROAPE from January 1981 until March 2008, when he joined the Review’s International Advisory Board; and has directed three series of books between 1974 and 2005 at François Maspero, Le Sycomore and Karthala publishing houses. He is the author or editor of 20 books and a great many papers.

Featured Photograph: From Verkijika G. Fanso’s article, ‘History explains why Cameroon is at war with itself over language and cultureThe Conversation (15 October 2017).


  1. Let me one of the first commentators to welcome this contribution by Jean Copans.

    As he remarks, he and I collaborated closely over 40 years ago to produce an introduction to the collection of essays that I collected and Helen Lackner translated from the French, and that was published by Frank Cass in 1978 on ‘Relations of Production@ Marxist approaches to economic anthropology’. At that time, there was a real flow ideas, both ways, across the Channel, and many of us were able to communicate reasonably well in both French and English, both with each other and – more importantly – with African colleagues and comrades in Franco-phone and Anglo-phone countries..

    But, as Jean comments sadly, that was a long time ago, and since then this flow of ideas and this fruitful communication has almost dried up or died away – to the detriment of us all. As far as African studies are concerned – which is the main focus of RoAPE – this is particularly the case.

    I shall now read Jean’s essay – and then, perhaps, respond with some thoughts of my own. This may serve to open up new possibilities for discussion and, once again, new and fruitful collaboration

  2. It is a pleasure to be able to engage, once again, with my old friend and colleague, Jean Copans on the subject of class analysis and African studies. What follows is more of a personal review of how I have approached the study of African politics than an analytical consideration of class analysis; but it is intended to demonstrate that there is value in a comparative historical perspective, in collaboration with others from different disciplines and nationalities, drawing on diverse sources, both written and spoken, which tries to combine both micro- and macro- levels of analysis and is prepared to be controversial.

    At one time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s – when I was first a PhD student at the LSE and then, after fieldwork in Morocco, a lecturer in African Studies in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS in London – I was very much involved in the lively debates that were taking place, in workshops and in academic journals, about the relevance and pertinence of Marxism as an approach to African studies. One of the reasons for this was my own concern to find an appropriate theoretical framework for my Moroccan fieldwork material, something I initially found very difficult, until I read the revised version of E.P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ (1968) and some of the writings of the French Marxist anthropologists, and was introduced to the work of André Gunder Frank on ‘Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America’ (1969) by the Danish anthropologist and feminist activist, Signe Arnfred.

    Eventually, I was able to combine these micro- and macro- perspectives to produce a PhD thesis (Seddon 1975) underpinned by a Marxist analysis of evolving class relations in north east Morocco from 1870 to 1970 – which was eventually published as ‘Moroccan Peasants: a century of change in the eastern Rif’ (Seddon 1981).

    One of the most fruitful arenas, in which I was involved at this time, was that of the inter-collegiate University of London seminars and workshops on ‘peasants’ (that started in 1972) and the associated Journal of Peasant Studies, edited by Terry Byres, Charles Curwen and Teodor Shanin and published by Frank Cass & Co., the first volume of which appeared in 1973-74. One of the earliest of the workshops I recall brought Claude Meillassoux to London and enabled him to present his own work, some of which was subsequently published in the Journal of Peasant Studies. It was no accident that my own contribution to these debates, ‘Relations of Production: Marxist approaches to economic anthropology’ (Seddon 1978) – a collection of essays (including two by Meillassoux) translated from the French by Helen Lackner and edited by me, with an introduction by Jean Copans and myself – was also published by Frank Cass, thanks to Jim Muir (who later became a BBC correspondent in Lebanon).

    I left SOAS in 1972 to become a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, first in the School of Social Studies and then in the newly created School of Development Studies. Although my PhD was in social anthropology, I was appointed as a lecturer in sociology. I had never been particularly concerned about the alleged divisions between the various social science disciplines, having originally studied archaeology and prehistory as well as anthropology at Cambridge, and spent two years in South Africa teaching archaeology before returning to the LSE; and was already interested in Marxist approaches to the historical development of class relations in ‘pre-capitalist’ and ‘transitional’ societies and economic formations (eg in early modern
    England and in historical and contemporary ‘tribal’ and ‘peasant’ societies in North Africa).

    So, for me, ‘development studies’ was a perfect framework for an inter-disciplinary approach to social and economic transformation, and I remained a member of the School of Development Studies (DEV) at UEA until taking early retirement in 2006, at which time I was Professor of Development Studies. But I was soon involved, even before I had managed to conceptualise my PhD on Morocco, in a major programme of research in Nepal with several colleagues from DEV. The two years I spent on this project (1974-76) enabled me to develop and refine my theoretical approach, as well as to gain fieldwork experience in a new country in a new continent, thereby strengthening my comparative historical perspective on economic and social change – and learning another language (Nepali) to add to my French and Arabic).

    This research, amplified by subsequent field trips, eventually resulted in a number of publications involving a close collaboration with geographer Piers Blaikie and economist John Cameron, including ‘Centre and Periphery in Nepal: spatial and social aspects of inequality’ (1977), ‘Peasants and Workers in Nepal’ (1979), ‘The Struggle for Basic Needs in Nepal’ (1979) and our magnum opus, ‘Nepal in Crisis: growth and stagnation at the periphery (1980) which adopted what some were calling at the time a ‘neo-Marxist approach’ and was undoubtedly much influenced by the work of André Gunder Frank and other ‘underdevelopment theorists’.

    Central to all of these works was a historical approach to economic and social change that placed class analysis at the centre. Inevitably, we were castigated by anthropologists more familiar with South Asia for our failure to consider caste and ethnicity as being central to any study of South Asian society. But I had read the excellent class analysis by Claude Meillassoux, called, provocatively, ‘Are There Castes in India’, that had been published in another of the radical Marxist journals of the period, Economy and Society, as well as the classic work on caste, ‘Homo Hierarchicus: essai sur le système des castes’, by Louis Dumont (1966) and we were convinced that our perspective was valid, if unusual in Asian Studies.

    Our work on Nepal proved controversial, and not only among academics (‘Nepal in Crisis’ was actually banned and the British ambassador swore we would never be allowed to return), and we did not return until the 1990s, after major political changes had restored the multi-party democracy abolished by the king in 1961 in favour of a regime of non-party ‘democracy’. It was gratifying to be greeted warmly by comrades who had been living ‘underground’ for decades, but had read our book even though it was never translated into Nepali.

    In the meanwhile, during the 1980s, the School of Development Studies had actually appointed André Gunder Frank as Professor of Social Change and I was honoured to be teaching a programme on contemporary world development with him, very much based on his books on ‘Crisis in the World Economy’ and ‘Crisis in the Third World’. Economic liberalisation and structural adjustment were becoming the norm across the ‘Third World’ and my own attention returned to North Africa, where these policies were being introduced usually with the active intervention of the World Bank and the IMF, and which were provoking popular protest and movements for change that often had far-reaching consequences.

    I wrote a lot at this time, from the mid 1980s through to the mid-1990s, on political economy, popular protest and political change, mainly though not exclusively focused on the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. I became involved with the POLISARIO and visited Western Sahara on a number of occasions; I also visited the West Bank and Gaza on several occasions on missions for OXFAM and Christian Aid. Political struggle became my major focus. Collaboration with John Walton, a specialist on Latin America, who had been undertaking similar research in that part of the world, led to our editing a collection called ‘Free Markets and Food Riots: the politics of global adjustment’ (1994). This book included chapters on different regions, including sub-Saharan Africa (by Trevor Parfitt and Stephen Riley, both of whom had been associated with RoAPE).

    During the early 1990s I spent a good deal of time as a consultant to various development agencies, both international (World Bank, IFAD, ILO) and national (DfID, DANIDA) and NGOs (OXFAM, War on Want, DanChurchaid), working in the countries of the Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic and the DRC), using my French and Arabic to make close contact with peasants and pastoralists, and also, as far as possible, with political activists.

    In the late 1990s, I returned to Nepal, where a Maoist insurgency or ‘People’s War’ had been launched in February 1996, and combined the roles of consultant, researcher and political activist (with some difficulty) for several years, focused very much on the armed struggle. Collaboration with Nepali leftist colleagues results in two books, one edited with political and NGO activist, Arjun Karki, on ‘The People’s War in Nepal: left perspectives’ (2003), and the other with civil society activist, Prabin Manandhar, on ‘In Hope and In Fear: living through the People’s War’ (2006).

    Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, I also wrote a good deal on class struggle and popular protest in Africa, usually with Leo Zeilig and/or Peter Dwyer, including several workshop papers, an article on ‘Class and Protest in Africa’ with Leo Zeilig in the Review of African Political Economy (2005) and a contribution on the history of class struggle and popular protest to Leo’s edited book, ‘Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa’ (2005, 2nd edition 2009). I also wrote a book on the Congo with Leo Zeilig and historian David Renton:’The Congo: plunder and resistance (2007).

    Most recently, over the last ten years, I have managed a project for the RoAPE website which provides a comparative, historical description and analysis of popular protest, social movements and class struggle in Africa, grounded in detail empirical ‘thick’ description, covering a wide range of countries (drawing on French, Arabic and English sources, including local, national and international media) and involving a range of African and European scholars and activists. I have also written recently for Amandla, a radical journal/magazine published in South Africa.

    I would now, having as it were, thrown my hat in the ring, like to join others, through RoAPE, in a collaborative enterprise to engage critically but constructively with some of the issues raised by Jean Copans in his article, including his – to my mind controversial – view that there is a need to ‘re-write working class history’ and his various passing references to statistics and quantitative research, the significance of which remain, to me at least, unclear.

    30 May 2020

  3. I have not seen any other comments on the post by Jean Copans, but now want to reach out to him and any other comrades who would like to re-start effective collaboration on the topics to which Jean draws attention, and others, across the ‘great divide’ of language – allons-y, les gars!

  4. A month on, and still no further comment on this important intervention by Jean Copans – and nothing from Jean himself either – is there any way of taking this discussion further?

  5. Our problem as I see it is that of an international professional culture. African studies in France have become ‘culturally’ oriented by topics of Identity…ways of life and artistic activities seen as analytical as human and social sciences. Francophone intellectuals criticise us for not being diaspora and globally oriented. The most brilliant of them have ‘fled’ to the US and speak from over-there, blaming us for not being truly concerned and celebrating the American universities compared to the french ones because they haven’t been hired by these. The french academic system is not racist but it is both very elitist and conservative!

  6. Surely the problem is rather the lack of a diverse left internationalism? I am concerned by both the shortcomings of ‘area studies’ and the tendency to essentialise ‘Africa’ and ‘African countries’ just as I struggle with the tendency to essentialise ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian studies…and the failure to develop an international dialogue involving left intellectuals from ALL parts of the world, despite the enormous potential of new forms of communications technology, like Zoom and FaceTime etc. At last, the usual institutional constraints can be overcome and we can rise above these ‘geographical’ limitations to our analysis of the global political economy from different left perspectives


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