Call for Papers

Speaking of Africa in the World and Redefining the Social Sciences and the Humanities: Words and Validation of Knowledge
Bamako, 22nd October – 26th October 2017

Africa N’Ko, Africa in the World is a long-term project aiming to create a synergy from among the plurality of reflections on the production of knowledge in human sciences both in and on Africa. To this end, conferences on a range of themes are regularly organised. Following the Dakar conferences where debates focussed on colonial libraries, and the theme of translation, this third conference will deal with the challenge of redefining the Social Sciences and the Humanities from the perspective of African scholarship. Its purpose is to address the methodological challenges arising from the nature of the social sciences and hu-manities as discursive scholarly enterprises. The main issue to be addressed by the conference concerns the extent to which concepts can be relied upon to mediate researchers’ efforts at rendering the world intelligible. The point of departure is the twin realization that concepts are our main tool in the work of inquiry that we engage in, but also that as far as the study of Africa is concerned scholars have been confronted with the challenge of applying concepts developed in very specific historical, political, economic and cultural contexts to realities further afield both temporally as well as physically.

The social sciences and the humanities are essentially discursive scholarly enterprises. They make use of words to grasp reality. The relationship between words (concepts) and the validity of knowledge is a particularly thorny one in the context of African studies. It bears on the crucial question of how words and concepts that have emerged under specific historical circumstances to account for very specific political, economic and social phenomena and issues can be relied upon to accomplish the same task when applied to different realities in different times under conditions of unequal enunciation. For this reason, it seems appropriate, and extremely timely, to bring together scholars to reflect on the following issues:

a) the challenges which the relationship between words (concepts) and the validity of knowledge poses to the production of knowledge on Africa;
b) the assumptions underlying the role which concepts play in the representation of reality;
c) the extent to which concepts are bound to their own conditions of possibility – which are historical, political and social;
d) the ways in which the semantic fields covered by concepts can underdetermine reality.

Debates over concepts have been part and parcel of African Studies. Concepts like “tribe”, “primitive society” (anthropology), “tradition” and “modernity” (sociology), “law”, custom” (Legal studies), “stability”, “change” (history) have often been at the centre of acrimonious debates. While much discomfort felt by scholars and researchers of African affairs towards the manner in which Africa has been studied has translated either into a rejection of the terms of the study or an outright commitment to epistemological positions very close to relativism, we believe that a more fruitful critical engagement with this scholarly tradition rests in our ability to accomplish two very important tasks, namely (a) in identifying the general methodological challenges that are posed by approaches to Africa and (b) ascertaining the validity of knowledge about Africa on the basis of its potential to help the disciplines refine their theoretical and conceptual tools.

The Bamako Workshop will be anchored around four key issues to be discussed in panels in order to set the issues for the day. The very first issue to be addressed will be the relationship of concepts and Valentin Mudimbe’s notion of a colonial library. The purpose is to stimulate a reflection on how conceptual schemes have been deployed to produce very specific forms of knowledge of Africa and the methodological challenges which such knowledge poses to scholars concerned with the validity of their accounts. The second issue pertains to the truthfulness of concepts. The idea is to initiate a discussion that makes inquiries into the claims made by the social sciences and humanities concerning their ability to represent reality in adequate ways. The third issue concerns the perennial debate over universalism and relativism. The point of the discussion is not to rehearse old and known arguments, but rather to take our cue from some of the criticisms levelled upon knowledge of Africa to reflect on the position of the researcher vis-à-vis the knowledge that connects him/her to the object. The fourth and final issue relates to the cultural and historical boundedness of concepts. Our aim in this discussion is to reflect on the importance of freeing concepts from the constraints imposed upon them by the circumstances of their emergence.

Submission of proposals:
Proposals in English and French should be sent to the following addresses (elisio.macamo@unibas.ch) and (M.Diawara@em.uni-frankfurt.de) by 30-08-2017. They should cover half a page and include a title, brief biographical details of the author (and email address), a short outline of the subject of the communication, field and relevant methodological approach.

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