Timothy Burke: What’s Distinctive About Africanist Historiography?

[Professor Burke teaches at Swathmore.]

Swarthmore has an elaborate system of Honors seminars. The basic premise of the system is that third and fourth year students participating in the system take four small, intensely focused double-credit seminars, three in a major subject, one in a minor subject. At the end of their time at Swarthmore, they take written and oral examinations in these subjects designed and given by experts in the field who are not faculty at Swarthmore.

I’ve always found it a very difficult challenge to design a syllabus for these seminars. I’d like to ensure that I’m not just teaching a proto-graduate seminar primarily aimed at students who will be going on to work on a Ph.D in history or anthropology: I want there to be some intellectual value in the seminar beyond knowledge of a canonical literature in my specialization. But I’ve had a hard time deciding what the appropriate framing of my specialization is to accomplish that purpose.

What I’ve settled on for the last decade and a half is a seminar focused on the history of colonial Africa, beginning roughly with the 1870s and concluding with contemporary Africa. Since I do not have a prerequisite course for the seminar, I get students with widely varying levels of prior knowledge of African history, and I have to teach the seminar with no presumptions on that score.

This is a basic pedagogical dilemma for Africanists in most institutions, with most kinds of courses. The central concept of the Honors program is that courses are being taught at an advanced, challenging level, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time just laying out a bare-bones sequential history of modern Africa. But this tends to lead to students who have some interesting, sophisticated things to say about the contradictions of indirect rule or the role of gender in colonial society but who are somewhat uncomfortable about the difference between Togo and Botswana.

It’s hard to redesign these syllabi because external examiners are often dealing with two years’ worth of students, and need to have a stable syllabus that applies to both groups equally. I’m in a “gap year” now, though, so my chance for a big overhaul has arrived. I’ve tended in the past to rely on a few big overview texts that I think have strong, interesting arguments and then to throw in a collection of books and articles that I find challenging or interesting, worth debating or discussing, with a relatively minimal organization. So, for example, two weeks on the social history of colonial Africa with a changing selection of required and extended readings.

I’ve been considering a classic strategy for redesign, which is either to go smaller, to the history of southern Africa, or to go bigger, to the history of the British Empire, with the hope of resolving the main focal point of the course discussions. One major axis of discussion has tended to be, “What’s empirically distinctive about the history of modern Africa?”, the other axis has been “How can we use African history to talk about the character, causes and consequences of modern imperialism or even of modernity in general?” The problem with the former discussion it is implicitly comparative in two ways: to premodern Africa and to other modern societies. The problem with the latter discussion is that it requires attention to theoretical and empirical debates about imperialism and modernity that aren’t limited to African examples.

The flaw with the “going smaller” approach is first that it potentially buys into the area-studies parochialism of African Studies. I don’t know that I want to solve the problem of comparison by abolishing comparison and taking a region of Africa as historically self-referencing. Second, there’s a practical problem. I’ve enjoyed inviting friends and colleagues who work on other regions of Africa to be examiners. Southern Africa locks me into a much smaller group of people (many of whom I like very much) which can just pose difficulties in terms of availability. On the other hand, however, I think I could get students to a point at the end of the semester where they were not only literate in high-level historiographical and analytical debates in this subfield, but very comfortable with concrete questions about who did what to whom at what date in which location.

The flaw with the “going bigger” approach is that it will accentuate that sense of vagueness about specificity save for a command over the history of empire as it developed in metropolitan Britain itself. E.g., I think I could get students in an Honors seminar to a point where they were very comfortable telling me about the impact of Gordon’s campaign in Sudan on British politics and on the later development of British imperialism, but at the cost of knowing little or nothing about the Mahdi or Sudanese society. Which is the classic trade-off of imperial history versus area-studies approaches to the colonial era of history in a particular region or place.


I’m close to settling back where I started, with a seminar that’s focused on colonial Africa as a whole. But I’d like to sharpen up the way the course is organized and see if I can’t work harder to give students in the course a comfort level with concrete knowledge of specific places, times and events.

In preparation for this redesign, I’ve been asking myself: what’s intellectually distinctive about African history as a field of scholarly knowledge? What questions has it posed in particularly interesting or compelling forms compared to the wider discipline of history? I really want to focus on one big theme of this kind rather than trying to throw everything but the kitchen sink in the mix, which has been more of my approach in the past. I come up with several possibilities. I’m thinking here of ways to organize the existing body of scholarly publication around debated or contentious propositions, not arguments which reflect my own sympathies or views.

1) The historiography of Africa is methodologically and/or epistemologically distinctive. Africanists have to think through problems of archival interpretation in creative ways, have to think about the status of oral narrative in new ways, have to grapple with debates about nomothetic and ideographic knowledge in a unique way, have distinctive issues with the validity of comparative or universal history, have to struggle with the “constructedness” of their field of knowledge in special ways.

2) The particular character of colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modern institutions in African history raises a distinctive range of questions for historians and anthropologists which has some comparative significance for understanding colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modernity in general.

3) The marginal or failed position of many African societies within contemporary global systems is a special challenge for many comparative or universal frameworks and requires historical investigation into the roots or causes of this marginality and thus to possible resolutions or addresses to these problems. (Or illuminates the extent to which all modernity is an incipient failure or in a state of unresolvable crisis, in some more pessimistic or critical frameworks.)

4) African societies (or some subset of African societies) have some distinctive material, cultural, philosophical character over their longue duree; studying the colonial era is just a way to focus an exploration of the particular character of African societies as they experienced new pressures from external forces and institutions.

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