Africa Forum

African Studies in France

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch
Universite Paris
VII Denis Diderot

Translated by Nicole Livar for H-Africa

27 August 2001

[*editor's note: AFRICA FORUM is a H-Africa column featuring essays by notable Africanists. This is the 5th in our sub-series 'African Studies in..." It focuses on History but deals with other disciplines. This English version is preceded by the French. Replies welcome in any language--Peter Limb]

Several overviews on research in France have been published in English, in particular some of my own contributions, published periodically about every 10 years, namely:

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (1976). "Changes in African Historical Studies in France since the Second World War", in African studies since 1945: A Tribute to Basil Davidson (London: Longman), pp. 200-209.

_______ (1986). "Africanist Historiography in France and Belgium: Traditions and Trends" (in collaboration with B. Jewsiewicki), in African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? (B. Jewsiewicki and D. Newbury, eds.), (London, Sage), pp. 139-150.

_______ (1991). "Colonial History and Decolonization. The French Imperial Case", in The European Journal of Development Research, Revue de l'EADI, special number, "Old and New Trends in Francophone Development Research", vol. 3, no 2, pp. 28-43.

_______ (1999). "The Rise of Francophone African Social Science: From Colonial Knowledge to Knowledge of Africa", in Out of One, Many Africas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa (William G. Martin and Michael O. West, eds.), (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press), pp. 39-53.

And in French:

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (1987). "Les debats actuels en Histoire de la Colonisation", Revue Tiers-Monde, no 112, pp. 777-792.

_______ (1993). "Histoire coloniale et decolonisation. Le cas imperial francais", Etat des savoirs sur le developpement. Trois decennies de sciences sociales en langue francaise (C. Choquet, O. Dollfus, E. Le Roy and M. Vernieres eds.), (Paris: Karthala) pp. 19-41.

To this we need to add the innovative works of young researchers, in particular two quality theses: one finished by Emmanuelle Sibeud, which retraces the history of French "Africanist" anthropology, and the other, recently completed by Marie-Albane de Suremain looking at the same thing but in other social sciences, in particular, in so-called "tropical" geography, later called d'outre-mer.

There is no question of repeating this yet again -- I prefer to note here what to me seems new - or obsolete - in French research on Africa.

The most obsolete, in my opinion, is that most French researchers of my generation still call themselves "Africanists" in spite of the judicious case raised by Edward Said, twelve years ago against "Orientalism" (1978) [1.], which could be easily transposed to African studies even if it occurred half a century later. In this regard, I would mention here some of my thoughts on that question, in particular, on the one hand a harsh critique of the ethnographical heritage of the colonial period, and on the other hand the anthropological heritage marked by the phase of decolonisation (Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. (1996). "L'antropologie, ou la mort du phenix?", in Le Debat, no. 90, pp. 114-128).

Of course, we owe a lot to the first defricheurs ["clearers"], the colonial administrators who were passionate in their field. But this leads to most of the distortions, denounced by Valentin Mudimbe, of the "Colonial library" which we all find difficult to get rid of.

It is evident that francophone African anthropology is in crisis. This is seen by the fact that the field has been deserted by many anthropologists who in the past specialized in Africa, and who now are turning more to theoretical reflections about their former fields (Francoise Heritier, Jean-Loup Amselle, Jean Copans), or who turn to completely different observations (Marc Auge), or return to their former discipline of philosophy (Emmanuel Terray). Very rare are those, like Claudine Vidal or Christine Messiant, who stick to their field of research on Africa.

A few others feel disorganized, ironically looking at "Africanism" (i.e. African Anthropology) as a "discipline" out of reach of Africans, who by definition are neither Africanists nor African Anthropologists, but rather sociologists and historians. Thence an incredibly conservative plea by J. L. Amselle [2.] claiming to put African social scientists out of "his" field. Ironically, J. Griaule claimed the same thing ... but half a century ago (see a fascinating dissertation by TAI Li-Chuan, "L'ethnologie francaise entre colonialisme et decolonisation, 1920-60," Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), 2001.

It is the geographers and the historians who have taken the relay-baton in the field in which they continue to work diligently, and more and more in collaboration with their African homologues on location in their national institutions, as weak and disorganized as they may be. It is some years now since the geographers embraced the urban problem; in spite of the excellent work done by J. Chaleard, it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit specialists in rural African geography for French universities: the species is practically extinct. On the other hand, a new generation has opened major new pathways in industrial geography (Alain Dubresson on Abidjan), and urban geography in general (Philippe Gervais-Lambony on Lome and on Harare, and today Sylvy Jaglin and Dubresson on South Africa and Namibia).

Political sciences have made a striking advancement, notably with the work of the CEAN team of Bordeaux and of the CERI of Paris, this latter body animated by Jean-Francois Bayart, the works of whom are widely translated into English. One sign of this is that the best (because it is the most problematic) current review on Africa is Politique Africaine. The necessity to tackle politique par le bas ["grassroots politics"], that is to say to start with society not the state, to renew the debates; analyses on criminalisation of the state and theses on "indigenisation" of political forces have been discussed more often, being not well accepted by Africans. However, as in the English speaking world, it is probably modern history that has progressed the most in the last twenty years whilst pre-colonial history appears to be losing ground. It is revealing that African political science in French owes a lot to two African social scientists trained as historians: Mamadou Diouf and Achille Mbembe.

Thirty years ago, oral history was the first to develop, under the impulse of Yves Person followed by Claude-Helene Perrot, then economic history of the colonial period which gave birth to many works, and which remains the favorite field of Helene d'Almeida-Topor and Monique Lakroum. But without a doubt, the branches of history that have blossomed the most are those concerned with urban history, with its spatial, social and cultural dimensions, animated by C. Coquery-Vidrovitch, Odile Goerg (recently elected as Professor at Universite Paris, VII) and now a new generation of younger scholars doing excellent work: Didier Gondola on urban migration in the two Congos, Issiaka Mande on the same problem in Burkina-Faso and in Cote d'Ivoire, Laurent Fourchard on the dialectic of public space/private space in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, Nicolas Bancel on the role of urban youth in AOF, Charles Tschimanga on the same theme in the Congo (ex-Zaire), Claude Sissao on Ouagadougou, Sebastien Sotindjo on Cotonou, Helene Charton on Kenyan intellectuals, and many others, Africans and French, whose works fortunately are sometimes published or are in the process of being published. The study of the urban informal sector is remarkably developed, and has given birth to quality scientific French-African collaborations, notably in Durban, South Africa. New themes are developing: the history of urban poverty and poor people, the history of repression and imprisonment, and the history of urban violence, presently researched by a French-African team in Nigeria around the Institut francais d'Afrique noire of Ibadan, headed by Laurent Fourchard. (A first view of new trends in Francophone African history appears in a recent collective book edited by C. Coquery-Vidrovitch, O. Goerg and Charles Tshimanga, Histoire et devenir de l'Afrique noire au XXe siecle: Travaux en cours (Paris: L'Harmattan 2001)).

Meanwhile, political history with its social dimensions, those of the genesis of civil society and of the national idea, has given birth to superb works, like those of Florence Bernault in Gabon and in the Congo, and of Pierre Boilley (formely trained at Universite Paris, VII, and recently elected as Professor at Universite Paris, I) on the Touaregs of Mali.

Interdisciplinary research contributions have made the Rwandan case an exemplary field of study allowing the demythification of old shibboleths on ethnicity and tribalism, around Jean-Pierre Chretien, Gerard Prunier, Andre Guichaoua and Claudine Vidal.

The history of women is coming to maturity, as several nearly completed theses (such as that by Pascale Barthelemy) will challenge our knowledge on the subject. Research is continuing on these themes.

Cultural history, little developed until now, is taking shape, for instance with the study of witchcraft as a contemporary political instrument (Florence Bernault), or the study of multiculturalism and cultural mixings (Faranirina Rajaonah in Madagascar and East Africa, and Achille Mbembe). Finally, with Jean-Louis Triaud, a solid knowledge of Islam is emerging, as testified by the quality of the revue Islam et societes au sud du Sahara.

In summary, in spite of the small numbers of specialists in African studies in France they produce, relatively, a good deal and of good quality. But above all, the succession by the younger generation of scholars is assured, and the collaboration between French and African researchers is effective and healthy.

It is therefore regrettable that quarrels have again risked poisoning the daily tasks of researchers, and in particular the relationships between a certain number of French and Francophone researchers. Although France had, at the end of the 1950s (long before the USA) its big quarrel between classical, if not conservative, Egyptologists and the visionary militant Cheikh Anta Diop, there has since been an awkward revival of the quarrel, sadly opposing (white) Africanists against (black) Afrocentrists.

French researchers on the whole have been quite perfectly impervious to the Martin Bernal hypothesis, translated but not widely read. The rois de la brousse (kings of the bush) who were the first French "Africanists" apparently continue to have some difficulties in renouncing their prerogatives of knowledge. Some African afrocentristes do not forgive them. These days the dialogue appears particularly blocked. The mutual incomprehension, even the insults, have spoiled the debate which is turning into harsh polemic. It is a shame that social scientists even think of going to court to resolve their differences. Each is forgetting the primordial quality of the researcher: scientific doubt.

This racial stiffening augurs no good. The old reflexes of the colonized and the colonizer are exploited and unfortunately, excesses or awkwardness appear on both sides: the more absurd as today these reactions appear to be from another age. We hope that the new generation will end it promptly. But today, it is not by chance that the international scientific community is rediscovering the work of Georges Balandier on the central question of the situation coloniale (as in a recent workshop at New York University organized by Emmanuelle Saada, held in March 2001).


[1]. Said, Edward W. (1978). Orientalism. (New York: Pantheon Books).

[2]. Amselle, Jean-Loup. (2001). Branchements: Anthropologie de l'universalite des cultures. (Paris: Flammarion).

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