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AFRI A-731 Seminar on Contemporary Africa

Fall 2013
Topic: African Politics: Challenges of Development and Democracy
Professor Lauren M. MacLean, Department of Political Science

Africa and African politics is not simply tragedy. While not glossing over the depth and recurrence of crises in Africa, this course seeks to uncover our commonly-held assumptions and go beyond simple stereotypes. During the course, we will try to understand the complexity, variety and fluidity of African politics. Perhaps more than any other continent, politics are not always what they seem on the surface; they vary tremendously from place to place; and they change sometimes quickly and radically.

The course is organized around four main sets of issues: 

  1. the legacies of the past for African politics today;
  2. the economic challenges continuing to face Africa;
  3. the prospects for democracy in Africa; and,
  4. Africa’s relationship with other countries, donors, and NGOs.

This course is intended as a graduate-level introduction to the politics of Sub-Saharan Africa and does not require that students have prior experience or background in the area. The course will be enriched by the participation of Africanist political scientists, Africanists outside of political science, as well as those non-Africanist students with relevant theoretical interests in comparative politics, public policy, IR, and political theory.

Not only will we learn more about Africa, but Africa can test our theories about democracy, state-building, political economy, participation, citizenship, etc., and teach us about other parts of the world and ourselves. By the end of the course, we will see how the challenges and problems confronting African societies concern us all.
While the course focuses more heavily on the events of the last two decades, approximately one quarter of the course delves into the political history of the pre-colonial, colonial and independence eras. In my view, in order to understand present politics in Africa, it is vital to examine the past.

The course is intended as a broad survey of sub-Saharan Africa, but several country cases will be highlighted, including: Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and South Africa.

The course will require: a diversity of required readings and films; active participation in discussions; one-time service as a co-facilitator of our discussion; several short “article briefs”; and a seminar paper. The specific format of the seminar paper is flexible but will be agreed upon after discussion with the professor of the student’s particular goals.

Spring 2013
Topic: Ethnography and Social Theory in Africa
Professor Jane Goodman, Department of Communication and Culture

As scholars, we are engaged in building social theory through our analyses of social life and communicative practice. Ethnography is a key vehicle through which social theory can be developed. In some cases, social theorists have been ethnographers themselves – Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, developed practice theory and the notion of “habitus” on the basis of his ethnographic research in Algeria. In other cases, ethnographic research has served to hone, complicate, or challenge social theory. Ethnography is also a site for generating new dialogues across theoretical paradigms while at the same time illuminating novel dimensions of social life.

World regions also have their own complex relationships to ethnography. While some regions become ethnographic “blank spots,” others become zones of theory and are revisited by ethnographers time and again. Africa constitutes one such zone. Indeed, the history of 20th-century social theory – from Durkheimian structural-functionalism to the disciplinary technologies of Michel Foucault, from the practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu to the heteroglossia of Mikhail Bakhtin– can be interrogated through the ethnography of Africa.

The course will pair foundational works in modernist and postmodernist theory with ethnographies of Africa that develop and complicate those theories. Approaches we cover may include structural-functionalism; processualism; structuralism; practice theory; interpretive approaches; reflexivity; dialogism and heteroglossia; disciplinary power and discursive formations; and theory from the global south. Students will leave the course with (1) a solid grounding in 20th- and early 21st-century social theory; (2) an understanding of how to connect theory and ethnography; and (3) an introduction to the organization of social and communicative practices in a range of African societies.

Fall 2012
Topic: African Histories of Technology
Professor Marissa Moorman, Department of History

This course looks at how African societies have produced and used a wide range of technologies across the long sweep of time. While narratives of technology on the continent have often been those of conquest, victimization or cultural imperialism, this course will explore a broader set of historical experiences to think about how different African societies at different historical moments and places have made and thought about technologies. Readings will include work on iron ore smelting, textile production, architectural technologies, technologies of modernity (medical and infrastructural), and communications technologies (cell phones, radios and cinema). Book presentations, reviews and a seminar paper will constitute the written work for this course.