Robert Gordon and Jonatan Kurzwelly
Much has changed since photographs were used simply as apt illustrations and depictions of reality. The field of visual history has now become an important and legitimate area of rigorous enquiry. Photography and photographs as source material for research is now a widespread practice in history, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences and humanities. Both the historical trajectory of this medium in Africa, as well as some important theoretical and methodological issues which Africanists should be aware of, are introduced here. Photography is heavily imbricated in the rise of modernity. Different visual eras are delineated as technology and accessibility of the medium became easier to use and more accessible, moving on a continuum from daguerreotypes featuring mostly portraits and landscapes done by professionals largely for the elite to carte d’visite to postcards and stereoscopic-cards which decline with the introduction of spool photography epitomized by the inimitable Kodak, led to access by the broad middle class. After several innovations featuring 35 mm cameras and slides, digital photography arrived and made the medium even more accessible with smartphones leading the proverbial gaze to be turned into a glaze.
Alongside the historical development of photography, it is necessary to understand the different theoretical and methodological implications in the study and uses of this medium. Photography in itself can be understood through materialist, idealist and social constructivist ontological approaches. Whereas the latter is predominant in history and social sciences, a complementarity of different perspectives should be applied when using and assessing photographs as sources. For purposes of historical research the meaning of a photograph is established largely through contextual information about the image, its making, its different uses, and distribution. It is also important to consider how meaning is established in relation to other photographs or texts (i.e., through intertextuality). Issues include the assessment of images, ways of evaluating their credibility, and the questions scholars might ask in interpreting the meanings of the images, including identifying the provenance of the image, as well as the context in which the image appears. Was it intended for public or only private distribution? Was it in an archive, album, used in a publication, as a postcard and how might it be captioned? What affective meaning might it convey? How might one detect a fake? Besides using archival images, photography might also be used for photo elicitation and other experimental or participatory research methods.
While there are a handful of defined methods for working with primary historical sources in archaeology, few archaeologists take these as their main points of departure or rely upon them too rigidly. This is to do both with the highly variable nature of the historical and archaeological material available for certain African contexts, and also with how archaeologists conceive of the relationship between these two bodies of evidence: as antagonistic, supplementary, entangled and subjective, mutually creative, and so on. Some methodologies focus on the potentials for consonance and dissonance between written and material sources. Others utilize oral traditions to provide insights into chronology, memory, historical and political dynamics, and the material aspects of these. Still other approaches focus on how historical and archaeological sources offer complementary perspectives on the local and the global, events and processes, and other shifts in scale. While these methods are diverse and contingent, they are united insofar as archaeologists take their cues from objects and from preoccupations with time and space. Archaeologists see their work concerning primary historical sources not as filling in gaps in written records but as addressing the partialities of the records themselves by engaging with an array of complex questions about meaning, authority, and materiality
The mode of enquiry in African economic history has changed quite radically in recent years. In 1987, Patrick Manning surveyed practices and databases in African economic history and compared empirical strategies of scholars who studied the African past. Current practice, which A. G. Hopkins called “new African economic history,” incorporates econometric methods. The specific methods chosen and the types of source material used have implications for what kind of questions are asked and how they can be answered. The dominant mode of research in current African economic history, responding to some of the new challenges posed by econometric work by economists, is to create new data sets and databases that allow more consistent analysis of economic change over time.
David M. Gordon
Archives used in Africanist historical research include those of the colonial state, postcolonial national archives, missionary archives, personal papers, political party archives, and the archives of corporations and international agencies involved in African affairs. Africanists historians generally accept that these archives are not transparent renditions of the past; they represent and even reproduce power relations related to colonialism and its legacies. Nonetheless, careful readings have enabled Africanist historians to understand the structural order and logic these archives (the archival grain), and thus demonstrate colonial (or other) power relations implicated in the collections. Reading archives against the grain can also reveal alternative voices and agents, however. Even as discussions of archival methodologies have been limited, archives have remained crucial sources for key trends in Africanist historical writing, including the representation of colonial hegemonies as well as African voice and agency. To advance such readings, Africanist historians develop post-positivist readings of archives that appreciate silences, dissonances, and conflicts within archives and documentation. Through a process of archival fieldwork, including a careful combing of archives, reading of files, and transcribing of select documents, historians have become adept at appreciating the grain of archives and reading the archive against this grain. The digitization of archives and digital research methods, including electronic search engines, full-text searches, online archives, and digital photography, challenge aspects of traditional archival fieldwork, holding benefits and potential setbacks for the critical appreciation of archival documentation. These challenges have sharpened with the changing role of physical documentation along with an increase in smaller archives that enable serendipitous and hodgepodge archival investigations.
Rock art is an archaeological resource with the potential to reconstruct aspects of the ideologies of prehistoric societies. Research methods are distinguished here from theoretical, interpretive frameworks. The methods discussed here concern the documentation of rock art, methods of working with the temporal dimensions of rock art (such as developing relative chronologies and dating), and the characterization of pigments. Nonetheless, the choice of research methods depends on an explicitly formulated, theoretically informed research question. Research aims will also determine the scope and scale of the documentation and chronological methods employed.
Fieldwork is a major and initial component of documentation and may involve surveying for rock-art sites. Researchers should experience rock art first hand. Digital mapping and imaging techniques are used routinely, but field tracings continue to be an important means of recording and interpreting the art. Computational photography includes enhancement software such as DStretch and other techniques that enable researchers to see details that would otherwise be invisible.
Temporality is a fundamental attribute of rock art, and the biggest challenge in this regard is to relate the chronological sequences on the rock face to other archaeological and environmental data and thus contextualize the rock art. Relative chronologies provide information about the order of image-making episodes at a site or in a particular region. Age determinations may be arrived at using correlative methods in which the art is dated by means of independently available age ranges. Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating is commonly used to date organic paint samples. Engravings are difficult to date; age ranges obtained from cation-ratio (CR) and varnish microlamination (VML) are regarded as approximations. Pigment analysis is used to characterize the inorganic components of paint and to detect the presence of organic components. Research methods are multidisciplinary and thus require a coordinated, unified approach in order to achieve the research aims.
Founded in 1916, the School of African Studies at the University of London provided training in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages and history to colonial officers. Over more than a century, the transformation of African history at the SOAS from an imperial discipline to one centered on African experiences reveals challenges in the creation, use, and dissemination of ideas, or the politics of knowledge. The school, as the only institution of higher learning in Europe focused on Africa, Asia, and Middle East, has had to perform a balancing act between scholars’ motivation to challenge academic skeptics and racists who dismissed Africa and British governmental, political, and economic priorities that valued “practical education.”
In 1948, the University of London took steps to create an international standing by affiliating several institutions in Africa. Over several decades, many historians preferred to teach in Africa because the climate in Britain was far less open to African history. SOAS convened international conferences in 1953, 1957, and 1961 that established the reputation of African history at the SOAS. Research presented at these meetings were published in the first volume of the Journal of African History with a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation. The first volumes of the journal were focused on oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology, and political developments in precolonial Africa, topics covered extensively at SOAS.
SOAS grew considerably up until 1975, when area studies all over Britain underwent a period of contraction. Despite economic and personnel cuts, SOAS continued research and teaching especially on precolonial Africa, which has periodically been feared to be subsumed by modern history and not fitting into visions for “practical” courses. In the late 1980s, the school introduced an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in African studies that requires African language study because so many students were specializing in Africa without it. This measure reveals the lasting commitment to engaging African voices. African history at the SOAS has also continued to be a humanistic enterprise, and in 2002, it was reorganized into the School of Religion, History, and Philosophies. It remains to be seen how Brexit might affect higher education. While cuts in education could hurt African studies more than other area studies as they often have, strained relations between Britain and continental Europe might make African countries more important to Britain in the coming years.
While many of those who have written about South Africa have included reference to past events, it was only from the early 19th century that attempts were made to present a coherent picture of South Africa’s past. From the early 20th century professional historians, for long all white males, began to present their interpretations of the way in which the country known from 1910 as the Union of South Africa had evolved over time. In the Afrikaans-speaking universities there emerged an often nationalist historiography, while the major English-speaking historians presented a more inclusive but still often Eurocentric and mainly political view of the South African past. From the 1960s a conscious attempt was made to decolonize South African historiography by looking at the history of all the country’s peoples, but the historical profession remained almost exclusively white and the few black works of history were largely ignored. Many of those who were most influential in taking South African historical writing in new directions were South Africans who had left the country and settled abroad.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of South African historical writing, shaped in part by the influence of neo-Marxist approaches from the United Kingdom and the United States, many new topics were explored, including the relationship between race and class and between capitalist development and apartheid. By emphasizing resistance to racial segregation in the past, South African historical writing assisted the process leading to the end of apartheid. By the time that happened, South African historical writing had become very nuanced and varied, but only to some extent integrated into the historiography of other parts of the African continent.
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200
Imperial expansion cast European sport, embedded with moral codes and social divisions, across Africa. The government, the church, schools, and the army encouraged colonized peoples to play sport because of its professed ability to discipline and to civilize. Yet sport in Africa developed in the context of existing local ideas about appropriate human movement. Over time, African sport reflected both indigenous and European organization, ideas, and aesthetics, with football (soccer) becoming a particular object of passion. The era of decolonization came with sporting independence. Sport provided a platform for newly independent African nations to consolidate national and pan-African identities and assert full membership and power in the international community, though it could prove divisive as much as integrative, depending on the situation. From continental cups to Western-style sport gatherings, continuities with imperial pasts informed postcolonial African sport. Yet sport also provided a bulwark of resistance against colonial hegemony and racist regimes on the continent. Well into the 20th century, boycotts of sport gatherings and events were threatened and carried out in protest against racist regimes in southern Africa.
Gregory H. Maddox
The Dar es Salaam School of African History refers to the work of a group of historians based at what became the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Led initially by Terrance O. Ranger, the scholars of the History Department there in the late 1960s focused on researching and writing a new history for a newly independent nation. The works produced focused on the idea of Africans making their own history and on the rise of anticolonial nationalism. They most immediately argued that common oppression by colonial states created the conditions for the development of organic national movements for liberation. This later aspect led this type of history to be called nationalist history.
By the late 1960s, historians at Dar es Salaam had developed a critique of nationalist history that used Marxist theory to explain the domination of Africa under colonialism and its continued subjection in the postcolonial era to the capitalist world system. Led at first by Walter Rodney but taken up by a number of younger Tanzanian historians, this movement led some to call it the New Dar es Salaam School. The proponents of this consciously radical approach to history argued that nationalist historians had romanticized African nationalist movements and failed to identify them as heirs to the opporesive and exploitative nature of colonialism. They concluded that independence represented only the first step in the true liberation of Africa. Both of these approaches to history have had significant influence on the study of African history across the continent.
Aubrey Bloomfield and Sean Jacobs
The Internet and social media increasingly are becoming sources about the African past and present in ways that will influence to some extent how history will be learnt and the form that methods of historical research will take. Social media have increasingly dislodged print journalism as “the first rough draft of history” and tended to democratize and hasten information sharing and communication. Historians are working through difficult debates about the Internet as a source archive, the usability of websites, and related matters. The debate over online resources and their use in historical and other studies on one level remains unresolved. Nevertheless, online sources add another rich layer to narratives, stories, and perspectives that are already being recorded or told, and in this regard they will add to the storehouse of empirical data to be crunched by future historians.
Joseph C. Miller
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a prominent producer of doctorates in African history since 1963. As of 2017 the institution had granted more than 110 degrees. Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina, both pioneers in launching the field, led the program until 1975 and were joined in 1969 by Steven Feierman. Together, they supervised an initial cohort of graduates, several of whom became leaders of the then still-formative field, particularly in its methodological infrastructure, as well as in economic and demographic history, slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, and medical history. The distinguishing features qualifying a diverse array of individual intellectual trajectories as a coherent “school” include a focus on epistemologically historical approaches anchored in the intellectual perspectives of Africans as historical actors and often also as they engaged broader commercial Atlantic and Indian Ocean and world contexts; smaller numbers of more recent doctorates had subsequently sustained these orientations.
Former graduates of the program, William W. Brown, David Henige, and Thomas T. Spear, returned after 1975 to update this framework by bringing social theory and cultural history to bear on the African historical actors at the program’s core. Since 2005, a third generation of faculty members, Neil Kodesh, James Sweet, and Emily Colacci (all students of Wisconsin PhDs teaching at other institutions), have added contemporary approaches to the Wisconsin school’s continuing commitment to Africans’ distinctive epistemologies as they engaged the flows of modern global history. Professionally, Madison graduates have, accordingly, led the ongoing effort to bring Africa in from its initial marginality—as the continent seen as uniquely without a history—into the historical discipline’s core. An aphoristic summary of the Wisconsin legacy might be “Africans’ worlds and Africans in the world.”
Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded.
Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves.
Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.
In the second half of the 19th century, French imperial expansion in the south of the Sahara led to the control of numerous African territories. The colonial rule France imposed on a diverse range of cultural groups and political entities brought with it the development of equally diverse inquiry and research methodologies. A new form of scholarship, africanisme, emerged as administrators, the military, and amateur historians alike began to gather ethnographic, linguistic, judicial, and historical information from the colonies. Initially, this knowledge was based on expertise gained in the field and reflected the pragmatic concerns of government rather than clear, scholarly, interrogation in line with specific scientific disciplines.
Research was thus conducted in many directions, contributing to the emergence of the so-called colonial sciences. Studies by Europeans scholars, such as those carried out by Maurice Delafosse and Charles Monteil, focused on West Africa’s past. In so doing, the colonial context of the late 19th century reshaped the earlier orientalist scholarship tradition born during the Renaissance, which had formerly produced quality research about Africa’s past, for example, about medieval Sudanese states. This was achieved through the study of Arabic manuscripts and European travel narratives. In this respect, colonial scholarship appears to have perpetuated the orientalist legacy, but in fact, it transformed the themes, questions, and problems historians raised.
In the first instance, histoire coloniale (colonial history) focused the history of European conquests and the interactions between African societies and their colonizers. Between 1890 and 1920 a network of scientists, including former colonial administrators, struggled to institutionalize colonial history in metropolitan France. Academic positions were established at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. Meanwhile, research institutions were created in French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française [AOF]), French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Équatoriale Française [AEF]), and Madagascar between 1900 and the 1930s.
Yet, these imperial and colonial concerns similarly coincided with the rise of what was then known as histoire indigène (native history) centered on the precolonial histories of African societies. Through this lens emerged a more accurate vision of the African past, which fundamentally challenged the common preconception that the continent had no “history.” This innovative knowledge was often co-produced by African scholars and intellectuals.
After the Second World War, interest in colonial history started to wane, both from an intellectual and a scientific point of view. In its place, the history of sub-Saharan Africa gained popularity and took root in French academic institutions. Chairs of African history were created at the Sorbonne in 1961 and 1964, held by Raymond Mauny and Hubert Deschamps, respectively, and in 1961 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, fulfilled by Henri Brunschwig. African historians, who were typically trained in France, began to challenge the existing European scholarship. As a result, some of the methods and sources that had been born in the colonial era, were adopted for use by a new generation of historians, whose careers blossomed after the independences.