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The History and Historiography of Science  

Helen Tilley

There is no escaping the fact that the history of science took European places and people, broadly construed, as its original object of study. There is also no escaping that in African history, scholars interested in science, technology, and to a lesser extent environmental knowledge have concentrated the bulk of their investigative energies on developments since European (and North African) conquest. This focus on the period since the 1870s has tended to foreground dynamics relating to colonial rule and state-building, extractive economies and development, and decolonization and geopolitics. A handful of Africanists in the history of science have explicitly worked to cross the colonial divide, often taking single topics deeper back in time. The field as a whole, however, still needs to debate more systematically what the overarching narratives and benchmark phenomena should be for the precolonial periods. It also needs to grapple more explicitly with methodological tensions that arise from a focus on human agency and specific places (and the languages this requires) versus a focus on ideas, tools, and phenomena that transcend local or state containers (and the trade-offs this produces). As historians of science extend their reach into Africa’s pasts and bridge the colonial and post-colonial divides, it raises thorny questions about different approaches. Among others this includes how we produce histories of science, why they matter, and what we ought to bear in mind as we do. To this end, four goals are advanced here simultaneously: First, is the aim to open a dialogue with historians of science working outside Africa about ways Africanist scholarship speaks to and could be incorporated into the field as a whole (encouraging non-Africanists to consider the blind spots of “global” histories). Second, is the objective to draw attention to the pitfalls and benefits of different research methods and theoretical assumptions, especially as they relate to expert knowledge (an analysis that may be most useful for students entering the field). Third, is the ambition to explore a set of topics that connect deeper time periods to more recent developments (topics that invite critical scrutiny from specialists and generalists alike). Finally, is the desire to foreground the many different ways people across sub-Saharan Africa have initiated, responded to, and been incorporated into the production of knowledge. Africa has been a site of rich and varied epistemological and material experiments for millennia—some deleterious, some beneficial, and all imbued with different kinds of power. Acknowledging this long-standing history can serve to correct stereotypes that suggest otherwise. It can also contribute to debates within the history of science as the field continues to move away from its original focus on Europe and Europeans.