Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Framing the challenge and the context of Contemporary Africa Sociology today

A major fact of contemporary sociology is that a lot of changes have occurred in the discipline since the times of C. Wright Mills. Sociology has undergone tremendous changes in its substantive issues, methodology and theories. It has reframed its language, conceptual frame works, and its methodological slant since Mills took on the dominant paradigm of
Parsonian structural functionalism. The discipline has re-engaged Western and other modernity and as a result of its reflexive nature, sociology as it confronts modernity, interprets it, is itself transformed and through its interpretations transforms both our knowledge of and the nature of modernity. In the process, knowledge has proclaimed the era of several ‘Posts’ – post-industrial, post-modern, post-development, post-colonial. One cannot be sure that the final word is in on the ‘posts’ characterisation and how much it applies to the wide variety of social conditions and experiences that are found in our very diverse and uneven world today. But the ‘post’ characterisation has been useful for re-affirming the transcendental nature of our practice and our human condition. While it might not have answered our questions, it has shown that in living and studying we often go beyond and surpass what we study and who we are and thereby offers us the recognition of the unending dynamic nature of historical existence and knowledge.

In spite of the assertion of post-modernity, post-development and
post-coloniality, Africa remains with certain key characteristics and elements, namely the pervasiveness of poverty, the instability of political order and regimes, and the weakness of democratic political institutions and economies. There is also the limited nature of public access to social services, the relative backwardness of its physical infrastructures, techno logical and scientific enterprises and production, and the openness of its polities and societies to a higher degree of external influence and control while resource flows and benefits from foreign sources remain minimal. All of these raise important questions about the extent to which one can claim that the ‘colony’ or development in Africa has been transcended. Indeed, the so-called new forces of globalisation have not significantly made African lives better.

Of course, the sociology of development, or rural development, or development studies are all very popular areas of study in the different Sociology Departments all over the continent and they and their scholars and students provide abundant substantive evidence and controversies around the issues identified above.

The important thing to remember is Africa’s crisis of poverty, democratisation and the problems of peace and social justice are not unique to Africa. Africa is not exceptional with regard to the presence of crisis or the failure of the improvement of the human condition, but in terms of scale and persistence, there is the need to do a lot more to deal with these issues than has been done so far, and this is where African sociologists and African intellectuals must rise to the challenge. To do this, Africans must interpret and explain Africa. We must engage and identify our problems. We must find our solutions and own them. In other words, we must reclaim our voices and our minds by providing our own narratives. Africa must be its own interpreter through generating its own knowledge, discourses, stories, myths and narratives. Western social science’s interpretation of the world was its own. It produced its own interpretations, narratives and mythologies. These narratives and knowledge, although they contained similarities of experiences and lessons for us, were particular and specific discourses that were universalised because of the dominant nature of
Western modernity. The rest of the world found aspects of these constructions of realities acceptable and used them, and in many other cases, as Claude Ake pointed out in ‘Social Science as Imperialism’, had them imposed on us.

Today, almost half a century after so-called end of colonisation, our stories and the interpretations of Africa continue to be delivered and affirmed through the lenses and prisms of predominantly non-Africans. Through these discourses, they offer analyses and solutions which often we do not share, accept or own. In many cases, Africans are not completely sure of the meaning or the dimensions of the vested interests lodged in these discourses. How then can Africans transform themselves when all we do is receive knowledge, practices and institutions? This is the very reason why we need to reclaim the promise of the socio logical imagination as a tool to liberate our knowledge and our interpretation from the tyranny of received practices, institutions and knowledge. I see the need for this intellectual emancipation as important in our future as relevant sociologists.

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