Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Reclaiming the Promise of the Sociological Imagination in Africa

I have carefully chosen the theme of this address as ‘Reclaiming the Promise of the Socio logical Imagination in Africa’ because I believe this is one area where as sociologists in Africa we have played an insufficiently relevant and transformational role. While Sociology Departments (often incorporating Anthropology and Demography) around the continent have had worthy scholars like Ben Magubane, Dayo Akeredolu-Ale, Abdallah Bujra, Neville Alexander, Kwesi Prah, Archie Mafeje, Akin Akinwowo, Francis Okediji, Peter Ekeh, and
several other distinguished and engaged pioneers, the trend in more recent times as in other social science disciplines has been a proliferation of writing and materials wanting in imagination, vision or intellectual boldness. It is this recent trend of a sterile array of sociological production that demands that as sociologists, we need to challenge ourselves and to demand that we transcend our current overwhelming immersion in producing consultancy and agency-driven papers and materials or those that mainly address the concerns of our peer review journals or academic appraisal panels. While one concedes that these are critical for academic mobility, in many cases, they do not necessarily add in any substantial way to a knowledge that interprets or explains our social conditions to ourselves as Africans or contributes to transforming them.

The important message of this address is that it is however not too late to reclaim our relevance as sociologists and to map out the terrain of our enterprise in relation to the challenges we face in a country like Kenya and in Africa as a whole.

The urgency of this task can not be under stated as we enter a new millennium in Africa today and confront all the threats, challenges and opportunities that the 21st Century poses for us in relation to issues of global power and movements, new technologies and knowledge, alternative forms of social organisation and consciousness, the affirmation of and resistance to novel and irrelevant identities and politics, and the emergent waves and directions in the global struggles for rights and democracy, peace and social justice.

Yet we enter this new era as a people with an intense sense of individual and collective crisis and dislocation, almost in a state of Durkheimian anomie, with the world held under the twin grips of both state and non-state terror and violence and with enemies of social and individual emancipation regrouping every where. All of these are further complicated by an Africa where disease and ignorance have not been conquered or reduced as witnessed by the growth of the HIV/AIDS scourge, the persistence of hunger and famine, and the prevalence of mass poverty, war and gender violence that are reported daily in our mass media.

In response, our political and social leaders continue to stumble from one problem to another in a seeming state of political intoxication mixed with frenzied attempts at dealing with their own collective and individual insecurities, while ordinary Africans either continue to live with an optimism and resilience built on an incredible faith or get by through a combination of individual and collective bewilderment and/or narcotised locomotion.

The time therefore is ripe to challenge ourselves to rise to the occasion and use our discipline both as an interpretative and transformational medium and vehicle. The question for us then is why is it that as sociologists we have failed more than we have succeeded as relevant and authentic interpreters of African society and social relations. Why have we yielded the ground to those who practice ‘academic tourism’ as my friend, the historian Paul Tiyambe Zeleza of Pennsylvania State University, has termed it in his book Manufacturing African Studies.

In dealing with these questions, let us begin with our discipline, sociology, recognising all its historical, institutional and normative baggage and move on to explore how the appropriation, localisation and grounding of the discipline and its intellectual armoury can actually lead us to transformational and emancipatory agendas through robust and engaged efforts at interpreting and explaining ourselves. Talking about the socio logical imagination takes us to the
originator of the notion, the American radical sociologist, C. Wright Mills.

C. Wright Mills, writing in 1959, began his book, The Socio logical Imagination, as follows:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they can not overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct... Underlying this sense of being trapped are seemingly impersonal changes in the very structure of continent-wide changes.

Indeed this statement still rings true almost half a century later and thousands of kilometres away in Nairobi, Kenya from C. Wright Mills’s middle and working class America of the 1950s. Yet in that statement that attempts to characterise the modern human condition we can see C. Wright Mills struggling to carve out a mission for the discipline of Sociology in a world in which the claims to the discipline’s scientific status were – through the demand for and assertion of scientific objectivity – rooted in conventional Western Positivist neutrality.

But in the same opening pages of the book, C. Wright Mills equally asserted the universality of the modern human condition within the specificities defined by different historical contexts by asserting that: ‘The history that now affects everyman is world history. Within this scene and this period, in the course of a single generation, one-sixth of mankind is transformed from all that is feudal and backward into all that is modern, advanced and fearful. Political colonies are freed; new and less visible forms of imperialism installed. Revolutions occur; men feel the intimate grip of new kinds of authority. Totalitarian societies arise, and are smashed to bits – or succeed fabulously’.

From where we sit today, all these propositions sound so familiar, so contemporary, almost like the summary of the evening news on our local radio. And as if to elevate his writing to prophetic proportions that transcend his own period, C. Wright Mills went on further to declare that: ‘The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with values. And which values? Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feelings and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? That they can not under stand the meaning of their epochs for their own lives? Is it any wonder that they come to be possessed by a sense of the trap?’

Today at the beginning of the 21st Century, humankind remains confronted by the overwhelming sense of anomie, alienation and bewilderment that C. Wright Mills talked about almost 50 years ago. We face economic, political, military and cultural forces and dynamics that exclude and dominate the majority of persons (or incorporate them in a disadvantaged and unequal manner) both without their active consent and in many cases without their knowledge or ability to consciously shape the individual or collective directions that their lives often take. We also see these often in the terrible conditions of mass poverty, conflicts and wars, and ecological and other disasters that
characterise the lives of very many ordinary Africans today. Yet amidst all this chaos, change and movement, human beings, as Viktor Frankl has told us, possess a drive towards the search for meaning, for an explanation and interpretation that is somehow reasonable and makes sense of the experiences that people go through. Different forms of knowledge provide or point to their own answers. Religions and different faith systems, particularly through their theologies and metaphysics, offer explanations, guidance and directions determined
by belief and faith, while different schools of science offer their differing secular viewpoints.

As C. Wright Mills pointed out, Sociology as a discipline also offers its own analyses, explanations and interpretations through the specific lens of what he has called the socio logical imagination. This is a radical and humanistic interpretation of the human person and society and the nature and interplay of history, social forces, relations and structures in the expression and shaping of the human condition. It is this socio logical imagination or rather its promise that I propose that those of us who practise sociology in Africa reconsider and reclaim as part of our larger project of interpreting and providing meaning for
our societies and contemporary social condition. This is because a serious look at the practice and discipline of sociology in Africa today will show a situation of near abdication of the responsibility of attempting to give meaning or provide our own interpretation of our realities. More often than not sociologists are reduced to mimic men, institutional apologists, bean counters of processes and occurrences. We often demonstrate little or no imagination, neglecting the extensive wealth of imagery, processes and often changing structures and actions that characterise the dynamic and often turbulent social arenas and laboratories that constitute where we make our lives and livelihoods. What then is this socio logical imagination whose promise I am urging us to reconsider and reclaim and how is it relevant to our conditions as Africans today?

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