Friday, 17 August 2012

The Tyranny of Received Sociological Practices and Institutions in Africa

The history and politics that surround this tyranny are closely related to the way the structures and practices that reproduce the domination of specific knowledge systems were created and reproduced. Both Ake in ‘Social Science As Imperialism’ and Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ have shown us how this was done. As a result of the structures of power that built dominant knowledge, African societies and contexts have also received strategic
institutions, establishments and practices that supported unequal and uneven relationships, exchange and power situations. The institutions and practices that supported and reproduced the domination of Africa and are today used in Africa are not innocent or neutral institutions and practices. Because they have not been subjected to sufficiently critical scrutiny and interrogation, and therefore re-invented and appropriated towards African ends and interests, these have been unable to provide the necessary instruments for transformation. There is obviously the question of both what is African and what constitutes African interests. These are not new and are the subjects of debates by scholars such as Mudimbe, Mamdani and Appiah as they deal with issues of identity, nativism and citizenship.

But the issue here is that most African countries and societies today operate with institutions, practices, identities and consciousness derived from their colonial encounters and received from their colonial rulers. How much have these been appropriated, adapted and transformed to the benefits of the citizens and peoples of Africa is a question that most of us cannot answer in the positive. What is the state today of the institution of justice? What are the key developments in politics and the economy? What changes have occurred in the family, marriage and kinship? What has happened to education and religion? How have all these affected and been affected by peoples? In many cases, the received institutions and practices have been perverted and stunted to the extent that they brutalise and oppress ordinary Africans as much as under conditions of non-African rule. Sociology in Africa has a task to demystify and unveil these institutions and practices, to explain their limitations and the conditions for their reproduction and to show the limits of repression no matter under what system and the possibilities of emancipation. So far the literary and the creative arts have done more of this type of work. Sociology by its very makeup and its concerns with the human social condition has an equal contribution to make in demystifying and examining politics, power and status, social class, bureaucracy, the military, the family, violence, work and labour, sexuality and religion in Africa today. All of these have institutions, practices and values. Sociology is equipped to engage the sacred and profane, pain and pleasure, hate and love, peace and war, the ordinary and the exceptional, the private and the public, squalour and splendour, not as polarities but in their intricate relationships as they express themselves in and determine and are deter mined by the lives of people. Sociology is actually about engaging the routine, ordinary and dramatic social constructions of lives and realities in their sacred and profane forms. It is a terrain where we can interrogate dispassionately and with commitment the under lying dynamics, drives and relations that define and propel what we consider to be given, routine and ordinary, and those forces that are dramatic, disruptive and unusual.

How do we as sociologists in Africa deploy all the capabilities and capacities at our disposal to make sense of these institutions and practices not only to understand and interpret them but change them in order to have a better world, no matter how we conceive it? How do we as sociologist interpret and unpack even our conceptions of a better world and of our role and place in it? The answers to these questions reside in the extent to which we reclaim the promises of the socio logical imagination.

I want to leave us all with the following questions:
Why do we research and publish? Why is it important that we have journals of sociology? Is it only to provide us a medium of our academic expression, erudition and mobility? Or is it so that we can as well as African sociologists are interpreters of our own situations and conditions?

To help with our thoughts, a quotation from Edward Said, also a great admirer of C. Wright Mills, in the ‘Representations of the Intellectual’, provides some guidance:

At bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is nether a pacifier nor a consensus builder but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas or ready-made clich├ęs, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do... This is not a matter of being a critic of government policy, but rather of thinking of the intellectual vocation as maintaining a state of constant alertness, of a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along.

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