I recently read a discussion of Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, the latest book by influential political scientist of Africa, Patrick Chabal by a group of Africanists. The discussion was commissioned by Critical African Studies, and included commentaries from, Stephen Chan, Sara Rich Dorman, Preben Kaarsholm, Murray Last, Dieter Neubert,Ian Taylor, Nicolas van de Walle, Jan Kees van Donge.

Chabal writes, in the introduction to the discussion:

The chapters in the book derive from my understanding of how the political plays out at the local level in the unfolding of individual and collective lives – from birth to death. The chapters seek to reflect the cycle of life as it is presently experienced in Africa. They chart the incremental complexity of lives as they are lived, from the consolidation of social identity to the search for resources and status, all the while facing the pitfalls of a perilous, and often unforgiving, material existence.

This perspective is something that he claims is absent from studies by political scientists who, according to him, favour large N studies. You can be sure that it is one of the claims that was taken up in the discussion. Sara Rich Dorman of the School of Social and Political Science, Uni... writes:

I am baffled by his insistence in Suffering and Smiling that Africanist political science is typified by ‘large N’ studies (2009: 176) ignoring the efforts of scholars based in the US, Europe and Africa who carry out much more grounded, interpretative research. As an editor of an African studies journal which publishes mostly political science research, my experience has been that only a tiny fraction of our submissions derive from ‘large N’ studies. By far the most important publications in recent years – by scholars both established and emerging – draw on descriptive, interpretative methods foregrounding the understanding of local realities and making sense of day to day politics, embedded in global networks and tensions.

Although the book uses the title of one of Nigerian Musician Fela Kuti’s most popular songs, Suffering and Smiling, in its title, there is a remarkable lack of smiling in the book. This is the point Murray Last focuses on in his discussion, a point that ties in rather nicely with a comment Keith Hart left on another thread here. Murray Last:

The emphasis of this book on suffering at the expense of smiling raises a more serious issue: why are ‘western’ scholars so obsessed with suffering, especially the suffering of others? Is it the strong value given to compassion? Or a sense of guilt for the misery of others? Or an easy way of grand-standing, of expressing a certain benign superiority? I am reminded of one medieval description of Heaven as having a balcony from which the Blessed could enjoy the spectacle below them of the Damned writhing in an excruciating Hell – in Heaven, schadenfreude is one of the treats, and is apparently much appreciated. But colleagues in Africa get very fed up with the ceaseless misery that western scholars like to focus upon in their analyses of African daily life as if that was all there was to say about people on the continent. I would argue that the way people manage or simply cope with the hardships of life is as significant – perhaps more significant – to know about and understand than the hardships themselves. How violence is ‘healed’ (or not) should concern us as much as violence itself. I am suggesting, rather crudely, that since Patrick Chabal’s book lies, for me, within a broader western genre of ‘misery memoir’, any debate we might have about it should also look beyond his particular text.

One other point that came out of the discussion - which is especially of interest here - is the fact that Chabal is trying to write a political anthropology for beginners. To this, Dieter Neubert of the department of Development Sociology, Bayreuth University writes:

The strength of anthropological studies lies in ethnographic description grounded in the detailed analysis of specific localities, yet Chabal’s book does not concern itself with empirical proof of this nature. This makes it difficult for Chabal to adequately support his call for political scientists to adopt a more anthropological focus for their studies, embracing the kind of methodological approaches outlined by Clifford Geertz in his concept of ‘thick description’. He argues that political scientists need to acknowledge the importance of what he identifies as the ‘key aspects of African societies’, yet this claim remain rather abstract. Anthropologists understand what Chabal means when he refers to the role of witchcraft in politics, yet this is not explained to readers who are unfamiliar with social anthropology and as a result they are left to simply accept Chabal’s assertion of its importance rather than being convinced by evidence to support his claim. This is not just a question of methodology, but also a question of how his arguments can be presented to non-anthropologists. The use of some empirical examples supported with references to the work of other scholars would have helped to bridge that gap.

Which is rather surprising for someone who complains that conventional political science is full of large N studies.

This leads to the main point here, and that is the question: what is a political anthropology of Africa? How does one approach the study of politics from an anthropological point of view, if one does not want to buy into catchy phrases like Africa Works, Prebendalism and Politique du Ventre, phrases that conceal more than they reveal? In short, what would be the subject of study of a political anthropology of the Africa of today?

I have uploaded the pdf file of the discussion.

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Replies to This Discussion

Ooof ... that _is_ a tough question. I would have trouble even saying what political anthropology is ... politics suffuses anthropology, whether we say so or not, and acting like it doesn't is more trouble than it's worth. My two cents is that anthropology, when speaking of political anthropology, refers primarily to the methodology, involving ethnography and qualitative studies, of political processes - power, decision-making, re-distributive processes and others.

Let me know if you come up with something more precise than my gropings-in-the-dark.
I think that a political anthropology of Africa is more likely to be about politics with a small p than Politics with a big P. Peter Wrosley once explained the former through an example of what the Chinese Communist party first did in Hunan. they banned playing cards and the placing of flowers on ancestors graves, since they believed both activities reproduced peasants' attachment to traditional society. So the big issue in Africa is what to do about the old men who run modern states and village society. How are women and young people resisting their rule? I would say through religion (especially Pentecostalism and Sufism), the informal economy and the modern arts, bypassing the structures of generation and gender control.



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