Reflections from the African Studies Association (ASA) 2017

I was very excited to attend the African Studies Association (ASA) in Chicago from Nov. 16 – 18 in part because I recently attended the African Studies Association in Africa (ASAA) in Accra in October 2017. I was keen to observe the differences and possible similarities. Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed was the range of ages; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference that had such a wide spectrum of generations. I wish we had taken a group photo to illustrate the point! I came across a huge range of white-haired elderly men and women (largely white) (65+), “middle aged” black and white men and women (40s – 60), and young scholars of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds in their late 20s to late 30s.

I noted that while the conversations at ASAA were quite radical in their calls for decolonizing knowledge and bringing about a more African centered-ness in research and praxis, I did not feel the same sort of fervor and calls for radical disruption of the academy at the ASA. (Though it is hard to also be able to speak about ASA as a whole, because there were so many more people in attendance, approximately 1,300? and so hard to attend many of the sessions and even to get a sense of the hallway conversations simply given the scale of conversations.)

Another notable difference was that in contrast to rhetoric revolving about binaries of “African” / “non-African” at the ASAA, at the ASA, I felt much more of the disciplinary divides. While, my identity as an anthropologist is newly formed given that I only took my first class in anthropology two years ago (when I first entered UCI Anthropology department), the disciplinary differences, even within just the social sciences, appeared very stark. For example, during the last panel sessions on the last day of the conference, I listened to a roundtable that unbeknownst to me at the time, was entirely comprised of political scientists from one American university. I was particularly intrigued in the panel given the title: “The Forest and the Trees: Reflexivity on the African Research Industry.” However, instead of a discussion about the structural powers of development funding, institutions, historical legacy of colonialism, and the types of knowledges produced and favored (topics widely discussed at ASAA), the conversation focused much more on whether or not “insider” or “outsider” research work was insightful.

While I appreciated the intentions behind the questions (“the rationale for putting this panel together was to discuss how we are trying to navigate the constraints of the research environment”), given their supposed interest in the stated topic, I was floored by the seeming lack of awareness or acknowledgement about the long-standing nuanced discussions within feminist literature and anthropological work on similar questions of positionality, intersectionality, and implications for epistemology and methodology.

A white American man on the panel who works within a development institution in Nairobi stated:

“When you are living there [Kenya?] for a time, you learn to see things through a different lens. This moves you into a weird sort of zone… I flew in to Nebraska last week and was sitting across from my parents and asked – How did this happen? I don’t even know who you are… that doesn’t mean that I’ve become African…But I just felt that I don’t know this place [Nebraska]… I get annoyed in this country [USA]. But when I can work closely with Africans… work closely with Kenyans and wrestle with deep things. Empower them. When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together.”

This quote seemed to reveal someone grappling with their own identity (as we all do/are!) through a cultural experience abroad, but the problematic aspect of it was the idealizing of the working relationships “with Africans” that I heard. “When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together” sounds like exactly what a researcher promoting a participatory approach would advocate for… but especially given that this man was the supervisor for the Kenyan students that he saw as “collaborators” with the power to pass or fail them, how did they view their relationship with him? “Empowering”? I think we have an incomplete picture until we can hear their take on it and unfortunately, given that the conference was in Chicago and not Nairobi, his take on their relationship was the only one we heard…

After listening for over 30 minutes, I interjected that it sounded like panelists were collapsing citizenship and race to be the main frames for “insider” and “outsider.” To me, it appeared that they assumed that a Black African was the ultimate “insider” and a White American, the ultimate “outsider.” I brought up that subjectivity is relational and also performative (which they laughed because they took to mean conscious performance – a gap in understandings of the concept was revealed here). Flattening one’s identity into one aspect – whether it be gender, race, occupation, age, citizenship, etc. misses on the whole range of subjectivities and positions. To assume that shared “race” and citizenship for example means that someone understands (or can speak for) the country seems simplistic. For example, simply hiring a Kenyan to work with you does not mean that they have the “truth” that you [Westerner] do not… But they will likely have a different and helpful insight into the research work. Moving away from idealizing or romanticizing towards open discussions what each person brings to the table (and doesn’t!) fosters a research relationship that I think can lay the foundation for collaborative generative ideas across diverse backgrounds. Acknowledging the power asymmetries and structures in place that constraining, restrict and limit contributions is also important to think about and discuss. While historical privilege and asymmetries of power do not cease to exist simply through discussion (if they did, all the academic discussion about them would have solved them by now!! :), recognizing and grappling with them may in time lead to better ideas about how to begin to imagine, shift, reshape a more liberatory future.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, it was obvious that the ASA has come far from its original founding as an outside, Western center of knowledge on Africa. Members and leaders have incorporated critiques about Western production of knowledge about Africa and have attempted to broaden the range of perspectives in its decision making and power. I was very pleased to see the wide range of representation from many different parts of the continent. However, the lingua franca of the conference was still solely English (one of my suggestions for future iterations of the ASAA to improve on as well) and at the end of the day, the ASA is still a US-based event and organization. In this way, simply by the fact of being sited on the continent, the ASAA is a conference that both the ASA and scholars of Africa should support. @halimahima notes: “Delocalising an African Studies conference back to the continent is in itself a revolutionary act.” I look forward to attending both the ASAA and ASA in future years and observing changes over time in organizational goals and dynamics.

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