Reflecting On the Challenges of Studying “Africa” Objectively
“Africa” is a common knowledge, through daily news and pseudo-scientific publications. That is, in addition to being watched from afar, it is constantly talked about and heard of, but usually for the wrong reasons: If it is not much about a military coup in Mali (again), it would be about the intractable civil war in Libya, or the repeated terrorist attacks across the continent. Corruption is another trademark plaguing the continent, not unlike the "third termism", extreme poverty, widespread (youth) unemployment, etc. Thus, very "few objects are indeed as loaded with ordinary knowledge as this continent which appears daily in street discussions, in newspapers and on television screens" (Gazibo, 2010).
Yet, behind this “ordinary” and generalized knowledge about Africa, there is an inherent risk, especially for any observer who wants to take a lucid look at this continent that the imagination wants to be as distant as it is mysterious. That is a major challenge confronting any attempt to have an objective look at the continent. Faced with such a risk, there is a need to resort to scientific methodological approach, anchored on a neutral view of the observer and oriented towards the search for objectivity. Thus, the widespread calls for respecting “a certain number of methodological precautions” aims to prevent endeavors that claim to be scientific from being nothing other than a prop cliché or an equally damaging “angelism with a redemptive aim”, a kind of defensive posture devoid of critical self-reflection.
If the first is the product of a long and cruel history based on slavery and colonization, the second is intended to be defensive against that historical encroachment. The problem, however, is that reproducing these engrained clichés completely disregards the basic methodological principle about not making value judgments. But the uncritical “angelism” equally contravenes methodological principles about keeping objective distance and an impassionate engagement with the subject matter. But here, I’m digressing.
What is of particular interest to me here is a reflection on the conditions of production of (scientific) knowledge on Africa. As mentioned, the origin of the prejudices on Africa, of the crystallization of the negative image associated with this continent as well as the consequent obstacles to the neutrality of research on this subject matter, “Africa”, could be traced back to slavery and then colonization. In fact, according to Gazibo (2010), among other, these two phenomena were crucial moments for strengthening the distorted vision developed on Africa. Unfortunately, that logic still nourishes many works devoted to the continent. Yet, the ultimate and critical task that should preoccupy us all is for these endeavors to be faithful in their analyses of the subject of study. In order words, depicting the continent as it is with its complexity and in its ups and downs.