“What’s Distinctive About Africanist Historiography?”

Timothy Burke offers four ways to think about Africanist historiography:

1) The historiography of Africa is methodologically and/or epistemologically distinctive. Africanists have to think through problems of archival interpretation in creative ways, have to think about the status of oral narrative in new ways, have to grapple with debates about nomothetic and ideographic knowledge in a unique way, have distinctive issues with the validity of comparative or universal history, have to struggle with the “constructedness” of their field of knowledge in special ways.

2) The particular character of colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modern institutions in African history raises a distinctive range of questions for historians and anthropologists which has some comparative significance for understanding colonialism, globalizing capitalism or modernity in general.

3) The marginal or failed position of many African societies within contemporary global systems is a special challenge for many comparative or universal frameworks and requires historical investigation into the roots or causes of this marginality and thus to possible resolutions or addresses to these problems. (Or illuminates the extent to which all modernity is an incipient failure or in a state of unresolvable crisis, in some more pessimistic or critical frameworks.)

4) African societies (or some subset of African societies) have some distinctive material, cultural, philosophical character over their longue duree; studying the colonial era is just a way to focus an exploration of the particular character of African societies as they experienced new pressures from external forces and institutions.

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