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A reflection on knowledge production in Africa: questions of epistemology and research for social transformation in Africa.

1. Introduction: Objectives and General Issues

My main objectives in this short article are to define various issues related to the conceptualization of what knowledge production entails in contemporary Africa; to raise some epistemological issues related to these definitions and the conceptualization and consumption of this knowledge; and to examine the questions of knowledge production for whom and for what, which touches on the issue of culture and that of the request and struggles for social transformation in Africa.

Knowledge production has actors, consumers and institutions, and the processes of knowledge production are essentially social and political. The producers have their interests, just as the consumers have theirs. Thus, this essay is a generalized critical reflection on knowledge production in Africa within the existing political systems or regimes, with special attention being paid to the question of epistemology and research for social transformation in Africa.

Recently, some economists have argued that the economy of the future will be knowledge based and not commodity based. Knowledge production, as a transformative tool, is becoming borderless, as it is a space in which anyone with an appropriate and relevant education can compete. However, it should be noted that social and intellectual borders are still firm in the existing systems of production of knowledge as far as neoliberal globalization is concerned. Although I disagree with the political assumptions behind this neoliberal thinking, their logic regarding the quality of knowledge and the values of knowledge production can be relevant, especially with my perspectives on the need for a political remapping of the world.

There is no single method, discipline or approach through which knowledge can be produced universally or internationally and used to either transform a given society or to maintain its status quo. My reflections are based on the generalized claims and assumptions of social sciences about knowledge and research. All the disciplines of social sciences, for instance, suffer from the struggles of claiming to be scientific in the political location of their inquiries.

I believe that knowledge production matters in Africans' efforts and the states' policies toward development. We cannot transform what we do not know. It is through socialization, education and research that we can acquire knowledge. What makes such knowledge socially relevant?

In the light of the current objective African conditions, the failures of neoliberal economics and particular conditions of higher education systems in Africa, the nature of university-based kinds of knowledge production and their relevance are intellectually and socially challenged. African higher education in the twenty-first century, despite some curriculum changes, is still characterized by a prevalent organization and production of knowledge deriving from the European colonial legacy and its unfolding of new developments that have been dominated by the information and communication technologies (Assie-Lumumba, 2004).

In the center of knowledge production and its circulation in Africa are the following critical questions: How does society learn things? What does it learn them? Moreover, what does it do with the learned information? An attempt to deal dialectically with these questions leads us to the issue of the transformation of society from the dynamics of research and the power of knowledge.

My claims and arguments are contextualized by the imperatives of contemporary African politics, which are synthesized in the policies and practices of colonial Africa, those of post-colonial Africa, of neoliberal globalism, and the goals of the social struggles that emerged out of them.

Human society produces and reproduces itself biologically and socially through its complex knowledge systems. These systems, whether they are formal, informal or non-conforming, embody the propositions of the society of the future, the values of the society of the past and the objectivity of the present. The features of the past, present and future are often synthesized by power-society relations in non-linear systems. However, making and transmitting knowledge systems from the past to the present is not a natural and random phenomenon. Each epoch, based on the political, military and economic objectives of its leadership and its relationship with the society and the world, increasingly reflects some selected dimensions of those systems than others.

Knowledge production in contemporary Africa has taken place through the various processes and mechanisms of different traditions and histories, different forms of political regimes and different levels of economic and industrial approaches. Contemporary Africa is an entity that was colonized, and Africa also has been politically decolonized. The movements between colonization and decolonization have created some autonomous political space, in which many positive changes are expected to occur, or what we call social progress.

2. General Claims, Premises and General Approaches

Methodologically, when we talk about knowledge production in Africa, we have to take into account primary differences among the African states and societies. However, African states are historically part of the world's state of affairs. Africa also was colonized by Western nation-states--with a few exceptions. African economies are part of the global economy. However, Africa has her own cultural, social and historical configurations that can be generalized. Furthermore, most of her states have been reacting almost similarly to the global agenda and desiderata of their constructors.

Methodologically, I further argue that the perceptions of, and/or about, Africa only in terms of negativity and failures or conflicts and crises, as they have become part of the dominant scholarship, contribute enormously to weakening the foundation for building a critical theory about Africa--one that is emerging in and out of Africa. A methodology to study Africa comprehensively and to elevate her achievements can create a balanced way of thinking (mental attitudes and dispositions) that is needed for re-defining African realities objectively.

My holistic approach puts emphasis on change. In real-life experience, things do not just happen. Contradictions are not always pathological. We have to distinguish between primary contradictions and secondary contradictions. If contradictions are studied well they also can serve as a foundation for a paradigm shift. Not all knowledge systems in Africa are transformative. I am interested in socially transformative knowledge because it may be more legitimate than the knowledge system that polarizes and divides the majority of people.

In most African societies in the past four decades since they gained political independence, we have seen a high demand from the international and national markets, from societies/parents and states to produce knowledge systems that are pragmatic, technical and more specialized within the imperatives of neoliberal globalization, to be used towards solving African social problems and the African productive role in global systems. This demand came about as a result of many combined factors: for instance, the World Bank, as the donor, argued in the 1980s and early 1990s that Africa did not need higher education, claiming that the level of African development required was mostly pragmatism and efficiency, and that the management of university education led to a waste of resources; parents/communities wanted also to see their children earn high incomes and change their social status, which was not happening quickly, as many Africans who graduated from the colleges and universities were not absorbed into the job markets in their societies.

In some countries in the 1980s we even observed de-schooling taking place, as university diplomas were considered a disease (see Ronald Dore, 1976). Thus, university graduates became socially unproductive, at a high cost for African societies. The phenomenon of lumpen-intellectualism has contributed to discouraging a large number of the African youth from pursuing higher education with hope and enthusiasm. However, the causes of lumpen-intellectualism cannot be limited to the job market propositions or administrative dimensions of knowledge. We have to ask: what kinds of graduates have African institutions of higher education been producing? What disciplines owned and controlled such an education and its knowledge system? In short, the question of education for whom, and that of what kinds of education, are central in the arguments, as they lead us to go beyond the simplistic market arguments.

The market argument, although important, is limited because it does not address the main issue of the role that critical knowledge plays in any society, yet this knowledge is the key in any kind of reconceptualization of the development paradigms from which African societies have suffered. No contemporary society has been able to develop or progress without having its own thinkers or critics as the vanguards of social development. Africa will not be able to progress only through the thinking of others.

The justification of my views about knowledge production in Africa is contextualized on the basis of the following three premises, which I use to base and support my claims:

The first premise is that, despite the good intention of many African political leaders, African states and African ruling elites in continuously being guided or misguided to copy, or directly or indirectly imitate the European experience and its "unilinear models" of political development, Africa will never develop organically and ontologically out of Euro-American history, its languages and its metaphysics, regardless of the quality of its imitations. Africa cannot progress out of the forces of her alienation. However, no society can develop out of autarky. Africans also can assimilate from others, but whatever they borrow from other people's experiences has to be injected selectively into African national projects, and appropriated and owned by Africans before it positively can be part of the African metaphysics and ethos, and the African experience. Development or social progress is organic.

The second premise is that no people, nation or continent can progress socially without first building the foundation for its actions on its own history and culture. George Santayana's well-known adage--"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it (1924, 284)"--provides a relevant historical perspective to contextualize the arguments, analytical perspectives and recommendations in this work. To support Santayana's idea I would like to paraphrase both Aime Cesaire--"A people without a history is a people without a memory," and John Henrik Clarke--"History is a compass which tells us where we are and what time it is (1993)."

In the contemporary world, the limit of such history and the quality of its strength are determined by the level of social and political consciousness of a given society, its leadership, and the capacity of its political and social institutions to change for the benefit of the whole. Without this perspective, this work would not have any serious understanding of the situation in Africa within a changing and turbulent, complex world.

This second premise stipulates that African political history and cultures and their contradictions must be engaged with critically to avoid the projection of their romanticization as a tool to create social synthesis. The contradictions, as difficult conditions, should not always be perceived and defined as pathological. They may also create opportunities. Out of the contradictions, humans have made synthetic judgments or assessments on what directions to follow in defining and redefining them. Africa must be reinvented as a development paradigm (see Mudimbe, 1988).

Finally, the third premise is about the role of "social consciousness" in development efforts. Social consciousness means knowledge of the self as a social fabric. It is a product of dialectic relationships between cognitive knowledge and social awareness. Human beings do not consciously choose to be born in any given place, nor do they choose their parents, but they define themselves as Africans, Asians, Europeans, black, white, yellow, etc., based on complex processes of interactions of physiology, geography, mythology, power and history. The process of becoming firstly is a result of some immanent historical accident. However, what is more important in our definition of Africans is what people can or should do after they have been projected out there into the African context. Simply put, individual choices and decisions to shape their destinies and to create social meanings and define things, including themselves are deterministically and rationally more important and authentic than what deities did or do on their single objective of trying to maintain an absolutist universe, even if humans ought to dialogue with some principles related to this objective.

This is to say that the "social consciousness" of being someone is the most important determining factor in how one defines and redefines oneself in a given physical and social environment. Consciousness is a critically and objectively defined phenomenon. If we are, we have to act. The question is act to do what and become what?

3. Issues about Knowledge Production in Africa

In contemporary Africa, knowledge production is done through private, independent, state or international research centers, universities, the community of scholars and individual scholars. In social, natural and mathematical sciences, the above entities intend to produce knowledge that is called scientific: tested, verifiable, quantitative and predictable. However, in Africa in general, this knowledge generally has been segmented by social and political environments that have not allowed genuine innovation, creativity and originalities to take place. Why is it this way?

My focus is on knowledge production that is made in African higher education systems, where research was supposed to be done. As stated earlier, I acknowledge differences in higher education systems in Africa. But my informed, general theoretical perspectives can be used to shed light on any particular kinds of education systems.

Without going into any detail, as this has been covered by many scholars, I would like to start by stating that African higher education systems are arenas of power, hierarchy, political struggles and political change. Regardless of when, where and how African universities were created, the goals and conditions can be summarized in the following statements by Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo and N'Dri Assie-Lumumba (2011: 257):
   The arguments can be summarized as follows: public African
   universities were created as part of the core ideas, thoughts,
   desires and hopes of the African peoples as central instruments of
   social progress and policy discourses toward the advancement of
   nation-building, regardless of people's social classes, gender,
   ethnic and/or religious affiliations, and the political agenda of
   the state. The consensus that emerged without any systematic public
   debates was generalized across all social categories and states.
   Universities were intended to quickly produce the necessary human
   capacities in teaching and producing new knowledge and in providing
   new skills, in conducting research and in managing and distributing
   knowledge. The universities were both the mirrors of new societies
   and microcosms of the new elite with the tasks and the mission to
   lead African societies toward development. This was a gigantic

Due to the centrality of knowledge production in most African universities and in the African search for development paradigms, regardless of the states' traditions and histories associated with the colonial powers, African governments used and maintained some welfarist policies to sponsor higher education. Although the quality of education was different, the structures of most African university were not different from European-British ones. Higher education then received the largest share of funds allocated by governments to education. African countries made major achievements in institutional building and enrollment in the immediate post-independence period. Compared with the initial numbers of students enrolled, the raw numbers, and especially the rates of increase, were impressive. These universities were elitist and "designed to respond to the imperatives of scientific research, inquiries, learning and possibilities in all sectors of life, covering all possible disciplines as articulated by the national government" (Lumumba-Kasongo & Assie-Lumumba, 2011: 258).

While the production of knowledge varies from one country to another or one institution to another, it generally has been organized within a framework of the "national political agenda" of the state under its sovereignty and its autonomous territoriality. However, the content of such knowledge was less national than the structure in which knowledge was transmitted.

The major question is: what kinds of knowledge are African social science researchers and teachers producing? Three types of knowledge generally have been produced: (a) general knowledge, to be used for the purpose of general education; (b) specialized knowledge, to be used by policy makers to solve African problems; and (c) intellectualistic knowledge, used within a given discipline to shape the status of such a discipline. The nature of the relationship between these types of knowledge raises an epistemological issue: how does one produce knowledge?

All these types of knowledge have not developed well in most countries due to the weaknesses of political regimes and their peripheral economies, their political allergy to knowledge, and the influences of external donors in determining, to a large extent, what kinds of knowledge African systems should produce.

Generally, knowledge should come from the analysis and understanding of specific or concrete historical conditions or experiences. The context is as important as the theory one is using to explain or to interpret what is being studied. The context contains three important dimensions: the political dimension in which the study is being conducted; the intellectual milieu of the researcher, and the social and economic locations of those individuals, communities or whatever are being studied.

The place of culture in this broad context is important in both knowledge production and knowledge circulation. Culture is the totality of thought and practice by which a people creates itself, celebrates, sustains and develops itself, and introduces itself to history and humanity. This activity occurs in at least seven basic areas: (1) history; (2) religion (religion, spirituality and ethics); (3) social organization; (4) economic organizations; (5) political organizations; (6) creative production (arts, music, literature, dance and theater) and (7) ethos (Karenga, 2002: 546-547).

The reduction of culture or ethnicity to tribalism, irrationality and particularism by colonial and colonizer scholars made African social sciences irrelevant. Until recently, cultural dimensions were missing as an important positive part of the university curriculum. Most of the African nation-states developed their universities from both the social contestation perspective and neocolonial approaches within the global political economy. However, the state agenda won over that of the people. And in most cases, social contestations were crushed by new political elites and their masters in the metropolis and in transnational organizations.

Until recently, most African universities and research centers have used received systems of knowledge as the only valid systems available. These institutions benefited from donors, foundations and foreign governments because they partially or fully accepted the received knowledge as the foundation of their curriculum. This led to the political validation of neo-imperialist knowledge as the dominant form of knowledge. The colonial or metropolitan institutions had already defined the received knowledge and its methodologies, as taught in many African universities. In general, African nation-states and people were viewed largely as anonymous consumers. The origins of this knowledge essentially were outside of the African context, and were used only as a tool for interpreting African conditions, but not as a philosophy for understanding African conditions.

As natural science research and technological progress are founded upon a relatively cumulative production of knowledge, the key concepts are explained and predicted based on context-independent theories. The social sciences have always found themselves in a situation of constant reorganization, characterized by a multiplicity of directions. The consequence of this is that knowledge of natural sciences has acquired higher prestige within society, and it socially comes with more rewards and authority.

As Bent Flyvbjerg (2001: 30) states:
   The study of human science is somewhat younger than the natural
   sciences; it has not benefitted from the same resources as has been
   the study of nature; their object of study--human activity is more
   complex; their conceptual apparatus and research methods need to be
   more refined; and with more time for further development and
   refinement, there should, in principle, be nothing in the way of
   social sciences achieving the same paradigmatic stage as the
   natural sciences, becoming cumulative, stable and predictive.

Within these human experiences that many scholars have focused on, it has become urgent to invent systems of knowledge production that, first of all, are African or African centric. This does not imply the exclusion of other views or an autarkic way of learning, but only helps to prioritize what is being learnt and why that is relevant.

People tend to learn quicker or faster about what intellectually or historically appears to be closer to them. From the view of multiculturalism and globalization, Africans should be able to learn from others through a synthetic learning process and the fusionist approach of Japanese society. After more than 200 years of almost total political isolationism (Tokugawa era: 1603 and 1868), during the Meiji restoration, which started in 1868, the Japanese imperial decision and the government policy re-focused on education as the foundation for progress. Thus, they started learning from the outside world as much as possible, especially from the West and injected what was learned, in a systematic manner, into the Japanese culture, ethos and needs. Fusionism is not assimilationism. It is a synthesis. It is imperative that we learn from African indigenous systems, which should be elaborated critically to avoid romanticization and ultranationalist approaches to knowledge production.

For knowledge production in Africa to be socially relevant, some epistemological issues should be dealt with. For instance, where does knowledge come from? How is it produced and consumed? And who should manage it?

Within the existing global and national contexts of most African political regimes, and the societal hierarchy, knowledge is produced by academic institutions, intellectuals and researchers (the so-called middle class). It is through research that it is produced. However, most of these groups do not have enough or sufficient means of controlling knowledge. This is managed only by small groups or limited institutions, which have the means and which benefit from this vertical managerial process. We argue that the interests of the actors must be identified and challenged in any genuine research project, or in any setting of a new curriculum. It should be noted that in most of African nation-states knowledge that is more consumed by policymakers and governmental officials is still essentially the received knowledge (Ake, 1979) from the political, economic and cultural domination of colonial and neo-colonial institutions (delete from that has a political influence flavor). True knowledge is hidden in a critical inquiry and in the independence of the researchers.

4. Conclusion

The producers of knowledge and the institutions in which knowledge are produced should not be microcosms of contemporary African societies and their contradictions. They should be the critical arenas in contemporary African societies. They should be able to produce relevant data, devise feasible scenarios and project the future within their critical investigation of social phenomena.

The inadequacy of the means for supporting knowledge production in Africa, and the lack of government interest in developing appropriate institutions and the most effective means of knowledge production in many African societies, are some of the important African maladies.

African universities and research centers, and African researchers and intellectuals, should value knowledge production as the first step toward developing new development paradigms in Africa. But this will not be accomplished until the African nation-states develop genuine dialogues with African researchers within the framework of academic freedom, the commitment to support research and the democratization of the state's apparatus.

There is a need for an "endogeneity" in knowledge production in Africa. In order to formulate this "endogeneity," it is necessary to domesticate the university, its curriculum, and its universal and global agendas. While social scientists can learn from the natural and mathematical sciences' methodologies, their sampling and laboratories, for instance, are not fixed. Their methodologies are human experiences, with their specificities and particularities. Thus, there is a need to continue with traditions of strong empirical observation and a high dose of comparative, philosophical and historical approaches.

Engagement with knowledge production in Africa requires political activism, a critical theory and rigorous interdisciplinary and multidimensional intellectual approaches. Historically, no contemporary society has been able to develop (or significantly progress) without having its own organic intellectuals playing a permanent, vital role in raising critical issues in the national discourse and in making policy recommendations that can transform the whole society.


Cornell University


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Author:Lumumba-Kasongo, Tukumbi
Publication:Knowledge Cultures
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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