19 March 2014

Africa: Five Things to Remember When Researching Africa


On Monday 18th January, I attended a conference to showcase PhD research organised by the Africa Research Student Network, which provides a forum for London-based, Africa-focused research students to discuss and learn from one another's work.

The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Funmi Olonisakin, founding Director of the African Leadership Centre; here are five things to remember when researching Africa, inspired by Dr Olonisakin's talk.

1. Africa does not exist in a vacuum

Key moments in world history have an undeniable impact on international engagement with Africa. The end of the Cold War led to the spread of romantic ideals about the continent's future; notions aptly encapsulated by unrealistic and hopeful portrayals of Mali as a burgeoning democracy.

The advent of 9/11 prompted security fears over "ungoverned spaces", which have helped justify interventions, increased security assistance and a growing foreign military presence on the continent. Today, with the repercussions of the financial crisis still being keenly felt, much is currently being made of Africa's "economic promise", as the world craves bright spots on the global horizon.

2. A multi-disciplinary approach is essential

People do not experience life in compartments or isolated from wider economic, social and political developments.

Even though your focus might be conflict or agricultural development, it is all but impossible to stay within the confines of your discipline and to truly do your subject justice.

Since research on Africa is contemporary by nature and directly affects those alive on the continent today, researchers need to engage and think as expansively as they can.

3. Never stop developing relationships

By cultivating relationships over time, researchers acquire "convening power", which means they can bring together influential figures in discussions that might not otherwise have happened, validating their own work in the process.

Relationships should be reciprocal, with final findings relayed back to those who provided the original information or data. Those who conduct interviews and collect data only to never be heard from again make it more difficult for future researchers.

4. Conduct yourself with integrity

The closer you get to your subject, the harder it is to remain impartial or as detached you need to be. To mitigate this - and gain respect in the process - make your principles clear from the outset, and stick to them. Do right by those you interview by checking what you have written is an accurate reflection of what was said. Whether they are happy or not is far less of a concern than if someone feels misrepresented.

5. Step outside the academic bubble

If researching Africa from abroad, it is important to consider how you - and your research - fit within people's understanding of the world. This requires stepping outside academia's "ivory tower". Specialists in other areas have a lot to offer.

For example, talking to journalists can help you refine your presentation skills. Speaking to policymakers early on in in your research rather than after you have come to a conclusion will make it more likely that your work informs decision-making.

Melanie Archer, Communications Officer, Africa Research Institute

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