Call for papers: Anthropology and policy in Africa

Dear all,

I am writing to invite paper proposals for a AAA panel focused on the anthropology of policy in Africa. Please find below an abstract for the panel, which will explore policy processes in the context of postcolonial African societies. Those interested in participating should submit an abstract by April 12, 2015 to: [email protected]

On Policy and Power in the Postcolony: contemporary perspectives on Anthropology and Policy in Africa

Organizer: Theodore Powers, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa


From entanglement in the colonial project to involvement in the development apparatus, the discipline of anthropology has a long and complex history with the policy process in Africa. While research on the entailments of the colonial era continue to produce new insights, such historical perspectives tend to elide the relation between anthropological research and the policy process today. Rather than presume a similar relation between power, policy and the anthropologist, it is addressed here as a series of questions. How has contemporary anthropological research in Africa analyzed the policy process? What conceptual tools are being developed to understand how the policy process articulates with the historically particular conditions encountered on the continent? How has the circulation of normative, Euro-American conceptualizations of state and governance manifested in the policy process in Africa? What are the limits to ethnographic research on the policy process, and to what degree might ‘anthropology from Africa’ address these constraints?

The panel will go about addressing these core questions through a comparative analysis of the policy process in African societies with varying colonial legacies. The purpose of the comparative exercise is to utilize the policy process to underscore socio-political complexity and variation amongst post-colonial African societies. Some have argued that the institutional legacies of colonialism follow a similar pattern across all African societies due to the ‘decentralized despotism’ employed during colonial rule. However this perspective glosses over the ways that internal dynamics within African societies continued under, and were informed by, the colonial period. A historically informed perspective of the social stratification process offers a critical counterpoint to theory predicated on institutional legacies. Situated within this critical perspective, the papers in the panel seek to engage with particular histories of policy and power within African societies. In doing so, the accounts offer a critical analysis of the ways in which colonial different encounters and divergent experiences with transnational forces have shaped the contours of the African postcolony.

A key component in the anthropological analysis of policy is the role of power in producing socio-political outcomes. Building on approaches that emphasize historical particularity, the panel will offer a nuanced perspective on the interactions of actors, organizations and institutions that constitute the policy process. Following policy actors across different institutional levels, the policy process highlights how the influence of transnational actors and organizations echo earlier modes of European intervention in Africa. The analysis of power in the policy process, therefore, also requires critical self-reflection on the ways in which those carrying out anthropological research situate within contested – and historically informed – socio-political dynamics. By exploring these questions, the panel aims to highlight latent tensions in anthropological research that the policy process highlights. In doing so, the accounts presented here also address how those carrying out anthropological research in Africa conceptualize their relationship to power and the legacies of the colonial era.