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Research Area 1 — The creation and circulation of knowledge

The epistemological questions running through most of the studies conducted by members of our institute take on special importance in this first research area, which seeks to study the production and circulation of knowledge in and about Africa (on both sides of the Sahara) by exploring, in particular, the written and oral practices that have contributed to this knowledge.

Indigenous knowledge and its actors
Given the predominance of exogenous sources, a priority for Africanists since the 1960s has been to discover African voices for helping us reconstruct the African past or understand the present. Pushing farther in this direction, much of our institute’s research focuses on the production of knowledge by African scholars, elders, griots, clerics, etc.. This research on written and/or oral cultures and in African intellectual history implies a substantial study of African languages in order to grasp non-European conceptions of the world, knowledge and viewpoints as conveyed through oral or written traditions.
IMAF is interested in indigenous forms of narration and literature, writing practices and their uses across the continent in both ancient and modern times (apart from the written documents of the colonial era) and African societies’ conceptions and formulation of their history. For this purpose, manuscripts and printed publications from several regions of the continent (mostly : North Africa, the Sahara, West Africa, Zanzibar, Madagascar and Ethiopia) are examined. Sources​ in Arab, Ge’ez and Ajami (which served to transcribe African languages) and also in Malagasy, Hausa, Kanuri, Ndembu, Mande, Swahili or Tamasheq are used to reflect on narrative forms and the production of written or oral cultures. We thus study how religion, power, law, property, social hierarchies or identities and affiliations have been expressed. This focus on forms of narrative or pragmatic production in the vernacular also helps us both reconstruct the intellectual or learned circles in which this knowledge was produced and study the contexts and issues underlying this production.

The production of etic knowledge about Africa in the field
The genealogy of etic knowledge, narratives and imagery about Africa is studied by giving priority to the people, methods and sources that have shaped this body of academic knowledge : whether in the disciplines of literature, ethnology, law, history, archaeology, linguistics, geography, psychiatry, medicine or the natural sciences. Attention is paid to persons who, from the field, have contributed to the development of Western knowledge about Africa during the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial periods. This entails studying interactions between Europeans (researchers, travelers, colonial administrators, missionaries, doctors, etc.), and their African contacts (informants, interpreters, resource persons and other intermediaries). Questions related to translation, exchanges, authorship, power relations and the transformation that occurs when the oral is set down in writing lie at the center of this research. Nor is the biographical dimension overlooked. Our researchers also examine the status, careers, journeys, motivations and writing practices of these Europeans and of their informants and interpreters, not to mention their intellectual, professional, religious, and family-based affiliations.
From a broader viewpoint, the scientific surveys conducted in Africa are subjected to a comparative study that will highlight the changes in their methods, objectives and findings depending on the discipline, institution and context. To examine the relations between science and colonization, our researches focus on colonial and missionary uses of ethnology or physical anthropology, on colonial academic journals and on the various legal, psychoanalytical and psychiatric sources that entered into the construction of the statuses of “native” and of “mental patient” in French colonial law.

The production of knowledge about Africa : Sources and archives
Our interest on epistemology implies analyzing sources (in particular the film and photographic archives from the scientific missions led by Marcel Griaule and Father Francis Aupiais) and their production process. A critique of these images, their production, uses and commentaries helps bring to light the authors’ intentions and vision of African societies (or at least the vision they wanted to impose). A similar analysis is made of collections of African objects, which are evidence of the collectors’ intellectual practices as much as of the producers’ material culture.
Attention is focused mainly on written (academic, learned, legal, administrative or missionary) archives. By studying how they have been produced — their materiality, classification, choices or registers of discourse — we learn about the writing habits or notational norms typical of the context, discipline, profession or individual. This research helps us grasp both the implicit objectives and prior assumptions of the authors or of those who commissioned them. Given the “strata” of writings (ranging from field notes to published texts), we can analyze the “genealogy” of scientific articles, books or collections so as to draw attention to the impact of a given researcher’s practices or pursuit of a career on his/her rhetorical and cognitive activities (from the interpretation of data to the formulation of an opinion).
Beyond the “genetic” approach and the contextualization of archives on Africa, questions are also raised about the scientific, political issues and significance of saving, digitizing or diffusing these archives or promoting them as a “heritage”. We have developed a program for the digitization, translation, compilation and publication of critical editions of ancient corpora, whether European (documents from anthropologists, missionaries, administrators, etc.) or African (Ethiopian, Hausa, Arab or Ndembu manuscripts).

Beyond the oral/written divide : “Secondary” orality, “indexicality” and multilingualism
Thanks to a fertile dialogue with the work of colleagues from abroad, in particular from English-speaking countries, IMAF has significantly contributed to the multidisciplinary study of writing practices and of the uses of writing in Africa. In line with this work and with recent advances in the study of the interface between orality and literacy, our attention has shifted to the ordinary practices on both sides of this interface as reconfigured by modern technology (the Internet, mobile phones, radio, television, etc.). The shift from one medium to another (a written text read on the radio, debates with both oral and written contributions) and from one language to another are seminal areas of research. Studies on the radio (in Uganda and Mali in particular) have inquired into the dynamics of public participation while also opening a historical approach that goes back to the introduction of this medium. Anthropology and linguistics are combined to study the social relations stemming from the Web or expressed through the language practices of mobile phone users.

The globalization of knowledge
The question of the circulation of knowledge is an important aspect of our approach to the production of knowledge about and in Africa, a question that crosses many a discipline and field of research. As already mentioned, the role played by “interpreters” and cultural “brokers” is essential for understanding how knowledge has been produced about Africa since the very start of colonization.
Besides these interactions, we also examine how knowledge has been imported into Africa and reworked. In the health field for example, the discourse about a person’s relation to his/her body evinces both a globalization of schemas and a hybridization of knowledge. The emergence of self-educated healers with eclectic knowledge who promote new cultural experiments in providing care now reaches across borders and has drawn the attention of national and international health institutions and human rights organizations. Underlying the promotion of African “tradimedicine” by the World Health Organization (WHO) are identity-based claims for the recognition of an ancestral, indigenous cultural heritage. In a totally different field, namely research on the history of knowledge on development, our researches are studying the diffusion, since the 1970s, to African countries of a model of labor negotiations developed at Harvard University.
The themes of circulation, reappropriation and mediation raise broader questions about “nonacademic”, vernacular or local, archives in Africa. Several members of IMAF are studying East African (Tanzania and Zanzibar) and West African (Mali) archives of this sort. Advances on these questions should not lessen our attention to the material, political and intellectual conditions underlying exchanges. Once again, plans are being made for creating a corpus while devoting methodological and epistemological thought to the questions of collecting contents for the corpus, forming the corpus and diffusing it.