Accueil > Research Areas

Research Area 6 — Gender, bodies, subjectivities

This research area brings together historians, anthropologists, archeologists and political scientists for whom use the question of gender in African societies is a grid for interpreting the social sphere rather than as a research subject in its own right. This research examines how societies assign gender statuses and organize social relations between the sexes. It also studies how bodies are managed : the questions of individuation and forms of subjectivity.

Social movements and gender
The studies on this theme try to see how acts of political violence affect the lives of individual and how such violent events are commemorated in contemporary African societies. By focusing on the lives of men and women caught up in situations of intense conflict, these studies try to understand how gender is reconstructed and reinvented in these violent situations. Other studies concentrate on the alternation of political forces in power and on the place of women in the North African and Sub-Saharan regions. Still other studies examine the contributions from women (from the popular or ruling classes) to regime change while analyzing the conditions under which women enter, and participate in, politics during times of crisis.
A third theme is protest movements by domestic employees and servants. These studies lead us to explore the resulting social changes and force us to reinterpret the social hierarchies and relations of dependency and domination that organize societies. They also shed light on the means of action as a function of sex of domestic employees and their employers. The research inquires into domestic work as being inherently “gendered” but variably so over time.

African migrants
Several studies have been made of how gender identities are reworked in migratory contexts. One study deals with songs that articulate gender, religion and migration in West African countries, in particular Burkina Faso. Another has explored the gendered dimensions of debates on emigration. Still other studies, adopting a long-term perspective, have been made of Soninke men who migrated in the 1970s but are now returning to Mali. Special attention will be paid to the question of how masculinity is reconstructed in transnational family networks.

Gender and the production of knowledge about Africa
The effects of gender on the production of knowledge about Africa is a theme closely related to the first research area. It calls for work on the scientific studies made by women anthropologists and on their choices of fieldwork, subjects and approaches to writing. Other studies use Gabonese anatomical collections in the natural sciences as a source for historians. Others adopt the broader perspective of family histories in Madagascar during the 19th and 20th centuries. By drawing on missionary sources and ethnological surveys of various categories of the population, it is possible to explore the conceptions of gender roles in families, their effects on the actions of family members and their impact on the repatterning gender-based social relations.

Images and gender
​This theme contributes to gender studies in Africa by concentrating on iconographic sources (pictures, photographs, films, etc.), which have a high potential for analyzing the normative and symbolic dimensions, as well as the sensory and emotional aspects, of gender relations. Images also portray social practices that should be studied in relation to their material formats, uses, circulation and production techniques so as to better understand the relations between the aesthetics, cognitive representations and fantasies related to gender. These studies relate the similarities between the styles and themes depicted in images to : economic practices ; political organizations ; craftwork ; the spiritual concerns and conceptions of men and women (the proportion of each varying widely depending on the period and context). By analyzing the visibility, invisibility and “visuality” of gendered bodies, the long-term interactions between images, gender and African societies come into view. This approach serves to study not only contemporary Africa (a corpus of photographs) but also the long history of the continent (the archeological corpus of rock paintings and carvings in the Sahara dating from the fifth millennium BP).

The “government” of bodies
Important issues arise related to the power that institutions exercise over the bodies of the human beings under their control (in the context of European imperial policies in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries). This theme centers on the emergence of colonial law. In the colonial situation, the body (in its biological, cultural, psychological and symbolic dimensions) becomes an essential reference point for legal and administrative discourses and practices. References to “race”, “physical appearance”, “mentality” and state of health recurred in the discourses of lawmakers, lawyers and administrators in the overseas administration. The place and meaning of these references in these discourses need to be analyzed not only to show how they are used to formulate (and make operational) categories in public or private law but also to shed light on how Western institutions have contributed to forging an imagery of the “native’s body” for the sake of preserving the colonial order.
The concept of race in the natural, biological and medical, sciences is brought under examination in order to identify processes of “racialization” and the uses of “race” that underlie the treatment of “others” (slaves, the colonized, foreigners, inferiors, etc.) at the core of relations of domination. We also plan to study how questions of identity/otherness have now expanded into the management of human body products, in particular the blood (the circulation of blood products, social and cultural factors related to donating blood, etc.) and genetics (DNA genealogical research, precision medicine, genetic therapy). These now topical questions are to be examined from a historical perspective. Research has already started on the anatomical collections from Gabon as sources for historians. This work will document French heritage collections via source documents (archives, labels, inventory registries, travelers’ accounts, etc.) and serve to bring to light the relations between travelers, naturalists, collectors, museums, learned societies and the “colonial enterprise” whose goal was conquest.
Other programs are emerging on women in prison and on the management of mental health in the Gold Coast during the colonial era. In both cases, detention, medicalization and the control over bodies and individuals will serve as a grid for interpreting the stakes in terms of power and the social history of prison or medical institutions.

The history and anthropology of affects
Emotions are fundamental both to the experiences, imagination and memories of human beings and on the sociopolitical dimension of human communities. In line with the pioneering studies of love in Africa (studies that, based on material from various media, have presented love as the mirror of moral, social and economic problems that require solutions having to do with development), questions will be raised about how to handle this theme. For each society studied, questions will be asked about how to define affects and a typology of them, whence questions about how to detect affects in written sources or interviews. What implications does the study of affects have for the social sciences ? A reinterpretation of the body’s role, intersubjectivity, reflexivity… ? Affects will be set in the light of the ontological shift that emphasizes intersubjectivity and the bodily dimension of emotions. Thought will be given to the relation between texts and affects and to the making of more granular methodological and conceptual tools for detecting affects and their effects in society and politics.