Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Fred Hendricks (2000) 'The Future Of Sociology: An African View'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 29/2/2000      Accepted: 29/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

The Future Of Sociology: An African View

Of the more than 5000 delegates at the World Congress of Sociology held in Montreal in August 1998, only 66 were Africans and more than half of these came from South Africa. Similarly, of the many sessions at the conference, not one was devoted to violence, genocide, or war. The future of the discipline depends on how it addresses this double neglect and marginalisation. I should say at the very outset that I am not linking African marginalisation to genocide and other forms of violence at all. Instead, these are the two lacunae in the discipline that in my opinion require serious attention. It is quite obvious that the two may criss-cross. Nobody can argue with the fact that Africa has a serious problem of violence. It is untenable, from an African point of view, when it is presented as peculiarly African problem, despite the evidence of mass killings, slaughter of innocents, genocide and wars from around the globe. This is not merely a complaint about African marginalisation but a concern to examine the gaps in the discipline and to suggest ways of acknowledging them. If Sociology is to be true to its craft then it has a very definite role to play in the lives of ordinary people. We need to ask what sociology can do and indeed what it must do about the critical development challenges facing the world and Africa in particular. How can we equip ourselves conceptually to deal with contemporary trends and global tendencies and how realistically can we avoid past mistakes and come to terms with present constraints imposed by the legacies of colonialism, racism and slavery. This essay has three sections. It starts with some reflections on the nature of prediction in the social sciences and the methodological difficulties which human agency imposes on Sociology. It goes on to examine Africa's virtual exclusion from the global production of sociological knowledge and finally, discusses why violence has been neglected in the discipline.

Problems of Prediction

It is easy to draw up a wish list. The difficulty lies in ensuring that there is a realistic chance of realising at least some of the expectations and charting a role for Sociology in this process. I think we should be quite clear that Sociology has a role to play in making the world a better place. Our relevance as a discipline depends not only on our ability to rationally interpret the world but also on the extent to which we may have an impact on the processes of eliminating poverty, disease and ignorance as well as on how much we can contribute to the difficult transition from subjection to citizenship in Africa. This is the social landscape which confronts us and it is both professionally and morally incumbent on us assist in reshaping it. In the process we engage in social action which may have a very real impact on the future. Hence, we have a dual role and a double responsibility. We are charged with the task of describing and explaining the nature of the social problems in our world. This in itself is a form of agency. Yet, our roles should not end there. Both instrumentalist notions of the developmental state, that social scientists should be tied to the apron strings of the government and serve the national interest as defined by ideologues, as well as those who prefer an extreme position of intellectual autonomy are limited. The former because there would be no possibility for developing independent knowledge and the latter for a lack of engagement and relevance. One of the unintended consequences of apartheid in South Africa was that it gave people a sense of real control over their own lives in the battle against racism and oppression. Social scientist played a crucial role in this struggle. In the labour movement and in student politics, the theories we taught in the classroom were used to propagate the struggle against apartheid. The links were often very direct. Some sociologist immersed themselves totally in the struggle without any notion of the differentiation of their roles as activists and scholars. Others remained tied to the apartheid structures acting as its organic intellectuals or active spies. Still others preferred to remained aloof from the hurly burly of politics and the messiness of the real world. They could not avoid it though. The Durban strikes of the early 1970's and the student revolt of the mid 1970's had a profound impact upon the lives of all South Africans. Almost simultaneously there was a major historiographical change in the country as the liberal tradition gave way to a materialist broadside. The history of South Africa was being rewritten just as it was being made. It is not easy to chart the lines of causation, but the timing of these changes suggests a link rather than a coincidence. Sociologists reflected the fundamental transformation unfolding in South Africa and contributed, either as apologists or activists, to the nature of the process and its ongoing outcome.

The human agency which brought the apartheid system to its knees is simultaneously one of the impediments social scientists and sociologists encounter in their efforts to predict the future. People have choices. Granted, some have a wider range of choice than others depending on the breadth and scope of their life-chances. Their choices, moreover, have varying impacts upon reality and they certainly have a variety of different meanings for individual actors. Together this creates a complex array of variables in interaction with each other which militates against an easy separation of cause and effect. Unlike physics and chemistry where prediction of the future behaviour of a system is a sine qua non for understanding it, prediction is a hazardous task for sociologists. I think it may be necessary to separate prediction of long term societal trends from forecasting short-term individual behaviour. While the former may be done with reasonable accuracy and on the basis of sound methodological tools, the latter is inherently risky. We can predict that the population of South Africa will double in about twenty years and what the proportion of males to females will be. However, it is impossible for me to say how many children my own children will have or how many of them will be male or female.

Prediction is further complicated by the fact that we are involved in the very processes that we study. I have very definite wishes and hopes for Africa and South Africa in particular. Yet, I know that I will not live to see most of them. My predictions and my hopes are quite distinct. I'm glad I'm a Sociologist because it gives me the sense that I can play a role in bringing my predictions closer to my hopes. I think the exercise is legitimate as long as one realises the difference between the two. If you conflate hope with prediction you will almost invariably end up being bitterly disappointed by the historical outcome. On the other hand if you manage to keep these distinct in your mind it will be possible to predict an outcome which may be very distant from your hopes.

Often though an outcome can be presented in a way which does not accord with reality at all. A good example of this is South Africa's transition to democracy. It is widely perceived as a peaceful transition - as a miracle, based on the magic of Mandela. However, twenty thousand people died in politically related violence in the decade prior to the first elections based on universal franchise in 1994. The fact that the overwhelming majority of lives lost were black has something to do with the perception of a peaceful transition. Since so few whites died in the political contestation, although many perpetrated gross violations of human rights, it has become easy to erase the deaths as insignificant to the democratisation of South Africa.

The Future of Sociology in Africa

Africa is in deep trouble. Reversing the downward spiral of economic decline lies at the heart of any hope for Africa's recovery. But how is this to be achieved and what role can Sociology play? Similarly, Sociology in Africa is in a crisis of gargantuan proportions. Africa's problems are reflected in the problems of its social science disciplines. While in Anthropology there is, at least, a debate about who the makers and subjects of the discipline should be and how these impact upon the nature of the discipline. Similarly, there is a vibrant debate about what constitutes African Studies and how its should be organised. No debate of this sort has emerged in Sociology. African Sociologists have been quite happy to apply metropolitan ideas and concepts without subjecting them to critical scrutiny and certainly not developing concepts appropriate to the study of African societies. Attempts to indigenize Sociology to Africa have been inchoate, unsystematic and anecdotal. It is not surprising that these have thus far not achieved much popular acceptance by African Sociologists. But what does the future hold for African Sociology?

Two examples from Nigeria and South Africa will demonstrate where we are at this time and how we can proceed from here. The deterioration in both the quantity and quality of research emerging from Africa is the most worrying trend and the most difficult to reverse. In some countries social science scholarship has just about completely collapsed. In others, such as South Africa, there has been a massive exodus of Sociologists from academic departments into state departments or into lucrative consultancies. The challenge for African Sociologists is how to reestablish and institutionalise the legitimacy of the discipline. Many Nigerian Sociologists are compelled to work outside the University in order to make ends meet. They may offer off-campus courses for a fee and award degrees in this way as well. They may be engaged in a whole range of business ventures or consultancies for cash or they may simply be driving taxis or raising chickens. The libraries have long ago given up on ordering the latest journals and the newest books. The ineluctable result, except for the few who manage to go abroad, is that the community of African Sociologists are starved of the latest intellectual debates and the discourse becomes a rehash of old and worn out ideas. The picture of yellowed lecture notes is a very real one in Nigeria and at many universities in Africa.

In South Africa, the critical edge of scholarship connected to the struggle against apartheid, has given way to the pressures of the developmental state and national priorities. The effect has been quite devastating on the discipline and this is reflected in the parlous state of its organisation. The South African Sociological Association is a product of a merger between the pro- apartheid and whites-only Suid Afrikaanse Sosiologiese Vereniging and the anti-apartheid Association for Sociologist in South Africa. Today, its membership is below that of either of its former constituent parts. The two journals of these respective organisation, South African Sociological Review and the South African Journal of Sociology have been replaced by the misnamed and poorly- edited new journal of the association, Society in Transition. The South African Sociological Review has been incorporated into the African Sociological Review published and supported by CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) with headquarters in Dakar, Senegal.

CODESRIA stands out as a beacon of hope for the future of the Social Sciences in Africa. Yet, its reach cannot extend far enough to the nooks and crannies of intellectual poverty on the continent. Sociologists are charged with the responsibility to change things in Africa. They can't do it alone. The discipline needs the support of the international community and of the International Sociological Association in particular. There have been some halting moves towards the establishment of an African Sociological Association. Virtually all the Africans delegates at the Montreal conference in 1998 attended a preliminary meeting. A steering committee was elected and a constitution drawn up but efforts to raise funds for a launching conference have thus far not been successful. At the very least, there is a crying need for a continental audit of Sociology departments and Sociologists at African Universities. What does the Sociology curriculum in Tunisia look like and how does it compare with that of Zambia? We can only survive the future if we develop a viable community of Sociologists engaged in debate and discourse on the crucial areas affecting the lives of Africans. Cross- referencing each others work, knowing what sociologists in other countries are doing and then engaging each other in intellectual battles are vital in this exercise. CODESRIA has blazed the trail in this regard but much more needs to be done in the specific disciplines if the future is to be any brighter for Africa and for African Sociology in particular.

We in Africa are too often viewed as requiring development, all manner of aid and assistance. The self- appointed developers may then position themselves as offering largesse to the needy. Needless to say, the transaction is manifestly unequal. The images presented of Africa are uniformly negative. They are characterised by utter destitution, `records of failure', `false starts', `chains of disasters' and `downward spirals' brought about by mismanagement, corruption and traditional institutional complexes in politics, economics and forms of land tenure. Together, these produce a supposed syndrome of African resistance to change and consequently a deep pessimism about the prospects for development in Africa. Of course, there are monumental problems in Africa. But, to approach these problems from the gloomy position that the situation is hopeless anyway and necessarily requires an outside infusion of capital and values is to perpetually marginalise African concerns. Instead, the approach adopted here attempts to situate these problems within the broad historical context of colonialism in Africa and the differential local responses during the period after independence. The only way we can emerge from the horrors of slavery and the backwardness imposed by colonialism is through self-organisation and assuming responsibility over the charting of development paths for African countries. The same can be said for Sociology. Only African Sociologists can save African Sociology.

Violence and Society

A cursory study of Sociology textbooks (both British and North American varieties) reveals that none of them consider violence as a separate concern worthy of Sociological attention in its own right. Is Sociology suited to the study of violence? From state-inspired forms of violence like genocide to domestic violence like familicide, the field is wide open and there are any number of questions in this regard. Are humans inherently violent? What is the difference, if any, between violence and aggression? Is the use of violence legitimate under certain circumstances? What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence? Why is it that governments are the biggest killers in the world? It is clear that they have out-killed serial killers, murderers and other individual criminals committed to killing others. Is violence integral to modern society? There can be little doubt that advanced technology holds a far greater potential for holocausts, yet, today, we are all almost uniformly against violence, or at least, we pretend to be repulsed by it. The ambiguity is, that we may favour or even celebrate certain forms of violence, which may, under particular circumstances, be deemed necessary. How does one define a violent act? Is it merely the brutal and directly intentional harmful act or is violence hidden in the manner in which society is structured? Given the divisions in our society (and most in the South), is it violence that compels people to live in degrading conditions, where the infant mortality rate may be very high, the level of literacy very low, the level of unemployment very high, the life chances dismal, the housing conditions appalling and the education debased. If we follow Barrington Moore's classic on the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, we need to dwell both on the horrors of revolutionary violence as well as the violence of normal times. In short, we need to investigate both the social conditions conducive to violence as well as the individual motivations for violent actions.

It is necessary to understand the actual dimensions of what humans are prepared to do to each other. This calls into question the whole issue of humanness and sociability. Bestiality of this nature: the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, the Russian death camps, the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, the continuing destruction of the Kurds, the Northern Indian killing fields immediately after independence, the systematic extermination of the indigenous American population, a similar policy of genocide against the San of Southern Africa, the continuing carnage in Burundi and Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia makes one wonder seriously about the condition of humanness.

Humans do these things to each on a very wide scale. It is simply not enough to erase it as an aberration, an inhuman act carried out by misguided humans. Statistically it is far too widespread to dismiss it this easily. It is an integral part, obviously a very ugly part, but a part all the same, of us. Sociology and much of evolutionary theory suggests that humans are separated from non-human nature because of the acquisition of culture, materially referring to the use of tools, the making of tools and also non material aspects of culture such as religion, art, music and so on. Very little consideration is given to the fact that we are part of nature. As much as we try to separate ourselves from it, we remain in it. While we accept violence in other animals we find it difficult to accept it in individuals. While it may be common to assume that states are involved in the protection of innocent people and the suppression of violence, the evidence to the contrary and blithe international acceptance of politically-inspired violence is overwhelming. These are some of the contradictions within the condition of humanness which Sociologists need to confront head on if we are to arrive at reasonable conclusions and reliable analyses. We can only arrive at a peaceful solution if we understand the nature of violence in all its ramifications.

Concluding Remarks

On the face of it, there is little basis for optimism about the future prospects of Sociology in Africa. The constraints placed in the way of the discipline realising its full potential are many and complex. However, there are many, many committed Sociologists on the continent who are deeply concerned about the discipline and about the plight of its millions of citizens. Upon our shoulders rests a major responsibility to overcome the constraints in our way.

Sociology will be a much richer discipline if it comes to terms with African marginalisation. Both in terms of Africa's economic decline, (lowering in its share of world trade, inability to change the terms of trade, decrease in productive capacity) as well as in respect of the monopoly over intellectual production enjoyed by Western Europe and North America something rather drastic needs to happen if the full potential of Sociology is to be realised. Development and industrialisation are, no doubt, the keys to African liberation. But as Sociologists we have to accept the challenge of presenting an alternative African perspective which can confront the global monopoly in the production of Sociological knowledge.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000