Austin, Gareth. ‘Reciprocal Comparison and African History: Tackling Conceptual Eurocentrism in the Study of Africa’s Economic Past’, African Studies Review, 50 (2007), pp 1-28.

[1] Abstract: This article argues for constructive responses to the dominance, in the analysis of African economic history, of concepts derived from Western experience. It reviews the existing responses of this kind, highlighting the fact that some of the most influential ideas applied to African economies, past and present, have been coined in the context not of Europe or North America but rather of other relatively poor regions formerly under European colonial rule. These “Third World” contributions have been enriching for African studies, though they have been duly criticized in African contexts, in accordance with the usual scholarly pattern. It is argued here that the main requirement for overcoming conceptual Eurocentrism in African history, in the interests of a more genuinely “general” social science and “global” history, is reciprocal comparison of Africa and other continents—or, more precisely, of specific areas within Africa with counterparts elsewhere. Pioneering examples of such comparisons are reviewed and, to illustrate the possibilities, a set of propositions is put forward from African history that may be useful for specialists on other parts of the world. The article concludes with suggestions for ways in which Africanists can best pursue the project of reciprocal comparison, and with a plea for us to be more intellectually ambitious.

This article is about Africanists can best respond to the continued Eurocentrism of the study of Africa. [2] A lot of the tools used by Africanists come from Europe (but this flow has not been reversed). The “stylised facts” of western history, agriculture, statecraft, capitalism etc. has influenced the questions which Africanists have asked. [3] This article looks at Eurocentrism in the recent literature of African economic historiography, Africanists views of Africa have been shaped also by other regions of the “Third World”, part three argues that Eurocentric generalisations should not be abandoned but instead bettered and improved by Africanists, part four looks at the recipricol comparisons from various scholars.

Conceptual Eurocentrism in African Economic Historiography: The Last Quarter Century

Most economic history of Africa has been undertaken using frameworks imported from “the West.” Some were influenced by the categories associated with Karl Marx or Max Weber, Adam Smith or Karl Polanyi. Ultimately their “abstractions were usually underpinned, explicitly or implicitly, by narratives of European history.” [4] Most common now is a “rational-choice” framework which looks at transaction costs, contract theory and the actions of individuals and societies seeking a set of institutions which may-but may not- provide solutions.

We have to consider to what extent rational-choice political economy is Eurocentric in its intellectual inspirations. First, there is considerable difference between the paper or book on Africa and the overarching historical model. Second, the broad sense of property in rational-choice political economy-as entitlements to use resources in permitted ways-fits well in African history.

Rational-choice political economy was developed in the mid-20th C in the USA and Britain and reflect its time and location. Coase and Williamson had to describe the world around them. [5] In a mcro-form rational-choice political economy sees a certain way of setting up institutions as right, but is not teleological,in that it can see that failures have occurred rather frequently throughout history. It has been inspired by western history but can be used in ways which are not Eurocentric.

Models from the Third World in African Economic History

Most African history has been written from a Western perspective, but there has also been much work using the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and recently South Asia as reference points.

[6] W. A. Lewis’s famous model of “economic development with unlimited supplies of labour” (Lewis 1954) would have been inspired not only by Western history, but by travels around the poorer parts of the world.  This dual economic surplus-labour/capitalist-production framework has been applied fruitfully to South Rhodesia and South Africa (however, low wages in the surplus labour zones were often in fact caused by state repression).

Sen’s theory of entitlement and work on famines is relevant to Africa; famines rarely occur because food production shinks, but instead because people cannot get access to it. Other Indian Economists have also played a large role in shaping Africanists views of Africa. [7] Models drawn from Latin America and Asia have played a large role.  Ideas such as “rent-seeking” and “urban bias” have large roles to play in understanding Africa.

There is as much South-South academic criticism as there is North-South academic criticism. [8] Lewis is criticised (see above), Sen is taken to task for under politicising his account of famine, he also neglects the very real difficulties of agricultural production.

Toward Better Generalizations: The Method of “Reciprocal Comparison” and African History

Does it matter if the concepts of African history have an exotic Western provenance? [9] Early economic work on Africa illustrated that markets had existed long ago in Africa, and that homo economus had existed in Africa too; this helped Africa, but by living up to a Westerner’s model, Adam Smith.  That something developed outside Africa does not mean that it cannot be helpful to Africanists. Two example are given on page 9 on Niger Delta canoehouses and Kikuyu society.

In other cases Western models are not so useful. [10] Many European metanarratives are not useful, Africanists need to alter them to make them relevant – you cannot retreat away from comparative analysis on grounds of historiographical exceptionalism or postmodernist epistemology.

Pomeranz’s work on reciprocal comparison is useful, we can treat China, Europe and Africa all as deviations from the norm of the other and ask “why?” What is also useful is a disaggregation of the units of analysis. Why was the Niger Delta not the Yangzi Delta or the Netherlands etc?

This is made difficult by a couple of things. First of all:

[F[amiliarity with at least the basics of European history tends to be expected from specialists on non-Western countries, whereas the converse is not the case.

There are also multiple narratives on most topics and in most regions of Africa, let alone sub-Saharan Africa. These need to be unpacked and explored before reciprocal comparisons can begin to make sense. [11] There have been many books on Africa attempting to pick out rends and potential “building blocks” for Africa as a whole and its macro regions.

An important part of reciprocal comparison is to derive models from Africa and then to apply them to other parts of the world. For example, Goody argues that because the plough was used less south of the Sahara agricultural surpluses (and hence complementary activty) was lower in that region. Goody traces patterns in state formation and inheritence from this. However, even in this Austin argues that too much weight may be being placed on agricultural surplus over other sources of wealth.

[12-13] Lots of important scholarship has come out of Africa. Collier studied the franc zone and gave valuable insights into disperate countries using the same currency. Fenoaltea’s study of the slave trade from an African perspective allowed him to offer an alanysis of slavery in a European context, from the Roman’s onward. Thomas studied witchcraft in both Africa and England. Penninggroth uses emancipation in Fantes on the Gold coast to spread light on the experience of blanks in the US South.

Some Lessons from African Experience for the Comparative Study of Long-Term Economic Development

[14] Study of Africa can help us look at the world in different ways. For example, “in sub-Saharan Africa, before and in many cases during and after the colonial period, there was no strong or necessary correlation between agricultural intensification (increase in the quantity of labor and/ or capital applied per unit of land) and overall productivity (i.e., “total factor productivity,” the ratio of output to the totality of inputs). Thus intensive agriculture was not necessarily more advanced” This labour intensive agriculture is different to the capital intensive agriculture observed in late modern Europe.  Labour and capital were limited in Africa but abundant land was available, this has consequences for analyses which pit an “industrious” asian revolution against and “industrial” European revolutions.

[16] Studies in Africa can also lead us to alter our view that rent-seeking and economic growth are opposed. Slavery represents the extraction of an economic rent, but it would be anachronistic to say that this did not contribute to the development of Europe and America. Africa has also taught us that rent-seeking is self perpetuating (there are increasing returns to scale) and likely to be stable. However, under certain circumstances, rent seeking can be unstable, as in the 1980s.

[17] A study of Africa also leads us to question the primacy which states are given in analyses such as North’s. Much of Africa has often been stateless, yet not economically undynamic. However, looking at the privately and state enforced slave trade, certain advantagous of statehood come to the fore in terms of trade and economic efficiency.

[18] Reflections

There have been few reciprocal comparisons involving Africa, but those that have been done are of a high quality. African studies has much to offer the world, for example the “informal sector” is a widely used term and framework, and originated in Africa.

Conceptual Eurocentrism continues to operate at a range of levels of abstraction. Ultimately, reciprocal comparison needs to supersede it on all those levels.


About Left Outside
I blog, I drink, I study at the LSE, I work at a wine shop.

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