African Studies

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

African Studies


the complex of sciences which examine the economy, sociopolitical problems, history, law, development of social ideas, ethnography, languages, literature, and art of the peoples of Africa. In the narrow sense, African studies comprise only African history and philology. There are two basic orientations in contemporary African studies, the Marxist and the bourgeois. There are, in addition, works whose orientation is not clearly defined. African studies is an area of sharp ideological struggle.

Before most African countries were liberated from colonial dependence, African studies were generally regarded as a part of oriental studies. In 1960 the African section of the 25th International Congress of Orientalists, meeting in Moscow, adopted a resolution providing for the creation of the International Congress of Africanists. (The first congress was held in Accra, Ghana, in December 1962, and the second in Dakar, Senegal, in December 1967.) The formation of the International Congress of Africanists completed the emergence of African studies as an independent scientific field. (Questions relating to the peoples of North Africa and northeastern Africa are also investigated by Egyptology and Arab and Ethiopian studies, which are closely related to African studies.)

The dissemination of the first information about Africa occurred in antiquity; authors of those times left detailed descriptions of the countries of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, Byzantine, Arabic, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and other geographers and travelers engaged in research on Africa. The study of Africa south of the Sahara was begun by Europeans only during the era of great geographical discoveries, and it became extensive only after the colonial conquest of Africa.

Western Europe and the USA. At first, the greatest development of African studies occurred in countries with colonies in Africa (Great Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, and Italy); later, the USA came to play the leading role. Along with natural conditions, the languages and religious beliefs of Africans were studied during the colonial period—a necessary consequence of the task of strengthening colonialist rule in Africa. Apologists of imperialism declared the peoples of Africa nonhistorical, lacking a civilization of their own. In their works the modern and contemporary history of Africa is reduced to imperialist conquests and foreign domination, which they justify. Ethnographic research adapted itself to the tasks of governing the colonies. Frequently the policy of discrimination against African peoples was grounded in “reasons” drawn from the arsenal of outspoken racists. Typical exponents of colonialist African studies were L. Frobenius and H. Barth (Germany), E. F. M. Delafosse (France), B. Malinowski (Great Britain), and their followers.

Despite the methodological inconsistency and bias of most of the works of Western European and American Africanists, many made significant contributions to the study of factual aspects of phenomena and their description and classification. The achievements of contemporary Western bourgeois African studies must include the works of the French school of M. Griaule, who collected valuable materials on the world view of the peoples of West Africa; the research of American ethnologists such as M. Herskovits and J. Greenberg in the area of acculturation and cultural development of the peoples of the continent; and the fundamental ethnographic and linguistic works of the German School (C. Meinhof, E. Damman, D. Westermann, and others), the English School (A. Tucker, D. Forde, M. Fortes, M. Guthrie, and others), and the Belgian School (A. Meeussen and G. van Bulck). Western anthropologists and archaeologists studying the life of earliest man (L. Leakey, an English scholar living in Kenya, and others) have achieved great successes. Comparatively new directions have developed in bourgeois Western African studies: the study of the social, political, economic, and legal problems of the young states of Africa. The American and French schools in particular have expanded the study of these problems. American scholars devote much attention to political problems (G. Carter, L. G. Cowan, J. Coleman, and others); French scholars are primarily occupied with sociological, socioeconomic, and cultural questions (the works of G. Balandier, R. Dumont, P. Mercier, and others); English researchers have concentrated .on history and ethnography (E. Evans-Pritchard, M. Gluckman, A. Richards, L. Mair, J. Fage, R. Oliver, T. Hodgkin, and others). Western economists study the economic resources of Africa—W. Hance, A. Kamarck, and S. D. Neumark (all of the USA), W. Birmingham and F. Pedlar (Britain), and others.

After World War II, and particularly after the majority of African peoples won their independence, a rapid growth of African studies was evident in Western Europe (first and foremost in West Germany) and the USA. In the USA about 150 major centers for African studies have been established, and dozens of monographs dealing with Africa are published annually. The African Studies Association was founded in 1957 in the USA, and in 1966 it had more than 1,400 members. It coordinates scientific research on African problems on a national scale and organizes collaboration between scientific institutions in the USA and universities and scientific research centers in African countries. The most important centers of African studies in the USA are Northwestern University in Evanston, Boston University, Harvard University, and the University of Wisconsin, where there are special programs of African research. There is a large institute of African research at Columbia University. The main publications on African problems include Africa Reports (Washington, since 1956) and Africa Today (New York, since 1954). In the Federal Republic of Germany, more than 65 organizations are engaged in the study of African problems, and the Association of Africanists has been created; this association coordinates and provides direction for scientific research on problems of Africa. The main centers of African studies are the Hamburg Institute of World Economics, the German-African Society, the Frobenius Institute of Frankfurt University, and the Institute of Ethnography of the University of Munich. Published journals include Internationales Afrikaforum, Afrika Heute (Bonn, since 1957), and others.

In Britain there are more than 100 scientific public organizations studying the countries of the Commonwealth, and many of these also study African problems. Among the organizations whose research concerns Africa, the most important are the International African Institute in London, the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, and the department of anthropology of the University of London, as well as Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham, and Manchester universities. Journals of African problems are published, the best known being Africa (London, since 1928) and African Affairs (London, since 1901).

More than 70 organizations studying African problems are in existence in France. They include the Center of African Research of the Sorbonne, the Center of Documentation for Black Africa, the Society of Africanists, the Museum of Man, and the International Institute for the Training of State Officials for Developing Countries. Numerous journals devoted to African problems are published, including Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines (Paris, since 1960) and Afrique Contemporaine (Paris, since 1962).

There are scientific research centers on African problems in Belgium, Italy, and other capitalist countries with economic and political interests in Africa. As a rule the scientific research centers and individual research programs on problems of Africa are financed out of the budgets of capitalist states.

The upsurge of the national liberation movement of the peoples of Africa has forced a reorganization of bourgeois African studies. The outspoken defenders of racism and undisguised imperialist domination are constantly decreasing in numbers among bourgeois scholars. Under the new conditions which prevail, bourgeois scholars are directing their efforts toward proving the “futility” and “hopelessness” of the strivings of African peoples for economic independence; they argue for “lawful” development along capitalist lines.

After World War II, the first Western works based on Marxist methodology appeared. The works of Palme Dutt, J. Woddis, I. Cox, B. Davidson (Great Britain), J. Suret-Canale, M. Godelier, P. Boiteau, and R. Barbe (France), W. Du Bois (his last works) and J. Hunton (USA), and others belong to this category.

African countries. Africans began to study the history, economics, and culture of Africa extensively only after World War II, especially as liberation from colonial rule created possibilities for the development of science in a number of newly independent states. The following national scientific and educational centers have been established in various states: The Ghana Academy of Sciences in Ghana (after 1969, Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences), the East African Community (an institute in which Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda share equal partnership), the Malagasy Academy, major universities (in Dakar, Accra, Ibadan, Lagos, and Addis Ababa), the Oil and Gas Institute in Algiers, the Guinean Polytechnical Institute in Conakry, the Polytechnic Institute in Bahar-Dar (Ethiopia), and others. These institutions have done much work in the training of national cadres, in research on the past of Africa and its role in the development of world civilization, in the study of the state of productive forces and sociopolitical aspects of development, in culture, in the international situation, and in other problems important for the economic and social progress of African countries. A sizable group of Africanist scholars has developed: Sheikh Anta Diop (Senegal); K. Onwuka Dike, S. O. Biobacu, and H. B. A. Ajayi (Nigeria); A. Hampate Ba (Mali); J. Ki-Zerbo (Upper Volta); K. Mketia (Ghana); E. Mveng (Cameroon); D. Niane (Guinea); A. Mazrui (Kenya); B. Bunting and L. Forman (Republic of South Africa); and others. They have adhered to different orientations, from Marxism to frankly bourgeois ideology; however, all these scholars— with the exception of outright accomplices of neocolonialism—have in common the striving to aid in the final liquidation of colonialism and racism and to aid the countries of Africa on the path to economic and social progress.

USSR and other socialist countries. African studies in the Soviet Union are based on Marxist-Leninist scientific methodology, the classic works of Marxism-Leninism, and the best traditions of progressive prerevolutionary Russian Africanists.

The first information about Africa obtained by Russian travelers goes back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1745 the Russian Academy of Sciences published a map of Africa, and in 1753 it published Christophorus Celliarins’ Guide to Ancient Geography . . . , a whole section of which is devoted to the description of Africa and its population. In 1786 a book by the naval officer M. G. Kokovtsev, Description of the Archipelago and Barbary Shores . . ., was published. During 1790–91, the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg published the Comparative Dictionary of All Languages and Dialects, which included some African languages. Russian voyagers of the 19th century (E. P. Kovalevskii, V. V. Iunker, A. V. Eliseev, A. K. Bulatovich, and many others) made a major contribution to the study of the peoples of Africa. During the 19th and 20th centuries African studies in Russia were enriched by the works of such well-known Orientalists as B. A. Turaev and V. V. Bolotov.

After the Great October Socialist Revolution, Africa began to attract ever greater attention from Soviet researches in connection with the study of different aspects of the national colonial question. Africa is studied in the Institute of Language and Thought and the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR; systematic study and instruction in African languages has been initiated at the Leningrad Oriental Institute of Leningrad State University (LGU). An African unit was established by a scientific research organization, the Association for the Study of National and Colonial Problems; the workers in this unit have published a number of monographs, collections, and articles on the history and problems of the national liberation struggle of the peoples of Africa. The research of I. Iu. Krachkovskii, N. V. Iushmanov, V. V. Struve, and others has made an important contribution to the formation and development of Soviet African studies.

The upsurge in the national liberation movement in Africa after World War II was the precondition necessitating a significant expansion in the sphere of research on African problems among Soviet scholars. In 1946 an African sector was established in the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and in 1945 a department of African languages was formed at LGU; in 1956 an African sector was formed in the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Other institutes also began to study problems of Africa. The liberation of the peoples of Africa and the development of ties between the USSR and the countries of Africa allowed Soviet researchers access to Africa, which had earlier been barred by the colonialists. In 1959 a scientific research center for the comprehensive study of Africa was established—the Africa Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which became the leading center for African research in the USSR. African problems are studied in academic institutes (institutes of oriental studies, ethnography, world economics and international relations, geography, state and law, linguistics, and philosophy, and the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature) and also at the Institute of Oriental Languages of Moscow State University, the Oriental Department of LGU, the University of Tartu, and the academies of sciences of a number of republics.

Most prominent among the topics of study of Soviet Africanists are problems of the national liberation revolution in Africa. Soviet scholars devote ever-increasing attention to the investigation of paths of development of independent African countries (especially prospects for noncapitalist development); to the study of forms of class conflict in these countries; to the study of the economic, social, cultural, state, legal, and international problems confronting them; and to the development of new forms and methods of cooperation between the USSR and other socialist states, on the one hand, and the independent states of Africa on the other. Soviet historians, ethnographers, philologists, linguists, and sociologists consider it their task to reconstruct the truth about the historical past of the peoples of Africa and to study the paths of their development and culture. In this endeavor, the reconstruction of the history of resistance by African peoples against imperialist incursions and the history of anti-imperialist revolutions occupies a special place. At the same time Soviet scholars criticize the conception, widespread among a section of African scholars, that African countries have an altogether special path of historical development, radically different from that of the countries on other continents.

The staff of scholars of the Africa Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and other Soviet centers have prepared a large quantity of monographic research works, scholarly collections, and articles on topical problems of contemporary Africa, including Peoples of Africa (1954), Africa: Encyclopedic Reference (vols. 1–2, 1963), History of Africa in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries (1967), Contemporary History of Africa (2nd ed., 1968), three volumes of the series The National Liberation Movement in Asia and Africa (1967–68), Independent Countries of Africa (1965), The Anti-imperialist Revolution in Africa (1967), The Noncapitalist Path of Development of the Countries of Africa (1967), and Africa in World Economics and Politics (1965). About 100 books and pamphlets about African problems are published annually in the USSR. The periodical publications of the Africa Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR are the journals Narody Azii i Afriki (Peoples of Asia and Africa), Aziia i Afrika segodnia (Asia and Africa Today; published jointly with the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR), and the yearbook Afrika ν sovet-skikh issledovaniiakh (Africa in Soviet Research; vol. 1, parts 1–2, 1968). In 1970 the Africa Institute began the publication of the series Biblioteka zarubezhnoi afrikanistiki (Library of African Studies Abroad).

The scholarly work and organizational activity of D. A. Ol’derogge and I.I. Potekhin have played an important role in the development of Soviet African studies.

Marxian African studies have developed considerably in other socialist countries. In many of these, the study of Africa, which was essentially limited to geography, linguistics, and ethnography before World War II, has become a comprehensive, multifaceted endeavor; today scholars are also studying the economic and social problems of African countries, their domestic politics and international life, their ideology and modern culture, and the different stages of their historical past. In virtually all of the socialist countries, centers for African studies have been created, both comprehensive and specialized. Thus, for example, in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria there is the Scientific Research Center for Africa and Asia of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences; in the People’s Republic of Hungary there is the Afro-Asian Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; in the German Democratic Republic there are study centers at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and in the system of the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin; in the People’s Republic of Mongolia there is the Africa sector of the History Institute of the Academy of Sciences; in the People’s Republic of Poland there are the African Research Center of the University of Warsaw and the Polish Institute of International Affairs; in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic there are the Institute of International Politics and Economics, the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and the department of Asian and African problems of Charles University; and in the Federated Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia there are the Institute for the Study of the Workers’ Movement, the Institute of International Politics and Economics, and the Institute for the Study of Africa of Zagreb University.

Scholars in the field of African studies and specialists in the problems of developing countries in general have published numerous works which have become well known (in Bulgaria, E. Kamenov; in Hungary, E. Shiik and J. Bognar; in East Germany, F. Hintz, V. Markov, and H. Kramer; in Poland, I. Prokopchuk; in Czechoslovakia, I. Hrbek; in Yugoslavia, J. Medaric and others). In order to combine the efforts of scholars of different specialties dealing with African problems, national coordinating bodies were created in socialist countries: the Coordinating Committee on Africa of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; the Central Council of Scientific Institutions of the German Democratic Republic for the Study of Asia, Africa, and Latin America; the Scientific Council on Problems of Africa of the social science section of the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR; the National Commission on Problems of Africa of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences; and others. Marxian African studies are winning ever-increasing recognition throughout the world.


Izuchenie Afriki ν Sovetskom Soiuze. Moscow, 1966. (Rotaprint.)
Afrika ν sovetskikh issledovaniiakh, vol. 1, part 2. Moscow, 1968. “Strany Evropy, Azii, Ameriki i Avstralii.” Zarubezhnye tsentry afrikanistiki, part 1. Moscow, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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