Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.
Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.