For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Among today’s Africanist scholars, the common understanding is that pre-colonial African ethnic identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; and that the more bounded and politically pertinent ethnic identities of today are (at least to a certain extent) the product of a colonial order of delineated control and dual processes of ethnic invention and imagination. Nevertheless, although ethnic identities became more bounded during the colonial period, they did not become fixed or unchanging. Instead, community members still debate and reinterpret ethnic brands, content, allies, and cousins through four distinct but potentially interrelated avenues of ethnic negotiation and renegotiation: namely ethnic migration, assertions of difference, ethnic amalgamation, and ethnic branding or positioning. This reality ensures that ethnic narratives can adapt and respond to an ever-changing world, and, as a result, that ethnic identities remain relevant to ordinary people and useful to political elites. Evolving narratives regarding shared pasts and intertwined futures help legitimize political claims based on past injustice or desert and/or historically informed fears or hopes regarding future socio-economic and political dynamics.