University of Helsinki research project: Concept Africa

World history looks at events and processes whose magnitude reaches far beyond local, national or even continental histories. Such broader accounts are typically centred on European or Western ideas of how history is to be written, both in terms of the spatial origo of the events and processes viewed, and with regard to the concepts used for their explanation. Against this backdrop, more and more voices can be heard pleading a non-Western-centred approach to global history. Scholars working within many different approaches have uttered their concern. Post-colonial theories have long drawn attention to the inadequacy underlying much Western writing on the exotic Other—from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to Dipesh Chakrabarty's proposal of Provincialising Europe (2001).

Africa’s position with regard to these considerations is strangely ambivalent. Africa has long been globally connected and her fate is often depicted as an immediate result of global political, commercial, and military factors. African historiography reflects this in peculiar ways. World histories tend to relegate Africa to the status of a continent that reacts. In contrast, “authentically African” history is more often than not understood as local, at best regional, and only relatively few grand narratives on long-term African history at a broader geographical level have been attempted. A methodological concern enhanced the divide. While global histories, including those paying a good deal of attention to Africa, tend to rely on the kind of sources known from its European tradition, local historiographies and accounts of pre-colonial African history are mainly based on linguistic and archaeological data.

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