Colonial borders still influence how academics write about Africa

Africa is not a country—but a continent with one billion people, living in 55 different countries, and speaking more than 2,000 languages.

Yet a relatively narrow coverage of Africa and its people exists not only in mainstream media, but as a new research paper shows, in academia as well. Virginia Tech University analyzed 20 years of research articles published in two major journals about African politics, namely African Affairs published by Oxford University and The Journal of Modern African Studies by Cambridge University.

The paper investigated whether by reading Anglophone scholarship on sub-Saharan politics between 1993 and 2013, one could actually learn more about the region’s political reality and complexity.

In his paper, published this month, Ryan C. Briggs, an assistant professor at the department of political science, notes that studies around sub-Saharan Africa cluster heavily on a small number of wealthier, more populous, and English-speaking nations.

Fewer than half of all the countries in the region—46 in total—were written about more than 10 times, with the majority of them being former British colonies like Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. Former French colonies were the focus of about 5 papers on average, while those colonized by Britain had about 27 articles written about them. Population size also mattered a lot: for every 5% increase in a country’s populace, the number of articles in every four-year period increased by about 3%.

If this shows us anything, Briggs writes, it is that Anglophone research does not represent regional politics, but rather uses “broad generalizations” deduced from specific countries to produce “a skewed image of sub-Saharan Africa” that is then applied to other countries.

Read more…

Originally published on Quartz Africa.


Japan’s Education Ministry Says to Axe Social Science and Humanities

Humanities and Social Sciences academic departments are being shut down by the Japanese government which has ordered their eventual closure all over the country. This decision concerns the majority of national universities, and starkly foregrounds questions surrounding the necessity of scholarship, the use(s) of HSS and how the ‘value’ of academic research is assessed.

At least 26 of Japan’s 60 national universities that have departments of the humanities or the social sciences plan to close those faculties after a ministerial request from the Japanese government, according to a new survey of university presidents by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

A June 8 letter from Hakubun Shimomura, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to all of Japan’s 86 national universities and all of the nation’s higher education organizations asks them to take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.” The call focuses on undergraduate departments and graduate programs that train teachers, and includes the areas of law and economics.

To back up the request – which was made “in the light of the decrease of the university-age population, the demand for human resources and the quality control of research and teaching institutions and the function of national universities” – the ministry pointed to the financial support it provides the schools in the coming fiscal year.

This focus on bending universities to serve “areas which have strong needs” (and the implication that social science and humanities can’t help in that regard) are of a piece with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic ideas, or ‘Abenomics,’ that focus resolutely on direct and immediate industrial and employment benefits, argues an editorial in The Japan Times. The newspaper recalled Abe’s remarks in 2014 before the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in which he said, “Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.” (With Abenomics now stalling, Abe has also portrayed Japanese science and technology as in peril, telling the nation’s Council for Science, Technology and Innovation in June that “the frontlines of Japan’s research fields have weakened, causing our research capabilities to lag behind others).”

The Times criticized Abe for shortsightedness:

Pursuing studies of humanities and social sciences may not produce quick economic results. But shunning them risks producing people who are only interested in the narrow fields of their majors. Studies of literature, history, philosophy and social sciences are indispensable in creating people who can view developments in society and politics with a critical eye. In this sense, Shimomura’s move may be interpreted as an attempt by the government to produce people who accept what it does without criticism. Abe, Shimomura and education ministry officials should realize that a decline in the study of humanities and social sciences will likely hamper the growth of creative work even in the fields of technology.

According to The Yomiuri Shimbun, of the 26 universities cutting their humanities and social science offerings, 17 intend to stop recruiting students in the areas and all of the 26 plan to stop offering so-called “no certificate” courses that don’t require latent prospective teaches to obtain a teaching certificate in those areas.

While some organizations, such as the executive board of the Science Council of Japan, made quick and strident objections to the ministry’s request, even some ostensible supports of the disciplines couched their support deferentially. For example, Shojiro Nishio, the new president of Osaka University (the largest national university in Japan), both backed the idea of the value but also encouraged them to “think proactively about what you can do,” reported Kiyomi Arai of The Yomiuri Shimbum.

According to Arai:

Nishio says achievements are not easily seen in the fields of humanities and social sciences, but these studies are indispensable as they bring diversity to society. Specializing in data engineering, Nishio is a world leader in information technology, particularly in analyzing big data. As a researcher, he believes studies in the humanities field do not tend to have a “strong focus on responding to the demands of society.”

Not every university was so circumspect, and some notable institutions, such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, said they had no current intention of complying. The president’s office of Shiga University told Nomiura that, “Democracy cannot be preserved if the ‘intellectual knowledge’ of humanities and social science studies is cast aside.”

The Science Council of Japan put out a statement late last month expressing its “profound concern over the potentially grave impact that such an administrative directive implies for the future of the HSS {humanities and social sciences] in Japan and the very idea of the university itself, irrespective of whether it is privately or publicly funded.” That statement acknowledges that HSS could do a better job of clarifying its value, even as it stresses how integral HSS is to a “balanced” university and to the larger Japanese society.

The International Social Science Council (to which the Science Council of Japan belongs) applauded the council’s statement and for addressing how HSS is “integral to advancing knowledge on the challenges facing society today, both in Japan and internationally. They play a unique and vital role in critically thinking about and assessing the human condition, and for the understanding, foresight, governance and continued development of contemporary societies.”


Courtesy of Social Science Space. Original article here