Debating Patrick Chabal’s Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling

On June 2009 Critican African Studies (a highly commendable online academic journal edited by Paul Nugent – read his nº 1 Voluntarist Manifesto here) convened a debate on Patrick Chabal’s Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, with the participation of several prominent Africanists and Chabal himself opening and closing the debate (his address in video can be watched here).

The panel of Africanists reviewers was: Stephen Chan (SOAS), Sara Rich Dorman (Univ. of Edinburgh), Preben Kaarsholm (Roskilde Univ.), Murray Last (Univ. College London), Dieter Neubert (Univ. of Bayreuth), Ian Taylor (Univ. St Andrews), Nicolas van de Walle (Cornell University) and Jan Kees van Donge (African Studies Centre, Leiden). All their papers can be read here, and the ensuing debate is available here.

In reading the reviews made by his colleagues there’s no doubt that The Politics… has generated waves of interest among the [Western  academic] Africanist community. The reviews analyze the book from different angles. To cite merely a few:

  • its contribution to universal political science (Dorman)
  • the solidity of its empirical stance
  • the underlying belief it portrays in the limits of area studies (Kaarsholm)
  • the presence of much suffering and far less smiling (Last)
  • the strength of its anthropological claims (Neubert)
  • the utilitarian and pragmatic approach (van de Walle)
  • its sound appreciation of African civil society

On the other hand, some criticism emerges too:

  • Not recognizing the formality and regularities that also conform the African state (Chan)
  • A level of analysis (‘a morass of mid-level theorising‘, Dorman) that fails both to incorporate local realities and establish universal claims for political science
  • Missing bibliographical notes and references to empirical studies that would allow to contrast the validity of Chabal’s points (Dorman, van de Walle)
  • Criticism of Africanist political science founded on misinterpretations of what it actually does: large ‘N’ studies (while in fact they’re not so relevant in numbers), excessive theoretical approach (while grounded, interpretative research is done to a large extent) (Dorman), generalisations and resort to ethnicity as an overall explanation of political phenomena (Taylor)
  • Incoherent methodology: while advocating for a political anthropology approach, Chabal does not resort to thick description and embedded participant observation (Dorman)
  • Little discussion of international factors (where is China?) (Dorman)
  • Male-centred analysis (Dorman)
  • Failure to distinguish national cultures and diversity within societies, relying more on what African societies share rather than what distinguishes (Kaarsholm)
  • Not accounting for international relations of Africa to the world (a limitation of area studies) (Kaarsholm)
  • Not enough acknowledgement of modernization as pushing for popular demands of democracy and accountability (Kaarsholm)
  • Writing from the grassroots of ordinary political life would have helped (‘Patrick Chabal’s book lies, for me, within a broader western genre of “misery memoir”‘, Last)
  • Generalisations lead to oversimplification and reduction. No empirical proof (Neubert)
  • Absence of analysis of the role of a burgeoning middle-class in political debates (Neubert)
  • Lack of conceptual clarity and inconsistency in using ‘modernity’ (Neubert)
  • Failure to take profit from Asian similarities in terms of incorporation of ancient structures into the colonial system (Neubert)
  • Negating the existence of a ruling class (Taylor)
  • Excessive faith on the ‘informal’ as expression of an Africa that works (Taylor)
  • Impossibility of avoiding a priori theoretical frameworks, as Chabal assumes (Taylor)
  • Chabal’s critique of political science (modernization paradigm, dependency theory) true of all social sciences (van de Walle)
  • Failure to recognize the value of quantitative research and hypothesis testing (van de Walle)
  • Lack of clarity in establishing causal relationships for the phenomena portrayed in the book (van de Walle)
  • Failure to explain how inequality persists in Africa if redistribution is a main feature of social and political relationships (van de Walle)
  • Overt pessimism about actual democracy in the continent, while elections have changed regimes in Zambia and Malawi (van Donge)
  • Implicit recognition that one-party states are less exploitative of societies than multiparty democracies (van Donge)
  • Static interpretation of neo-patrimonialism; why people engage in opposition if no patrimonial gain is to be made? (van Donge)

Chabal responds to some of these criticisms in the last document here.

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