What to Expect at the Washington DC 59th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA)

This blog, written by 2016 Annual Meeting Program Co-Chair Benjamin Lawrance, originally appeared on the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa blog, and is re-posted here with their permission. You can access the original posting here.

By Benjamin N. Lawrance


Africa as marginal, Africa as forgotten, Africa as a country… we’ve all encountered the tired and simplistic formulae and frameworks that are reproduced time and time again. From its inception in Chicago over half a century ago, the African Studies Association has persistently confronted, engaged, and resisted tropes of Africa and Africans. What happens when we flip the script and insist on methods, practices, analyses, and narratives at which Africa is front and center? In our co-authored call last year for papers, panels, and roundtables, we recognized that when Africa is wielded as a unit for research and policy it too easily becomes a framework synonymous with troubles and dangers. We observed that the need to interweave academy, policy, and practice is arguably now more pressing than ever as funding for Area Studies research declines precipitously. We invited our membership to propose papers and panels that build on the ASA’s rich legacy of experimentation bridging scholarship, representation, and policy, celebrating the continent’s diversity, history, and complexity.

Pervasive popular perceptions of Africa in news, advertising, humanitarianism, development discourse, and political rhetoric frequently collapse the continent’s diversity, history, and complexity.  This happens on the global scale, when Africa is framed as just another development landscape; but also it operates across regions, such as when peoples from countries as diverse and different as Mali, Kenya and Angola are conflated as one. While media portrayals rarely reflect a nuanced understanding of the region, policymakers and practitioners appear to be increasingly aware of the need for the greater involvement of Area Studies experts in foreign policy discussions. This “progress” has been aided and abetted by Africanist social media. Public intellectuals, artists, and writers critique simplistic assumptions and unpack and disassemble continent-as-a-nation representations.

Africa was and still is often wielded as a unit for research and policy, but to what ends? Country-as-continent rhetoric just as often becomes a framework synonymous with troubles and dangers. The Ebola epidemic provided ample ammunition to those all too eager to reassert the continent as a vector of disease and pestilence. Study abroad programs were canceled swiftly in Ghana and Senegal, but also in Botswana! Disruption by violent extremists, such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, provides a framework whereby Africa is recast as a new crucible of terrorism and insecurity. Did you know that the US is investing at least $50m in a military air base in Niger that will be capable of deploying drones as far away as Somalia? US AFRICOM’s programs now operate in more than 38 African nations. Just as news media as well as the development and humanitarian industries reify Africa as a theater for problem-solving, African states embrace the collapsing rhetoric to decry interference in “African values,” promising “African solutions” to “African problems.” The African Union denounces the fledgling International Criminal Court’s aggressive pursuit of sitting African leaders. Protecting and preserving “African culture” has become a rallying cry for conservative political and religious leaders seeking to hold back artistic, literary, cultural, and political movements for gender equality and sexual diversity.

While models, theories and generalizations are needed to make sense of the world, the African context in which these are implemented is too often secondary.  We challenged our membership to reflect on what new perspectives might literatures and performance cultures offer, were they no longer tagged as post-colonial or framed as “the voice” of Africa. We invited international collaborators to consider what economic or agricultural development goals might look like in Africa if European or North American experiences were not held up as the gold standard. And we solicited scholarship and policy papers from across the globe to imagine practice and representation informed by a deep interdisciplinary understanding of the African context. Policy wonks and practitioners will be coming to DC to speculate about what might it be like to have health, education, human rights, security, or environmental policies reflecting a significant understanding of the places they order, regulate and govern. Because so much policy-making is based on models and practices developed in one part of the world and then imported to another without sufficient regard for the new context, we challenged our participants to reveal, interrogate, and dissemble how seemingly placeless and ahistorical approaches are often Eurocentric vernaculars dressed up as global universals.

The 59th Annual meeting – entitled “Imagining Africa at the Center: Bridging Scholarship, Policy, and Representation in African Studies – is the product of this remarkable call and response. We are honored to be associated with a program that features remarkable, original, and pioneering engagement with knowledge production. In response to our call for proposals we received 164 distinct proposals for panels, 52 for roundtables, and 643 for individual presentations, a marked increase over last year’s record-breaking conference. There are a number of interlinked panels that we have folded into the program over multiple sessions. In an effort to unleash the interdisciplinary promise residing at heart of African studies, we have created new strands of panels under the thematic and cross-disciplinary themes, and several board-sponsored panels on critical contemporary issues such as the so-called migration crisis, and the emergence of new communication and mediascapes in Africa.

Building on successful innovations last year, such as the ‘Author Meets Critic’ sessions, we have created a new “Africa Now!” open plenary room enabling scholars, practitioners and activists to interface directly on pressing issues, many of which cannot be scheduled a year in advance! The first of these will focus on the political upheavals in Ethiopia, and the Oromo region in particular. In partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York we are thrilled to be bringing twelve Carnegie-supported African scholars (from an astonishing 136 submissions) to the Annual Meeting to present on three specially organized panels: 1) Innovations and Transformations in Public Health Higher Education; 2) Imagining Africa at the Center: Bridging Scholarship, Policy, and Representation in African Studies; and, 3) The Impact of Climate Change on Development in Africa.

We hope you’ll consider joining us in Washington DC December 1-3, 2016, for an enthralling 59th Annual Meeting.

The 2016 Conference Program Co-Chairs:

Benjamin N. Lawrance, Professor of History & Anthropology, Rochester Institute of Technology

William Moseley, Professor of Geography & African Studies, Macalester College