We live at a time in eastern Africa when basic social science research is dwindling in universities and research centers. Well-known social science research centers are conspicuous by their absence, or if they are present, their outreach is limited, research outcomes are not earth-shattering, and publications out of such research are few. That, however, does not mean that social scientists are not doing research and asking some very important and useful questions; they perhaps are and are writing papers which ought to have seen daylight, but have not. It is the absence of sustained rigorous social science discourse that may be the problem, the demise of local journals and publications, and the downgrading of polemical debates from the university seminar rooms to tête-à-têtes at evening parties when academic colleagues are in town visiting from outside.

“The environment may be difficult and communion with fellow researchers few and far between, but the major questions to be asked are always staring one in the face.”Though heaven be lost, to quote John Milton in Paradise Lost, all is not lost in social science research. The environment may be difficult and communion with fellow researchers few and far between, but the major questions to be asked are always staring one in the face. New research hypotheses and theories are always flying around, some in newspaper articles that one can easily Google. In fact, the Internet is a positive revolution as well as a dreadful curse. Positive in the sense that, properly used, it can open one’s eyes to good things happening in the world. It can bring a scholar close to fellow scholars never heard of and never to meet but whose writings are relevant and exciting to come across. It is a curse because it can lead to shameful plagiarizing, especially by students who have no qualms quoting verbatim from downloaded texts that they don’t care to understand, provided they seem to answer the question asked or the problem posed. Eventually left to their own, such students cannot do research, nor can they grow up to guide other students to do research once they become university dons. And some have so become, climbing to the respectable ranks of being professors.

To add insult to injury, two things have happened to universities that have almost sent basic research to the dustbin of the forgotten. These two things are: the near total disappearance of research grants in the social sciences and the emergence of parallel degree programs. If university dons are not spending too much of their time teaching in parallel courses, then they are doing contract research or consultancies. Sometimes consultancies can involve basic research, but very often not—since the contract giver is interested in solving specific problems within a specified time that may not necessarily be amenable to the scholarly interests of a basic researcher. But new challenges create new opportunities: there are no doubt scholars who have been able to combine contract research with a commitment to pursue very basic issues far and beyond what the payer of the piper bargains for.

But what is basic research?

In the social sciences, basic research seeks to explain certain social phenomena in order to advance social science knowledge and make people understand these phenomena better. Let us use an example from the processes of democratization in Africa which seem to have blossomed in the nineties but are now apparently disappearing to the extent that some people have even written democracy’s obituary. The epitaph on the tomb of democracy, appropriately to be dug in Addis Ababa, the African Union headquarters, may perhaps read: “Here lies an idea whose time came and went with the fury of the intellectual Left and their romantic popular movements in Africa toward the end of the last century.

But as a social scientist interested in basic research, I am reluctant to give credence to that epitaph. First, I want to remain skeptical and say that democracy’s time has not actually come and gone; its time is still here. Secondly, I will go further than that and say that struggles for democracy are still ongoing, except that those who were always resistant to democratic changes have somehow reinvented themselves through democratic elections. They are gaining legitimacy through these elections while rolling back the democratic processes. How do I show this?

I show this by first and foremost stating very clearly a central question of democratic theory: under what circumstances is a democratic system of government born in a society? We could even go further to ask this question in a different way: what are the key elements or features of a democratic system of government?

First, a theory of democracy. We begin by stating that a democracy is a system of government established through the consent of citizens expressed through periodic free and fair elections. Second, there are criteria for determining the extent to which the elections are free and fair enough to wear the badge of being democratic. That in itself can be a major research undertaking in comparative politics; i.e., seeking to know the factors that determine the establishment of democracies in various countries or cultures.

Third, we may be interested in the sustainability or reproducibility of democracy. There are arguments currently emerging that even in what have been regarded in the past as “mature” democracies, democracy is no longer sustainable. What are the historical conditions that lead to the non-sustainability of democracy? Some argue that Lipset’s theory1 that democracies tend to emerge and do better in industrial societies with stable middle class and professionals may no longer be tenable or helpful in understanding the emergence of stable democracies in such places like Botswana. But we may ask: within what time period can we pass the verdict of stability and sustainability of democracy?

All these are examples of basic research that may not be of any use to somebody needing research to solve some urgent problems like answering the question, “How many residents in Nairobi West are likely to buy Elliot bread if the price went down by 30 percent?” Survey research addressing that question could easily be paid for by Uchumi Supermarkets in Kenya. The supermarket may not be bothered about a scholar plowing through the University of Nairobi’s library to find out the causes of democratic reversals in postcolonial societies, but a good study of the eating habits of Nairobi West residents is something the company would readily pay a social scientist for.

The problem of publishing

Not all the good research that is done gets published. Not all published work is worth publishing. Yet scholars must always seek to share their intellectual work with others: this is what the academic community is all about. The phenomenon of “publish or perish” has never disappeared from universities. It has been observed that many scholars are promoted in African universities without publishing much. It is sometimes argued that good lecturers may not necessarily be those who publish a lot. So they get promoted because they teach many students and teach them well. It is quite likely that those who publish much may not necessarily publish material of good quality, especially where articles are not properly peer reviewed and books are never read very widely, nor cited extensively.

University faculties should establish reasonable, fair, and widely accepted criteria for recognition, appreciation, and promotion of scholars and their works. It is difficult to sustain the argument that good teachers need not publish in order to prosper. The very essence of being a good teacher means that one is also excited about communicating the taught ideas through oral and written media. Teaching is about communication; hence a good teacher must, of necessity, be excited about communicating ideas in diverse ways. In this regard, the late professor Ali Mazrui hit the nail on the head when he defined an intellectual as a person who is excited about ideas and has acquired the capacity to engage some of these ideas effectively. The definition may sound simple, and Mazrui was vilified by many a scholar when he first threw that definition into the ring of intellectual gladiators. But try as they may, no such gladiator has come up with a definition since the sixties which better defines an intellectual.

Be that as it may, we veered into the definition of intellectuals by way of coming back to the discussion at hand: research, research environments, and research output. The receding frontier in research output is the result of the key concern of the publishing industry in East Africa: money making. Money is rarely made in publishing interesting academic treatises: it is made in publishing school and college textbooks. The publishing of interesting outputs of research work is now left to be funded by academic foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the German political foundations. But even these foundations quite often specify areas of research that they are interested in. Thus scholars at times need to bend their research concerns in order to write and get published. The only exception here are scholars in the field of literature and the writing of novels. Here there are certain publishing houses, like the East African Education Publishers, who have for a long time kept faith with their favorite novelists; and these novelists have, over time, failed to disappoint. These are exceptions that need to be celebrated. Very often such works of literature of good quality also find their way into the syllabi of schools and hence kill two birds with one stone: they make money as well as support an intellectual and reading culture.

By way of conclusion

The intellectual atmosphere in East Africa has changed substantially over the last twenty years. From the 1960s to the late 1990s, higher education was largely the preserve of governments. People only knew universities that were run by the government. Since the nineties, however, private universities and other tertiary education institutions have mushroomed. But few of these private universities lay emphasis on research, let alone basic research in the social sciences. Public institutions are still more hospitable to research than these private institutions, many of which are no more than “mills for processing students” for getting university degrees. The public universities, in attempts to keep up with the competition for student enrollment, have started what have now come to be known as “parallel courses” taught mainly in the evening and weekends to attract fee paying nonresident students in search of degrees. The content of such courses is quite often wanting; the lecturers who teach in such courses quite often sacrifice their time for research in order to earn the additional compensation paid in public universities for “clocking hours” in the parallel courses.

“The intellectual culture that basic research supports inserts scholars in broader networks of collegiality and collaboration.”

In East Africa, as elsewhere, the opportunity to conduct basic research is essential to both knowledge production and an intellectual culture that sustains individuals in a research community. Teaching and research are not undertaken solely for the need for paid employment; good teachers and researchers are those who have “a calling to fulfill an intellectual mission.” The number of hours spent in the library, or before a computer, researching and writing down ideas that are painfully thought through, cannot really be measured in terms of money. The money is of course necessary to keep body and soul together. At times, however, the brain, in the search for intellectual production, can drive both body and soul to their limits. And that is why researchers and academics at times fall into poor health without realizing that the very nature of their calling drives them toward that direction. The intellectual culture that basic research supports inserts scholars in broader networks of collegiality and collaboration. Simply traveling long distances to meet their colleagues in conferences and seminars and spending evenings discussing and “taking it easy” are necessary in nurturing healthy intellectual cultures.


This essay is a shortened version of a speech given to young African scholars at the United States International University (USIU, Nairobi). The scholars are fellows of the SSRC’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program.

Posted on October 18, 2016