In the years since the end of World War II, American students in the social sciences and other disciplines have taken an increased interest in African problems. Attention was drawn to Africa during the war by the battles fought in the north, along the Mediterranean shore, and by the establishment of transportation lines farther south, through French West Africa and the Sudan. Following the war, the emergence of the Belgian Congo as a principal producer of uranium, and the growing realization of the contemporary and potential significance of racial and nationalist movements in Africa have kept the affairs of that continent nearer the center of world interest than in the interwar period.

Although African studies in American universities have grown more slowly than studies of certain other areas, a substantial number of graduate students, mostly anthropologists, have recently engaged in field work in East and West Africa; and “scholarly safaris” have given opportunities to groups of social scientists to obtain brief firsthand views of African conditions, and perhaps to develop sustained research interests in them.

In recognition of these developments, a conference at Princeton University on October 14–16, 1953 was sponsored jointly by the National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The theme chosen for the conference was: “Stability and Change in African Society.” The geographical focus of the conference was Middle Africa, the area south of the Sahara and north of the Union of South Africa. Among the 68 participants from universities, foundations, government agencies, and other institutions were six representatives from abroad: Miss Audrey Richards, East African Institute of Social and Economic Research (Kampala, Uganda); Miss Peter Ady, St. Anne’s College, Oxford University; H. R. Burrows, University of Natal; Paul M. Henry, Commission for Technical Cooperation in Africa South of the Sahara (London); Jacques Maquet, Central African Institute of Scientific Research (IRSAC), Astrida, Belgian Congo; Kenneth Robinson, Nuffield College, Oxford University.

Within the general theme, discussion was centered on factors of stability and change in political, religious, and economic and social institutions. Papers were distributed in advance of the meeting and the conference sessions were given over to discussion of questions raised by the papers, which were written by younger scholars who had recently engaged in field research in Africa.1Papers were prepared by: James B. Christensen. Wayne University; James S. Coleman. University of California at Los Angeles; John H. Dean. Hunter College; Lloyd A. Fallers. Princeton University; Charles E. Fuller. University of Missouri; Robert F. Gray, University of Chicago; Robert A. Lystad. Tulane University; Daniel F. McCall. Columbia University; John C. Messenger. Michigan State College; Simon Ottenberg. Northwestern University; William B. Schwab. Haverford College; Donald Simmons, Yale University.

In addition to the discussion of substantive questions, the members of the conference gave extensive consideration to the special problems of field research in Middle Africa, and to the development of African studies in the United States. The present report is primarily concerned with these latter subjects.

An approach to African studies

“At present the liberal West does not offer the only model by which newly independent peoples might fashion their societies.”

Emphasis was given to the view that Americans, specialists as well as members of the general public, should examine afresh some of their stock assumptions in trying to understand political and social problems in African colonial territories. Because the United States broke its colonial bonds as the result of a revolutionary struggle, a tendency to sympathize with the peoples of colonial territories rather than with the governments of metropolitan powers has persisted in this country to the present day. It was suggested that this tendency, though unexceptionable in itself, has occasionally been expressed without adequate consideration of the factors in a complex relationship. There may have been a certain inevitable character, according to this view, about the surge of European expansion that created colonial administrations in Middle Africa. However, there were possible and feasible directions for the future evolution of those administrations other than toward political independence for the local population. It was pointed out that Americans have recently become aware that they might be pulled in more than one direction in consequence of conflicts between their sympathies and their strategic interests. Relatively few existing colonial territories have had the advantage, possessed by the American colonies in 1776, of a citizenry sufficiently experienced, educated, and varied in skills to maintain a new nation in its independence. At present the liberal West does not offer the only model by which newly independent peoples might fashion their societies; and people in the United States, now participating more actively than ever before in world politics, might give consideration to colonial problems with a view to trying to lead African peoples into enduring cooperation with the West. It may be too late for this, as racial and political conflicts are already serious and even violent, but there may still be time to bring it about. The hope was expressed that the development in the United States of greater understanding of African problems might contribute to this end.

The expression of these views initiated discussion of a problem facing scholars in this and other areas. To the question of what role should be played by American students of African problems, one answer was that their only interest should be in science and scholarship; the solution of practical problems is not the business of Americans, but that of the people intimately concerned in the situation. American students in Africa should consider themselves as guests, who might be able to contribute to the understanding of basic problems and to advance the frontiers of knowledge. It was also proposed, however, that Americans should not abstain from the study of policy problems having practical value to governmental agencies or business concerns. Research done in an unbiased and conscientious way might well be devoted to certain problems deemed more urgent than others in political or economic priority scales. Another phase of this discussion led to the observation that some research is both “basic” and “practical” since, for example, kinship studies may contribute to better understanding of the social structure as a whole and hence throw light on such problems as the recruitment of labor.

It was recognized that there is no easy answer to these questions. While it was not felt that research should be directed to purposes of administrators, there remained some difference of opinion between those who supported the undertaking of any “basic” research of a scientific character, which “must underlie any practical approach to a solution,” and those who felt that “time was running out in Africa” and that certain subjects of research, such as land use and food production, should therefore receive major attention.

It was further recognized that the choice of research topics would be made by individuals in terms of their own interests and judgments about the significance of their work. There was no disposition to recommend that all research proposals should be evaluated in terms of their immediate relevance to issues of public welfare, since there is always “a place for persons without interest in economic and social development,” and for those with “a monastic concentration on the unreal.” Differently motivated and diversely oriented people would continue to engage in varied lines of research; some would define an “area,” such as Africa, as “a place where problems are studied,” while others would regard it as a place where the problems that are more pressing than others should be solved first. These two points of view were not mutually exclusive, but they were sufficiently distinct so that they had different operational implications. For example, the adoption of the first view would result in relatively little concern about the making of “research efforts”; it would also permit taking the position that some questions, such as that concerning the number of people who should study, would solve themselves. At this and other points, issues concerning approaches to and the substance of research became interwoven with considerations of method.

Research methods

“Where unexamined social problems are so vast in comparison to accomplished research, inadequacies of research are multidisciplinary in character.”

Most of the conference papers were written by anthropologists. Some of the questions of method arising from the papers were therefore directed at the techniques used by anthropologists. However, the greater part of such questions would have been no less applicable to work in other disciplines if their students had been equally enterprising in pioneering in field studies in Africa. Where unexamined social problems are so vast in comparison to accomplished research, inadequacies of research are multidisciplinary in character.

In general terms, encouragement was given to making more refined analyses of the processes of social and cultural change, to undertaking more systematic and extensive research on interrelationships among cultures, and to comparison of the effects of different administrative policies on local peoples of similar culture. The development of greater self-consciousness in working out conceptual formulations and research methods was stressed. Interest was expressed, in this connection, in the use of combinations of sociological and anthropological techniques in research on the growth of urbanism, as reported in one of the papers.

More specifically, economists expressed the hope that anthropological studies might in future provide more kinds of information that they could use. For example, information about lineage is not enough for their purposes. How does money flow in African communities? What is the composition of family budgets? Those interested in expanding the supply of labor for types of production that might enable Middle Africa to participate to a greater degree in the world economy would like to know more about problems of recruitment and training.

The communication of research results to specialists and nonspecialists was considered to be of general interest, and to involve several kinds of questions. It was suggested that ways might be found to carry out research that might provide information and analyses of broad significance. While it was recognized that data are of fundamental importance, it was felt that social scientists have a responsibility to go beyond the limits of purely descriptive studies, and to try to establish relationships of cause and effect. In this way, it was remarked, the growth and refinement of theory would be speeded, the relevance of research to policy decisions would be made more direct, and the value of studies in one discipline for those in another would be enhanced.

The transmission of research products to social scientists and the general public was held to be impeded by types of research reports that are obstructive of understanding on the part of nonspecialists. A plea was made for writing reports in a style that avoids excessive use of words in African languages, and that employs a minimum of disciplinary “jargon.” It was also urged that attempts be made to establish some precision of meaning for words having specialized connotations in Middle Africa. As one example it was pointed out that the word “hospital,” if used to describe an institution in Middle Africa, would be unlikely to give Americans an adequate picture of the medical facilities available.

Organization of research

Consideration of the suggestion that “a design for African studies” should be prepared by American and other social scientists brought forth varied comment. In one direction, strong defense was offered for the work of lone research workers. It was remarked that the tradition of individual investigations was perhaps stronger in Great Britain than in the United States, and the explanation was hazarded by one of the visitors from Great Britain that this might be because American scholars have “rather pleasanter characteristics” than British scholars. In this connection an American student remarked that on landing in East Africa he had felt like a “sheep in lone wolf’s clothing,” and that he had found collaboration with other scholars of essential value in carrying out his research. Another American admitted a feeling of “intimidation” on realizing that the problems he faced in research in West Africa could not be explained in terms of his own disciplinary training. He suggested that there is need to establish a hierarchy of problems, and then to attempt to find solutions through a system of techniques involving one or more disciplines. Some theories about problems might be developed through interdisciplinary collaboration; multidisciplinary activity was suggested as particularly appropriate for dealing with problems of method. It was hoped that through cooperative activity on many fronts, related studies in Middle Africa might be undertaken not with a sense of intimidation, but with a sense of breaking new ground.

Up to the present, American scholars have engaged in relatively little team research in Middle Africa. The conference participants who felt that an attempt should be made to create a “research structure” were especially interested in the promotion of team research of various kinds. Among possible types are: (1) “linked” projects in which students make investigations distinct in themselves and carried on in different places, but in which various degrees of cooperation might be arranged; (2) teamwork on specific problems by scholars of one discipline; (3) joint projects, involving representatives of several disciplines, for the study of specific problems; (4) interdisciplinary area studies.

It was suggested that junior scholars are less suited for team research than mature scholars, partly because of their greater defensiveness about disciplinary lines. One informed view was that joint or team research represents a sort of summit, which may be attained by research workers at a time considerably later than the “lone wolf” stage.

In view of the fact that in several colonial territories in Middle Africa there are research institutes of an official or semi-official character, and in view of some special features of research in a colonial situation, there was deep interest in ways and means of organizing effective research relationships between American students and European students in the metropolitan countries and in Middle Africa. Discussion of this subject arose from a query as to whether a welcome might be anticipated in Africa for American research aimed not at interference with colonial administrations, but at furthering an understanding of the present scene.

Several answers to this question were given. In general, it appeared that individual American scholars would be received as in the past, with traditional African courtesy. However, the warmth of their welcome would be greater if certain changes could be made in the existing situation.

“There is a probably unavoidable initial element of suspicion in the attitude of administrators toward foreigners engaged in research.”

It was pointed out that American scholars are not always distinguished, by colonial administrators, from “the endless stream” of American experts visiting Africa on technical assistance or mutual security missions. It was noted that the problem of getting expert advice accepted by administrators is world-wide, and when the advice comes from foreigners, the difficulties of the problem are multiplied. There is a probably unavoidable initial element of suspicion in the attitude of administrators toward foreigners engaged in research. There are various ways or combinations of ways in which this attitude might be overcome. If the student, instead of being a short-term visitor, could stay long enough in one territory to become a part of the local scene, and if he possessed qualities permitting him to gain the confidence both of administrators and the local population, his research would evoke cooperation. In French and Belgian areas, the welcome to American research scholars who do not speak French cannot be expected to equal that in territories where English is the language of the administration. Finally, it was noted that efforts have been made in Belgium, France, and Great Britain to develop some degree of coordination in research, and it was suggested that the discovery of some means of organizing, without controlling, American scholars going to Middle Africa would reduce certain existing difficulties.

The forms that such organization might take were outlined in some detail. It was regarded as essential that care be taken to obtain introductions to appropriate administrative officials so that the type of research planned could be explained to them before its initiation. Field research in the social sciences might be very difficult if not impossible if officials were hostile to the proposed investigations. Introductions that would facilitate research might be obtained through existing research institutes in Middle Africa, and an approach by way of the institutes would give governments some assurance that the individuals concerned were responsible social scientists.

Americans desiring affiliation with research institutions in Middle Africa would be accorded the fullest cooperation if they could arrive in Africa with greater resources and more time to spend than has been customarily possible. They should, for example, be so financed that they could provide their own automobiles. In addition, they should plan to stay in Africa for not less than two years; housing facilities are so limited in Kampala, for example, that it is difficult to find room on short notice for students who expect to spend brief periods in Uganda. On the other hand, Americans able to fulfill these conditions would be warmly welcomed, particularly if they were willing to work on “linked” research projects. For example, one on leadership in East African society was so organized that Americans could readily find a place if they were willing to work under the same conditions, and on the same salary scales, as their colleagues.

“One way for Americans to give greater depth and utility to their research work…is through adequate study of documentary sources before beginning field work.”

One way for Americans to give greater depth and utility to their research work, it was pointed out, is through adequate study of documentary sources before beginning field work. It was suggested that little advance in research could be expected from rather extensive studies of political institutions in West Africa, done in a short period of time, and preceded by insufficient study of official and other sources of information available in the metropolitan countries. The observation was made by a visiting scholar that a major American contribution to studies of Middle Africa in the social sciences would be the organization in the United States of an effective center of documentation on African problems.

Observations of this kind and the interest of a number of participants in the conference in the development of future research in Africa were responsible for consideration by the conference at its closing session of methods of furthering research and making mutually advantageous arrangements between American scholars and institutions, and research organizations abroad which are already engaged in coordinated and interdisciplinary research on African problems.

Bryce Wood (1909–1986), a political scientist, was a professor at Swarthmore College from 1941 to 1951, when he joined the SSRC as a staff member. He retired in 1973 and served on various programs throughout his more than 20 years of work at the Council.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 7, No. 4 in December of 1953. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on May 16, 2017


Papers were prepared by: James B. Christensen. Wayne University; James S. Coleman. University of California at Los Angeles; John H. Dean. Hunter College; Lloyd A. Fallers. Princeton University; Charles E. Fuller. University of Missouri; Robert F. Gray, University of Chicago; Robert A. Lystad. Tulane University; Daniel F. McCall. Columbia University; John C. Messenger. Michigan State College; Simon Ottenberg. Northwestern University; William B. Schwab. Haverford College; Donald Simmons, Yale University.