African  Sociology Research Paper

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The defining basis of African sociology is that it takes African ontological standpoints as its point of departure, not just the description or analysis of the African conditions. As the systematic study of sociational life and dynamics, sociology can neither be restricted to the study of societies created in the wake of the Industrial Revolution nor accommodate the Enlightenment’s spatial division of labor between sociology and anthropology— with the latter as the study of nonindustrial societies. Similarly sociological analysis predates nineteenth-century Europe.

African Sociology In Antiquity

Adb al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun’s three-volume Kitab Al-’ Ibar is a major sociology work on African antiquity (Dhaouadi 1990, Alatas 2006). In the first volume, Muqaddimah (1967 [1378]), Ibn Khaldun set out the framework for adjudicating between competing data sources; the volume was self-consciously sociological. He outlined his new “sciences” of human organization and society 452 years before the first volume of Auguste Comte’s six-volume The Course of Positive Philosophy (1830) was published. Ibn Khaldun also discussed the concept of asabiyyah (group feeling), or the normative basis of group cohesion, how it decomposes and is reconstituted, and the ways it manifests at different levels of social organization and among different groups. This was 515 years before Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labour in Society (1893) was published.

Twentieth-Century African Sociology

In contemporary Africa, sociology is perhaps the social science discipline that has benefited most from the “nationalist” project, both as a state-building project and as an intellectual endeavor. Sociology benefited from the state-building project as the number of universities and student enrollment grew exponentially. As an intellectual project, sociology flourished in the wake of the rebellion against anthropology and its “epistemology of alterity” (Mafeje 1997). In a series of articles published between 1967 and 1971, Bernard Magubane (1971, 2000) led the charge against social anthropology and its alter ego Sociology in Africa. Magubane’s works involved the articulation of African ontological standpoints in the face of Eurocentric discourses of “othering.” While most of the early academic African sociologists were trained as anthropologists, Omafume Onoge’s rejection of the feasibility of being “a native anthropologist” (Onoge 1977) reflected a wider revolt. African sociology, he argued, must break with the alterity and negation endemic in “applied anthropology.” Archie Mafeje’s “The Ideology of ‘Tribalism’” (1971) was a partial and situational rejection of the concept of “tribe” and a substantive rejection of “tribalism” as a viable concept for explaining political relationship in Africa. The paper was part of a wider rebellion against alterity.

In many ways Amflcar Cabral prefigured the concerns expressed by Magubane and others. Cabral’s “Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea” ([1964] 1970) and “The Weapon of Theory” ([1966] 1979) are exemplary sociological analyses and products of field methods. The former served as the source codes for “The Weapon of Theory,” which set an important departure from the dominant Marxist discourse of the time; it derived from a specific African ontological standpoint. If for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels the history of humankind is the history of class struggle, Cabral argued that “the true motive force of history is the mode of production.” The mantra of class struggle not only runs against the grain of observed historical patterns, it produces “for some human groups in our countries … the sad position of being people without history … [and negates] the inalienable right of every people to have its own history” (Cabral 1979, p. 125).

From Revolt To Affirmation

Beyond revolt, sociology also involved the affirmation of African ontological standpoints. N. A. Fadipe ([1939] 1970), Cabral, Magubane, and Mafeje reflect such affirmation. Here Mafeje’s The Theory and Ethnography of African Social Formations (1991) signaled an epistemic shift. The concept of “tributary modes of production,” originally developed by Samir Amin (Mafeje 1991, p. iv), was the organizing framework for Mafeje’s study of the interlacustrine kingdoms of the Great Lake region. The idea of “tributary modes of production” was meant to capture what was “outside the purview of European history” and needed to “be understood in their own terms” (Mafeje 1991, p. iii). What Mafeje produced was a concept of tributary relations that transcended several dimensions of the contents that Amin gave it.

Ruth First’s The Barrel of a Gun (1972 [1970]) was an important development in political sociology; it was such a nuanced deployment of the category of class in explaining coup d’etat on the continent that it fundamentally altered the debate. This was against the dominant Africanist explanation that gave primacy to ethnicity or “tribalism.” Peter Ekeh’s “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa” (1975) represented a similarly important deployment of grounded scholarship and a sociological mind-set in making sense of contrasting behaviors of the “political elite” in the realm of the state, on the one hand, and the “primordial public” of familial domain, on the other. In spite of the sociological contents of Ekeh’s analysis, it has taken an essentialist form in the hands of several Africanists.

A major development in African sociology since 1980 is the effort to use endogenous ontological narratives as source codes for sociology. A major strand was pioneered by Akmsola Akiwowo; another was inspired by what Oyeronke Oyewumf called the African “world-sense” (Oyewumf 1997, p. 3). Akiwowo’s works (1983, 1986, 1988a, 1988b, 1999) involved distilling sociological concepts from the Ifd literary corpus (a system of life commentaries, discourses, and divination among the Yoruba). Jimf O. Adesma (2002, 2006) extended the insights from Akiwowo’s works, arguing that Ifd texts and the wider Yoruba ontological narratives offer distinct epistemic insights: Ti’bi-Ti’re logic, the “mutual self-embeddedness of seemingly contradictory things” (Adesma 2006, p.13). The implications for sociology are conceptual and methodological. These involve a sociological orientation to sociational life that embraces the coexistence of “oppo-sites” and the open-endedness of outcome in social interaction or between contending social forces, nuanced discourse, and embracing senses, reason, and inspiration in sociological research.

In the early twenty-first century the most exciting area of sociological work is in the field of African gender scholarship. Much of these derive works from using African “world-sense” in sociological inquiry. The works of Ifi Amadiume (1987) and Oyewumf (1997, 2003, 2005) represent distinct sociological insights and allow for epistemic ruptures from the dominant North American and European feminist scholarship. As Oyewumf noted, “Gender categories are [not] universal or timeless … [or] present in every society at all times” (Oyewumf 1997, p. xi). The inscription of gender ordering in the anatomical body or the coincidence of anatomical maleness and anatomical femaleness does not reflect the experience historically or even contemporarily in the two contexts in which they worked. Igbo and Yoruba languages are gender neutral, and their social structures privilege age seniority over gender difference. Seniority within a consanguine relationship is the primary marker of social position.

Amadiume and Oyewumf demonstrated across the spectrum of social, occupational, political, and economic ordering in both contexts that “biology [did not and does not] determine social position” (Oyewumf 1997, p. 17). Both have inspired other African scholars to explore other cultural contexts. Beyond scholarship, these works are valuable for women’s rights struggles. Much of the androcentric power plays and diminution of women that is often claimed in the name of “tradition” is not traditional.


  1. Adésínà, Jìmí O. 2002. Sociology and Yoruba Studies: Epistemic Intervention, or Doing Sociology in the “Vernacular.” African Sociological Review 6 (1): 91–114.
  2. Adésínà, Jìmí O. 2006. Sociology, Endogeneity, and the Challenge of Transformation: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered on Wednesday, 16 August 2006, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.
  3. Akìwowo, Akínsolá. 1983. Àjobí and Àjogbé: Variations on the Theme of Sociation. Inaugural Lectures series no. 46. Ile-Ife, Nigeria: University of Ife Press.
  4. Akìwowo, Akínsolá. 1986. Contributions to the Sociology of Knowledge from an African Oral Poetry. International Sociology 1: 343–358.
  5. Akìwowo, Akínsolá. 1988a. Indigenization of the Social Sciences and Emancipation of Thought. Valedictory Lecture, 18
  6. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Akìwowo, Akínsolá. 1988b. Universalism and Indigenisation in Sociological Theory: Introduction. International Sociology 3: 155–160.
  7. Akìwowo, Akínsolá. 1999. Indigenous Sociologies: Extending the Scope of the Argument. International Sociology 14: 115–138.
  8. Alatas, Farid Sayed. 2006. A Khadunian Exemplar for a Historical Sociology for the South. Current Sociology 54 (3): 397–411.
  9. Amadiume, Ifi. 1987. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Books.
  10. Cabral, Amílcar. 1970. Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea. In Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts. New York: Monthly Review.
  11. Cabral, Amílcar. 1979. The Weapon of Theory: Presuppositions and Objectives of National Liberation in Relation to Social Structure. In Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings. Trans.
  12. Michael Wolfers, 119–137. New York: Monthly Review. Dhaouadi, Mahmoud. 1990. Ibn Khaldun: The Founding Father of Eastern Sociology. International Sociology 5 (3): 319–335.
  13. Ekeh, Peter P. 1975. Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement. Comparative Studies in Society and History 17 (1): 91–112.
  14. Fadipe, N. A. 1970. The Sociology of the Yoruba, ed. and with an introduction by Francis Olu Okediji and Oladejo O. Okediji.Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press. (Orig. pub. 1939.) First, Ruth. [1970] 1972. The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coup D’état in Africa. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.
  15. Ibn Khaldún, ‘Adb al-Rahmán. [1378] 1967. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Trans. Franz Rosenthal. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  16. Mafeje, Archie. 1977. Neocolonialism, State Capitalism, or Revolution. In African Social Studies: A Radical Reader, eds. Peter C. W. Gutkind and Peter Waterman, 412–422. London: Heinemann. (Orig. pub. 1973.)
  17. Mafeje, Archie. 1991. The Theory and Ethnography of African Social Formations: The Case of the Interlacustrine Kingdoms. London: Codesria.
  18. Mafeje, Archie. 1997. Who Are the Makers and Objects of Anthropology? A Critical Comment on Sally Falk Moore’s Anthropology and Africa. African Sociological Review 1 (1): 1–15.
  19. Magubane, Bernard. 1971. A Critical Look at the Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial Africa. Current Anthropology 12 (4–5): 419–445.
  20. Magubane, Bernard. 2000. African Sociology: Towards a Critical Perspective; The Collected Essays of Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane. Trenton, NJ: Africa World.
  21. Onoge, Omafume. 1977. Revolutionary Imperatives in African Sociology. In African Social Studies: A Radical Reader, eds. Peter C. W. Gutkind and Peter Waterman, 32–43. London: Heinemann. (Orig. pub. 1971.)
  22. Oy\wùmí, Oyèrónké. 1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  23. Oy\wùmí, Oyèrónké, ed. 2003. African Women and Feminism. Trenton, NJ: Africa World.
  24. Oy\wùmí, Oyèrónké, ed. 2005. African Gender Studies: A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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