Writing Genres in Africanist Social Sciences and Humanities

Hosted in Fall 2016 by Associate Professor of Anthropology James Smith and PhD candidate Laura Meek.

This reading group is dedicated to exploring writing genres within Africanist scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, especially anthropology, history, political science, science and technology studies, and women's and gender studies.

Participants will be graduate students who are currently writing chapters of their dissertations. Members will read a text every other meeting and discuss the writing style, form, type and presentation of data, connection between data and theory, positionality of the author, etc. 

Proposed texts for the the first quarter include: Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires (History), James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (Political Science), David Graeber’s Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (Anthropology), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (fiction), Gabrielle Hecht’s Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Social Studies of Science), and Aili Mari Tripp’s Women and Power in Postcolonial Africa (Women & Gender Studies). This list is subject to change.

At every other meeting, members will share their works in progress which will be modeled on select readings, and all members will read others' work and provide feedback. The primary theme to be explored is writing styles and genres in Africanist scholarship within the humanities and social sciences.

Meeting 5 (12/7/2016)

The last meeting of our group was on December 7, and had in attendance: Laura Meek and Jane Saffitz, from Anthropology, and Sarah Gilkerson from History. We read drafts of both Jane’s and Sarah’s works before the meeting and gave each other feedback on these works in progress during the meeting. For Jane, we read a draft chapter of her dissertation. The chapter deals with issues of knowledge production, particularly how efforts by humanitarian organizations and journalists to document the violence against people with albinism in Tanzania have perhaps unwittingly created some of the very conditions that they’re reporting on.

We discussed the work of Professor Joe Dumit about the construction of facts and how facts change as they travel from one audience or context to another, and how this might also connect to the creation of statistics and facts about violence in Tanzania. Then we talked about Sarah’s work which is about Lloyd C. Briggs, a mid-twentieth century anthropologist of Tuareg society in the Sahara. Sarah pointed out a number of ethnocentric, Westerncentric, and racist assumptions in Briggs’ work, leading us to discuss the problematic history of the discipline and reflect on it today. We also thought about some differences between history and anthropology as disciplines- for instance, in their orientations towards methods and positivism- and we spent some time thinking about how this was reflected in our work and how we should trouble-shoot problems that we encounter when we deviate from our respective fields’ norms in this regard.

Meeting 4 (11/29/2016)

This meeting had in attendance: Christian Doll, Jane Saffitz, Justin Haruyama, and Laura Meek from the Department of Anthropology, and Sarah Gilkerson from the Department of History. Our focus for this meeting was twofold: we first discussed themes around the body, eating as an epistemological practice, and drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise, in East Africa, particularly as this literature relates to Laura’s research in Tanzania. Of particular importance here are indigenous notions of ‘fakes’ (chakachua in Swahili) and ‘poison’ (sumu in Swahili). Our discussion was anchored in the works of Africanist anthropologists Brad Weiss (who writes about eating as a form of relationality in Tanzania) and Kathryn Geurtz who works in Ghana on issues of dis/ability and the senses.  

Next we discussed current historical and anthropological scholarship on mining in Africa, focusing specifically on Jim Ferguson’s work in the Zambian copperbelt and James Smith’s work on coltan in the Eastern DRC. Here we discussed important themes related to temporality, language and the complex configurations of power that exist around mines. This discussion was in support of Justin’s research on the relationship between Chinese managers and African miners in Southern Zambia. We discussed the development of a pigeon language at the mine, theories of how pigeon languages form under circumstances of colonial power relations, and how the contemporary moment- of the Chinese in Africa- is in some ways similar to, and in other ways distinct from- earlier British colonial socioeconomic interventions in the region. Finally, we made some preliminary plans for developing panels to present together at the spring American Ethnological Association conference.

Meeting 3 (11/2/2016)

In attendance were returning members Laura Meek, Christian Doll, and Justin Haruyama from the Anthropology Department, and one new member: Sarah Gilkerson from the History Department. For this meeting we pre-distributed a dissertation writing grant draft written by Christian Doll and a dissertation research grant written by Justin Haruyama. Reading these grant proposals we then discussed and provided feedback based on two other pieces of literature that group members had read: Abdou Maliq Simone’s “People as Infrastructure” and Anne Laura Stoler’s Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power. A particular focus of our discussion was on the literature reviews for Christian and Justin’s grant proposals, and how to structure our dissertations in such a way as to build on existing pieces of influential literatures such as that of Simone or Stoler without merely reproducing them in a new setting.

With our group now including members from both the anthropology and history departments, we also had a very useful conversation about the variance in methods between disciplines and how to productively draw from methodologies outside of our own disciplinary background. For example, though both Justin and Christian had included archival research amongst their proposed/completed dissertation research, it became apparent that neither one had much of an idea of how to approach an archive in a systematic and methodical fashion. Sarah provided key tips on how to use archival tools such as a finding aid in order to make archival research more successful.

Meeting 2 (10/19/2016)

In attendance were Laura Meek, Jane Saffitz, Justin Haruyama, Christian Doll, and Shaheen Amirebrahimi. We discussed ongoing grant-writing to fund fieldwork and dissertation writing. We then had an extended discussion of career plans, discussing the variety of academic positions and positions in industry available to to people with advanced degrees in the social science as well as work in the non-profit sector.

We had further discussion of balancing TA workloads with time for writing and goals for the upcoming month and the rest of the quarter. We discussed the process for soliciting feedback from advisors and how to decide when a draft is ready to submit for feedback We then made a plan for reading each other's work in the coming weeks. We will balance drafts of grants with upcoming deadlines with drafts of dissertation chapters and other longer pieces. We then gave up the rest of our meeting time to quiet writing, something we agreed we should devote at least half of future meetings to.

Meeting 1 (10/12/2016)

This meeting was attended by Laura Meek, Jane Saffitz, Justin Haruyama, Christian Doll, and Shaheen Amirebrahimi. Our focus was on Africanist grant writing within the humanities and social sciences, particularly the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) which has an upcoming Dissertation Fellowship. We particularly discussed how to make our dissertation projects relevant to other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, and brainstormed strategies for doing this, reading previous graduate students’ successful grant applications.

We also discussed broader theoretical issues that can span our projects and the humanities, such as temporality, narrative form, violence and ethics, material semiotics, and epistemology and ontology. We thought about how to use the theoretical framework of the ‘category’ as an analytic that spans many disciplines and discussed works like Said’s Orientalism, Foucault’s The Order of Things, Bowker and Star’s Sorting Things Out, and Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body, as examples of works which have done this in a very detailed precise empirical setting while making broader theoretical contributions.

For more information, contact Laura Meek.