African Studies Centre

There is a long tradition of research, teaching and supervision on Africa at the University of Oxford. This short history deals very largely with the University African Studies Centre, established in its first form in 2002.  Prior to that, academics specialising on Africa worked in a wide variety of disciplinary departments and Faculties, particularly in the Social Sciences - including Development Studies, Politics, Anthropology, Economics and Geography. Some Africa-focussed options were available at an undergraduate level and a growing number of Master’s degrees also provided coverage. Many doctoral students were supervised through these Departments, as well as in History and elsewhere. Within the Colleges, St Antony’s was organised around area studies groupings, and the Rhodes Chair of Race Relations was located there.  Established in the 1950s to study race relations with specific reference to Africa, the first two post-holders, Kenneth Kirkwood and Terence Ranger, developed a College programme, but not a formal Centre. In 1993, Paul Collier founded the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) in the Department of Economics, with links to St Antony’s, where some of its postholders were located.

Over the long term, leading scholars of Africa worked at Oxford, such as E.E. Evans Pritchard, path-breaking social anthropologist, Margery Perham, historian and cautious advocate of decolonisation, and Thomas Hodgkin, who wrote one of the first books on African nationalism.  Max Gluckman, Ali Mazrui, Terence Ranger and Robert Rotberg, who forged influential academic careers in Britain, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the United States, studied here as did African politicians from Pixley Seme, a founder of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, to Kofi Busia, Fellow of St Antony’s and Prime Minister of Ghana (1969-1972). King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho, along with John Kufuor and Festus Mogae, respectively Presidents of Ghana and Botswana, also studied at the University.  US National Security Advisor, Susan Rice wrote her doctoral thesis on the independence transition in Zimbabwe.

Attempts were made to found overarching African Studies Centres in the 1930s and again in 1987, when Terence Ranger was appointed. St Antony’s housed Centres for Latin America, Japan, the Middle East and Russia and Eastern Europe. The first two were University as well as College Centres, they all had specialist libraries and three ran masters degrees. Kirkwood convened African studies seminars at St Antony’s and started a library. However, when he retired, the College decided to disperse this collection, because African holdings were built at Development Studies and Rhodes House (part of the Bodleian). Ranger could not find support to establish a Centre, largely as a result of Oxford’s highly devolved structures and the commitment of some colleagues to working within a disciplinary framework. A small concentration of Africanists committed themselves to the new Development Studies degree and the CSAE remained wedded to economics as a disciplinary lens.   

Ranger nevertheless created a new momentum in African Studies at Oxford, supervising a wide range of students, leading path-breaking research on Zimbabwe, as well as helping to sponsor new initiatives in Refugee Studies – where African cases were an important focus. He worked with historian Tony Kirk-Greene, who had long nurtured interest in Nigeria, and anthropologist Wendy James who focussed especially on Sudan and Ethiopia. From 1997, William Beinart maintained the programme of seminars and conferences at St Antony’s and supervised a cohort of students studying aspects of environmental history and politics. A conference on African Environments, Past and Present, convened in 1999 with JoAnn McGregor, produced four publications as well as two follow-up workshops. Unsuccessful attempts were made to secure major external funding for an interdisciplinary centre and research programme on African environments, working with colleagues in Geography, the Environmental Change Institute and Zoology.

A new opportunity arose for a centre and a post-graduate degree in African Studies when the University implemented major structural changes by creating four overarching Divisions in 2000.  Donald Hay, the first head of the Division of Social Sciences, was keen to keep the existing area studies centres and degrees. They were an important resource in Oxford, attractive to overseas postgraduate students and giving the university an unusually wide global coverage.  Initially, some of the existing centres were amalgamated into a department of Area and Development Studies. Africa was an obvious absence in this context, and the opportunity was seized in 2002 to start a new committee within this framework, incorporating Africanists in the university as a whole. But Development Studies was itself trying to develop a more focussed identity. Thus in 2004, a separate School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies was founded to combine African, Latin American, Russian and Eastern Europe, as well as Japanese Studies. The new School became a full department in Social Sciences and developed a suite of one and two year masters degrees, later incorporating clusters on China, South Asia, the Middle East and South-East Asia. This School is now called the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGAS).

It is a hard truth that even in universities, many decisions are shaped by money flows and finance is especially important for creating posts, the heart of any academic enterprise. The formation of SIAS, and the African Studies Centre within it, together with a new Master’s degree in 2005, was a turning point. The Social Sciences division introduced a devolved funding system, so that even small units such as African Studies could hold their own budgets, and retain a proportion of their income earned through student fees and research grants.  These funds were used to employ four new Africanists, all of them joint appointments with disciplinary departments:  historian David Anderson from SOAS; anthropologist David Pratten; political scientist Nic Cheeseman; and Jonny Steinberg, who worked initially with criminology. As a University Centre, colleagues were now based at a range of different colleges – St Cross, Jesus and St Annes as well as St Antony’s – which also extended the links of the Centre. Within a relatively short space of time, we had five permanent members of staff and were also able to create some joint temporary posts and post docs including Kate Meagher, Helene Neveu Kringelbach, Neil Carrier, Matteo Rizzo, Julie Archambault, Andrea Purdekova, Thomas Hendriks, Kathi Oke, Sebabatso Manoeli, Peter Brooke, Colin Bundy, Karen Brown, Olly Owen, Liz Fouksman, Zoe Cormack and Julia Viebach. The Centre included specialists on Western, Eastern and Southern Africa and worked closely with colleagues in other departments such as Jocelyn Alexander and Raufu Mustapha in Development Studies and Sloan Mahone and Georg Deutsch in History. 

The Centre had its own administrative staff, notably Wanja Knighton, and made a major impact on the capacity to coordinate African Studies, facilitate and provide funding for seminars and events, as well as teach a large postgraduate cohort annually.  By 2010 the four permanent members of staff jointly supervised over 40 doctoral students, all registered in disciplinary departments. There was no record of the total number of doctoral students studying Africa but a trawl of those registered across humanities and social sciences around this time revealed over 140. The long-established seminar on Thursday evenings, a hub for all Africanists, often attracted over 40 staff and students. Smaller specialist groups focussed for various periods on South Africa, Horn of Africa, Great Lakes, China and Africa; a Sudan programme initiated in the Middle East centre was a valuable addition.  

Regular conferences and workshops covered a wide range of issues from country specific meetings on Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Sudan to diverse thematic issues. In 2005, a large meeting was held at St Antony’s, jointly with the CSAE, to celebrate the College’s record in promoting African Studies. In 2010, the Centre hosted the ASAUK biennial conference with over 400 delegates; in 2014 over 200 participants discussed 20 years of South African democracy and in 2019, the Centre sponsored a meeting on Racialisation and Publicness in Africa and the African Diaspora.  All of this activity attracts visitors, from Africa and elsewhere, who add to the richness of our programmes and events, and we have been especially fortunate that the Oppenheimer visiting fellowships supply us with a regular stream of academics from South Africa. AfOx, an additional programme in the university, bridging all four divisions, also offers funding for visiting fellows.

African Studies was sufficiently secure to ensure that when William Beinart retired, and David Anderson and Nic Cheeseman left for chairs at Warwick and Birmingham, the posts were retained and filled by Wale Adebanwi, Professor of Race Relations, Miles Larmer and Miles Tendi. If the Centre had been formed within one of the large disciplinary departments, it is very unlikely that it would have been able to renew itself in a similar way, as there would have been pressure to appoint in what were perceived as core areas. An African Studies Centre that could generate its own funds, degrees and research projects remains essential.

The MSc is at the heart of activities - intensively taught to between 25 and 30 annually. Over 400 students have now graduated. African Studies has worked hard to finding scholarships for African students, and many applicants are also successful in the university-wide scholarship competitions. In the first years of the MSc, the student cohort was roughly one third UK, one third US and one third from elsewhere. During the last decade, half the students have generally come from Africa or from minority origins. A number of others have experience of African countries and this mix brings a rich range of knowledge to the degree. The masters has gradually changed in shape over the years, although retained its core identity. David Pratten shaped Core Course 1, dealing with methodologies, disciplinary approaches and ethics in the study of African societies. The overarching Core Course 2, the spine of the degree through 16 lectures and seminars over two terms, was a collective enterprise, addressing history, politics and social change. Students also choose an optional course that enables closer focus. The dissertation is a major element of the degree and students are encouraged to research in an African country during the Easter vacation. 

A number of students are able to continue with doctoral degrees, usually registered in other departments, as OSGAS was only able to start its own small doctoral programme in 2017. Centre activities nevertheless provide a focus for a network of doctoral students across the university. The students themselves organise events through AfriSoc, including ambitious annual conferences that bring in leading figures from the academic, NGO, political and business world. These have been extraordinarily successful, focussing on contemporary social and political issues and practical approaches.

African Studies has not attempted to coordinate a research programme around specific themes or approaches; each staff member has generated their own research and publishing, which has fed into their teaching and supervision. William Beinart focussed on environmental history, publishing books on The Rise of Conservation in South Africa, Environment and Empire (with Lotte Hughes), Prickly Pear (with Luvuyo Wotshela) and African Local Knowledge (with Karen Brown). He also edited, with students, Popular Politics and Resistance Movements in South Africa; David Anderson made Oxford a centre for Kenyan politics and history, publishing Histories of the Hanged, an influential discussion of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and its punitive suppression. With David Turton, he ran a research programme on the Omo valley in Ethiopia. David Pratten developed his work on the cultural history and anthropology of South-Eastern Nigeria, with a book on The Man-Leopard Murders and exhibition on masks and masquerades. Nic Cheeseman wrote Democracy in Africa and expanded teaching and supervision on East African Politics. Helene Neveu and Neil Carrier were part of the University’s research programme on migration, producing books on Senegalese dance groups and Somalis in Kenya. Jonny Steinberg, published Man of Good Hope, tracing a Somali migrant to South African and, with Olly Owen, a comparative study of policing in Africa. Miles Larmer secured generous funding for a comparative historical analysis of the Central African copperbelt, in Zambia and the DRC.  Miles Tendi specialises in civil-military relations and published The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe; and Wale Adebanwi, Professor of Race Relations since 2017, works largely on Nigerian politics, including recent books on Nation as Grand Narrative: the Nigerian Press and The Political Economy of Everyday Life in Africa.

Most of our core staff have also played a major role in editing and supporting leading African Studies journals - Africa, African Affairs, Journal of Eastern African Studies and Journal of Southern African Studies. These are all interdisciplinary publications and add a further dimension to our research and supervise across different fields. As co-editors staff have also been very active in international writing workshops supporting early career scholars in African universities navigate the journal publication scene. The teaching offered by the Centre aims to explore the rich literature that has been produced on African countries and to introduce students to key debates about African history, politics and society. It approaches issues from an African perspective at the same time as introducing students to comparative concepts and disciplinary strategies. Much theory in the social sciences has tended to be homogenising, or has presented Western societies and social change as the norm. The approach in African Studies tries to combine understanding of the asymmetries in global power relations, with an understanding of what was special about African trajectories, the continent’s distinctive cultural formations, and a commitment to studying African agency. Underlying this approach has been a critical engagement with African epistemologies and decolonising agendas.

Some of the Area Studies programmes also offer language-based two year M Phil programmes. They are able to do so because Oriental Studies and Modern Languages in the Humanities division offer Arabic, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Russian, Spanish and Portuguese. For complex historical reasons, African languages have slipped through this net and at present there is little teaching available, except for a brief introduction to Swahili. This is clearly a lack and the Centre is discussing how it may be overcome in the longer term. Overall, with the partial exception of History, there is limited coverage of African countries and societies within the humanities and we are thinking about the issue in the context of expanding literature, music, film, art, heritage, and museum studies. 

Expansion of the programme in any direction, whether cultural or environmental, is at present difficult because Oxford has a cap on postgraduate student places. New appointments would require additional students in African Studies and related departments to fund them, unless large endowments can be secured. In terms of diversity, teaching staff composition has changed over time with the recruitment of Wale Adebanwi and Miles Tendi, although there is still no permanent staff who are women. Thus at present, the Centre is limited to five permanent posts and must stick to its core programmes and interests. Our fundraising priority remains studentships for African students, so that we can maintain and enhance our very diverse and multinational character.

- William Beinart, Emeritus Professor, St Antony’s College and African Studies Centre