Strategic Essentialism? The Patrick Chabal Debate 
Till Förster (University of Basel )
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Start time:
29 June, 2017 at 14:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

Most scholars agree that Africa is so diverse that all essentialisms are bound to fail. Yet, it seems that publications inform public debates much more thoroughly if they engage in some form of ‘strategic essentialism’ to provoke stark reactions. Is Patrick Chabal’s work an example?

Long Abstract

Societies have always imagined themselves as communities with a distinct culture, social organisation and political order. And as mirror images, they constructed other societies as entities with different characteristics. In times of globalisation, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ relates to entire continents. In particular Africa is conceived as the other of Europe or the Global North more generally. Such images of Africa as the ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘disorganised’ other of the well-ordered liberal democracies of the West are so widely used in public discourse that scholars seem to have no chance to find a receptive audience if they insist on a more sophisticated depiction of African realities. Yet, there is no ‘African’ society or an ‘African’ way of doing politics nor are there ‘African’ forms of governance or, still worse, some sort of ‘African’ despotism. Finding a path between Scylla and Charybdis is not easy, and many eminent scholars had to make a choice between a strategic essentialism that addresses popular images of, for instance, ‘African’ politics, ‘African’ values, ‘African’ governance only to examine thoroughly the ordinariness of political regimes in Africa. “Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument”, probably Patrick Chabal’s most widely read book, seems to be a case in point. This year’s Patrick Chabal debate thus looks at how the key arguments of the book have stimulated new ideas in political, social and cultural theory and to what degree they instigated more reflexive attitudes toward Africa in public and political debates in the Global North.


Andreas Mehler (Arnold Bergstraesser-Institut and University of Freiburg i. Brsg.), Lotje de Vries (Wageningen University), Lucy Koechlin (University of Basel), Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales Marseille)