The Closed Society and its Critics

Historical Transformations in the Theory and Practice of African Ethnography

Publication Date:

Journal: American Ethnologist

Reissue Date:

Page start: 571

Page End: 53

Volume: 3

Edition: 11

How most persuasively to conceptualize and theorize indigenous African societies, past and present? This essay begins by interrogating the confrontation in the 1980’s – a time of paradigmatic shift in both anthropology and African Studies – between “classical” (structural functionalist) and “critical” (Marxist) approaches, noting the strengths and weaknesses of both. Reviewing four important books published in 1982, each of which staked out new perspectives on old themes in African Studies, it draws together the most productive insights from each of them to argue for an altogether different, dialectical-systems approach to the analysis of economy and society in colonial and post-colonial Africa. This dialectical approach treats “local” African worlds as internally dynamic formations, in which social, economic, and political structures are inherently mobile and capable of endogenous transformation – while simultaneously engaged in constant, shape-shifting interactions with worlds (plural) beyond them.

Other Essays