“Inequality isn’t just ‘out there’”: Interrogating disparities in research on mobilities and inequality in Africa

Cover photo by “flowcomm”, accessed on Flickr

by Hassan Ould Moctar & Heike Drotbohm

At a recent Point Sud workshop  that took place 15-18 March 2023 in Accra and Cape Coast, we, a group of thirty scholars from several African and European countries, gathered to exchange and reflect on migration research in and from Africa. Over these few days and across these two locations, we delved into the categories, theories, and methodologies of Africanist migration research. The theme guiding these reflections was “Speaking back to Theory. Africanist Migration Research Beyond the Categories”, and it was tackled through three broad foci – migration and development; mobilities and inequalities; and displacement and categorization – around which panels and roundtables were organized.

In aiming to “speak back to theory”, the premise was that Africa is all too often a mere site in which theories generated elsewhere are tested, rather than a locus of theory in its own right.

Speaking back to Theory

In March 2023, 25 AMMODI members and associates met to discuss the research, topics, categories, theories and methodologies of Africanist migration research, including structural inequalities that play into what is researched, written and heard about. The workshop, entitled “Speaking Back to Theory. Africanist Migration Research Beyond the Categories”, took place in Accra and Cape Coast and was funded by the DFG Point Sud programme. This post is based on the discussions in one of the three breakout groups that convened regularly during the workshop, and is part of an AMMODI blog series in which we summarise and showcase examples from our discussions. The workshop programme is available here.

This generated a number of fascinating, if difficult, questions over the course of the symposium: is the objective to highlight uniquely African specificities and experiences which cannot be understood through the lens of Euro-Atlantic theory? Or is it to demonstrate that these specificities and experiences have global relevance, which can offer lessons to Europe? The weight of the colonial era upon these experiences and perspectives also figured centrally, particularly following a guided tour of the Elmina slave fort at Cape Coast that formed part of the workshop programme. Considering this history raised similar dilemmas in workshop discussions. How should the nation-state and its colonially inherited borders in Africa be approached? Can it be indigenized? Or is it forever tainted by its origins?

In addition to tandem talks, panels, roundtables, and historic site visits, we also had the opportunity to collectively reflect on these exchanges at the end of each day in smaller breakout groups. Our breakout group, comprised of researchers from West Africa, southern Africa, and northern Europe, was tasked with discussing mobilities and inequality, the second workshop theme. While undoubtedly a broad topic, one problem repeatedly came to the surface with particular clarity in our dicussions: those forms of inequality that are maintained in our own professional sphere, and to which we, in our different positions as scholars, contribute. In our discussions, we explored the ways in which the production of academic knowledge relies on the deeply asymmetrical relations between us, be it in terms of the duration of our employment contracts, the financial or material resources by means of which we acquire knowledge, the perceived prestige of our affiliated institutions, or the passport that an individual scholar holds. As Faisal Garba, one of our group participants, said in this regard: “Inequality is not [just] something ‘out there’”.

“Point of No Return”, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana. Photo by Jesper Bjarnesen.

Of course, these inequalities often dovetail with the divide between “the Global North” and “the Global South”. While universities and their constituent institutions are unequally equipped with finances, rooms or teaching staff, this inequality is also reflected in uneven access to libraries, learning materials, access to translations and office space. Moreover, when scholars from countries with fewer resources are denied travel funds or visas to attend international conferences or conduct their own research abroad, this reduces their opportunities for intellectual development and international networking. In this light, as Mary Setrana observed, the drive to decolonize research and reinvent theory cannot be separated from addressing the structural inequalities that shape the knowledge production process.

Our conversations also explored ways of addressing these issues. Some solutions are as simple as broadening the pool of one’s citations, or to redress the perception of certain areas as “places of lack”, as Faisal put it. Others are more complicated. It is important, for instance, to increase co-authorship and collaboration across the global institutional divide. But how to prevent this becoming a rubber-stamping exercise? And while a levelling out of the power dynamic between researchers, on the one hand, and research assistants and participants, on the other, is equally important, this is more than just a matter of resources. Inequalities are also reproduced in the immediate encounters between us, as migration researchers, research participants and assistants. Henrietta Nyamnjoh, another of our group participants, asked rhetorically whether we take our relationships with these actors seriously enough. Isn’t it more about epistemological inequalities that are built up and stabilized in these working relationships than about the social relationships produced through collaborative work?

In this respect, and to return to the symposium theme, researching beyond the categories should not be confined to the phases of research design or conceptual framework. Rather, our breakout discussions tell us, it should involve undoing these categories through the research process itself and within the broader system of migration knowledge production.

We thank the other participants of these stimulating breakout sessions: Issa Fofana, Iriann Freemantle, Faisal Garba, Nauja Kleist, Elizabeth Koomson, Munkaila Aminu, Henrietta Nyamnjoh, Mary Setrana and Almamy Sylla.

About the authors

Hassan Ould Moctar is a Fellow in International Development at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on the relationship between migration, borders, and development processes, with a regional focus on Mauritania, the West African Sahel, and the Sahara.

Heike Drotbohm is Professor in Social and Cultural Anthropology and Chair of the programme on African Diaspora and Transnationalism at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Her research, conducted in Haiti, Canada, Cape Verdea and Brazil, concentrates on kinship and care, humanitarianism and solidarity, migration and transnationalism.

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