Too many nerds in one room: Theories, theorization, and deconstructing categories

Cover image by activestills via Flickr.

by Franzisca Zanker & Paolo Gaibazzi  

Sitting in our assortment of chairs, enjoying the relief of the air conditioning, with the buzz from a second breakout group on the other side of the room, our group of African and European migration researchers quickly settled into an intense conversation.  On the small stage of the lecture room at International House, University of Ghana, we kept coming back to one central question: what is a theory? Relatedly, who makes theories, what can they explain, and who listens to them? The second major topic we decided to tackle was on terminologies in forced migration.

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.

On (African) theories

First a step back. This was the breakout group on displacement and categorization of the AMMODI Symposium, and after our first intense day of presentations and discussions, we were not expecting to have the energy or motivation to dive right into an in-depth discussion on theories and theorizations. But somehow, we got stuck with the title of the Symposium: “speaking back to theory”. Which theory? Whose theory? And what is theory in the first place? Before stumbling back out into the hot air, such questions kept us busy in the room for about one and a half hour. We found that theory as such is not a thing in the world, but an umbrella term that summarises various forms of knowledge, practices, and functions. Forced displacement occurs, and the theories we make help us to offer explanations, identify generalisable patterns, express or represent our observations, or orient further research. Building theory can be either deductive, inductive, or – for example when explanatory framings distort or misrepresent the realities where are trying to understand – even abductive. Theories can be very abstract or grounded in empirical experiences. Given the nuanced, messy and differentiated experiences for people on the move and the institutions they come across, an empirically grounded notion of displacement theory made the most sense to us. 

The break-out group on Categories and Displacement in session during the “Speaking back to Theory” workshop.

So far so good. Yet, one problem emerged quite soon in the discussion: who makes these “theories” and for whom? We reflected, like others have done, that the concepts and theories used in research often come from a Euro-American tradition (see for example Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh on this point). The question then arises to what extent these concepts and theories fit African realities, or whether they, on the contrary tend to make them invisible. This is related to the question of the universalism and contextualism of theories. Some terms, such as the concept of gender, arguably capture a specific experience of Western societies. Can we expand their conceptual boundaries beyond Euro-America? And if so, how? In the end, we concluded that while it is necessary to continue to decentre existing theoretical knowledge, it is probably neither realistic nor helpful to reject Western concepts in general. In our discussion, we referred to concrete practices of theorizing and analysing in given contexts like on Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in Ghana in the 1990s. Such a contextual awareness is necessary to appreciate situations in which a specific concept is problematic, and why and how its connotations or meanings can be changed or amended to offer a more appropriate understanding. Returning to the ‘speaking back to theory’ theme, we argued that what holds for Africa should also hold against the same standards of universalism – to the extent that theories can ever be generalized. After all, why should only a Northern-made theory be deemed as universally generalizable but not those developed in/on Africa?

Ultimately, theory-building is relative and restricted by inequalities in knowledge production. These inequalities are expressed in the marginalisation of knowledge about African realities, as well as the knowledge produced in Africa. This is clearly illustrated by how many scholars based in Africa are invisible in mainstream migration theory. The question of who has access to contribute to theory-building is often linked to the question of what chances people have to be accepted in international peer-reviewed journals and, relatedly, what jobs they get. Even scholars at African institutions that choose to work with theories from the Global North often struggle to get published in such journals. If scholars actively choose to rely on alternative traditions of theory-building, the chances are even slimmer. 

Ampain Refugee Camp, Ghana. Photo by Jennifer London via Flickr.

We discussed how the position of Africa-based scholars can be strengthened. There is not one silver bullet but a whole range of measures. One could surely be for all those with high-prestige jobs and easier access to international peer-reviewed journals to remember to include existing African scholarship in your work (in that spirit, AMMODI has started a database to increase the visibility of African migration scholarship). Another solution may be to improve the theoretical training of graduate students at African universities, who can then use these skills as a starting point to diverge and develop their own theories on forced migration. 

Sorting shapes: on categories

As the symposium continued, and we changed location to the University of Cape Coast, our conversations became less abstract. Our discussion on theories evolved into a discussion on categories. The notion of categories reminded us of the games young children play of sorting through shapes and slotting square, round, or triangular blocks into the right holes. Sorting shapes helps us understand the world and is a useful sense-making experience. When studying displacement, the categories we make can have very real consequences, especially when they inform policy makers. Categories and categorizations hold power over refugees’ and other migrant’s lives. 

Not to forget their agency, refugees also use categorisations for their own purposes. We noted that the term “refugee” is actually often a very flexible category, and it can depend on whether it is useful for people to declare themselves as refugees or not. There can be incentives to use the category, for example, when it allows access to resources such as health care, food, housing or rights such as non-refoulement. But there may also be incentives for people to avoid being categorised as refugees, for example when refugee status accreditation is so complex and lengthy it makes more sense to live with no formal legal status. 

We found that categories are necessary: we will not get rid of categories. First, as noted above, because as human beings we inevitably classify the world around us and, second, because categories organise the access to rights, especially but not only in law. If there are no categories there are no rights. 

At the same time, if we look at the African context in particular, and consider the interaction between formality and informality, there is a constant juxtaposition and manipulation of different categories of displacement. For instance, does it make sense to distinguish between migrants and refugees? We noted that there is a sliding scale of differences in migrant experiences, and that the migrant/refugee binary tends to exaggerate or erase these differences. It takes attention away from the messiness of mobile lives. It privileges one category over the other. It also erases the history of categories. For example, the term of “refugee” is a relatively new category in Ghana that was not used before the 1990s, when people fleeing civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia came to Ghana. Similarly, the very experience of people on the move challenges the rigid distinction between internally displaced persons and refugees. For the affected people, it may make little difference whether they were expulsed from one region to another or from one nation-state to another. The fluidity of bordering in the African context is relevant here. Yet, in international refugee law, the official categorisation of different kinds of borders affects which kind of assistance and protection people have access to.

We noted that there is a sliding scale of differences in migrant experiences, and that the migrant/refugee binary tends to exaggerate or erase these differences

Ultimately, categories are about similarity and difference but they always make some similarities or differences visible and others invisible. When it comes to the question of whether changing categorisations is an important way of challenging the unequal power relations within migration research, we concluded that perhaps we should not focus so much on different categories and how they are used but rather to highlight that categories only exist when they are used by somebody with a particular purpose. It is when categories are given meaning in a certain socio-political historical context that they lay the foundation for theory building from an African perspective. 

As we returned home or continued our travels, we mulled over the new questions raised in our group.

The members of the discussion group included Samuel Agblorti, Veronica Fynn BrueyPaolo Gaibazzi, Rose Jaji, Laura Lambert, Boris Nieswand and Franzisca Zanker. Thanks to Boris for sharing his minutes with us.  

About the authors

Franzisca Zanker is a political scientist and the head of the research cluster “Patterns of (Forced) Migration” at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute. Her research interest include political dimensions of refugee and migration governance in Africa. She is the co-founder of AMMODI.

Paolo Gaibazzi is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Bologna and PI of the project “AfroEuropean Frontiers” at the University of Bayreuth. He has conducted fieldwork in the Gambia and Angola, on im/mobility, migration governance, and the legacy of slavery.

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