CFP: Making Sense: Language, Text and Interpretation in African Studies, University of Birmingham (Deadline: 31 January)

Making Sense: Language, Text and Interpretation in African Studies

21-23 May 2020

Department of African Studies and Anthropology (DASA) and Centre of West African Studies (CWAS) of the University of Birmingham (UK) and the Langarchiv Project

Please follow the link for the French version of this call for papers: Appel à communications 

The present conference is concerned with processes of interpretation in African societies and African studies: how do the authors of what we call ‘sources’ convey meaning in their written and oral texts? How do these meanings develop in historically specific semantic worlds? How is meaning transformed through translations, reinterpretations and struggles over meaning? How is the world made sense of in African languages and epistemic traditions, and what changes when analysts – African and non-African – make sense of African texts and societies in different discursive contexts? Those who attend this conference will discuss what makes the understanding of African societies possible; what is at stake when different types of exegetes interpret the past or the present of Africa. From authors such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur we take the idea that understanding is always interpretive and perspectival. Understanding is shaped by one’s position in the world and is a product of language, history and subjective perspective. As Mamadou Diawara and Abderrahmane Ngaidé have shown, this implies a reflexion on the position of interpreters, historians or anthropologists, ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’ in relation to the circumstances they study and their being in the world as ‘searchers of Meaning.’[1]

Karin Barber and Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias have pioneered research approaches that subject to close critical scrutiny the intellectual, political and artistic projects of producers of knowledge; the social settings of knowledge-production and consumption; the formal rules governing different types of written or oral works or performances; and the situation of the researcher/interpreter. This holistic approach to interpretation that necessitates a constant ‘back-and-forth’ analytical movement between past and present, between observer and observed, between so-called ‘primary sources’ and ‘secondary literature’, urges researchers to take into account all the layers of interpretation accumulated in the process of producing and analysing oral and written texts. It is this process of knowledge production, focused on Africa, that will be the focus of the present conference. A concern with these issues entails reflections on at least three dimensions of research: empirical, methodological, and theoretical.

From an empirical perspective, the interest lies in the conditions of evidence collection and negotiation of research agendas in sites as different as urban or rural contexts, colonial archives or the private libraries of Islamic scholars, repositories of newspaper or radio recordings, war-zones or NGO headquarters. How do the agendas of researchers and other research participants intersect and interact? How does research happen, concretely, at the interface between the questions of the researchers and the priorities of the subjects of research, collaborators, interpreters, gate-keepers, and mediators?

Methodologically, a focus on hermeneutics presupposes the development of methods for the exegesis of different types of evidence, ranging from a semantic approach to oral or written texts in vernacular languages, to a phenomenological engagement with the embodiment of particular forms of evidence – from the actual bodies and voices of informants, griots, or performers; to the material means through which text or other data are written, recorded and circulated: how do researchers interpret a variety of sources? What obstacles do they face, which new methodologies can be adopted to improve our understanding of African history and society (such as, for example, new methods in digital humanities)?

Theoretically, a hermeneutical approach poses questions such as the possibility of cultural translation; inequality and reciprocity in knowledge production; and the relationship between researchers and authors of research evidence (‘sources’). Both the original author of a source and the academic analysing the source (at a later stage) engage in similar processes of reflection, selection and editing albeit for different purposes. They are both exegetes, inevitably engaged in constant decision-making, not only about what to do next, but also about which words and representations to choose. They are both engaged not only in pragmatic strategies and negotiations, but also in semiotic ones.

The conference invites contributions that engage this order of questions in relation to concrete processes and projects of research. It is open to researchers coming from various disciplines and multi- and inter-disciplinary backgrounds and all types of sources on all African regions and historical periods. Panels and papers will be selected on the basis of their interest and originality with regards to questions of interpretation: how can the meanings of what we call our sources be accessed? What problems arise in the process of interpreting material and immaterial evidence? How is the researcher positioned in relation to the authors of his/her sources, and the users and audiences of the knowledge s/he analyses and/or produces? And how do researchers represent the phenomena they study – are their interpretations new representations? How are they related to the original meanings conveyed by the producers of their sources?

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Submission of abstracts

Individual paper abstract submissions and panel proposals are welcome. Submissions should include author’s name, affiliation, contact details, paper title, and abstract of no more than 200 words. Panel proposals should be submitted by panel organisers and include complete information for all of the papers included in the panel.

The deadline for the submission of abstracts is Friday 31 January. Late submissions will not be taken into consideration. The conference will take place at the University of Birmingham, UK. There is no registration fee.

Please send your abstract(s) to Dr. Benedetta Rossi ( and Dr. Camille Lefebvre (

Please address all enquiries to Dr. Ceri Whatley:

This conference is a joint event co-organized by the LANGARCHIV Project funded by the European Research Council and coordinated by Camille Lefebvre; and by the Department of African Studies and Anthropology of the University of Birmingham thanks to the Cadbury Fellowship and Conference endowment.  


[1] Abderrahmane N’Gaïde, ‘Archéologie partielle du sens des discours autour de l’esclavage.’ Cours Nouveaux (revue africaine trimestrielle de stratégie et de prospective), 2012, n°7-8, p. 129-140, here 138. On interpretation and reflexivity, see Abderrahmane N’Gaïde, “Stéréotypes et Imaginaires Sociaux en Milieu Haalpulaar. Classer, Stigmatiser et Toiser (Stereotypes and Social Imagery among the Haalpulaar: Classifying, Stigmatizing and Teasing).” Cahiers D’Études Africaines, vol. 43, no. 172, 2003, pp. 707–738. For a discussion on an ‘insider’s’ point of view, see Mamadou Diawara, « Les recherches en histoire orale menées par un autochtone, ou L’inconvénient d’être du cru », Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 25, n°97, 1985. p. 5-19.

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