Knowledge Divides

This post was originally published on Menelique Magazine, issue #3 and

#Black Lives Matter highlights the suppression of black lives in all aspects of society, but the public interest in the movement has been limited to systemic state racism involving the brutality of white police officers against black people. The visible and visceral discriminations in the public domain are serious and warrant such interest and concern, but this focus leaves out several other issues that are of interest to the movement. 

The intellectual marginalisation of black people is one of such relatively overlooked areas. When black intellectual suppression is recognised, it is commonly held to be a mere supply problem. In this sense, black people produce little or no knowledge, there are few or no serious black scholars to engage, or the work of black scholars is not good enough. Conventional indices appear to bear out such claims. From 1987 to 2016, for example, a World Bank report suggests that the share of Africa’s contribution to the global pool of scientific knowledge as measured by scientific databases such as Web of Science declined from 1 to under 1 per cent. 

Cultural explanations, suggesting that African cultures inhibit scientific progress, are sometimes raised to explain this status quo, although the scientific community tends rather to emphasise weaker research context and capabilities. Articles about how Africans lack books and African universities are underfunded abound. Others highlight how lecture rooms are crowded, and underpaid lecturers and other staff members are overworked. To further complicate the situation, the point is made that, although the internet is widespread in Africa now, it is unstable, unreliable, and unaffordable

These challenges shade into many others such as lack of mentoring, relatively little exposure, and limited opportunities to create knowledge divides, according to a well-known report by the International Social Science Council. In this way of diagnosing the problem, others try to dig deeper into the origins for these divides and how the status quo is maintained. It is common to highlight the destructive and cumulative ramifications of years of slavery, colonialism, and neoliberalism on the weaker and dependent research environment in which black people find themselves. 

This chain of reasoning percolates much of the idea that black human capital is low and increasing this human capital is the central challenge. How can ‘we’ increase the potential ‘human capital’ in Africa is a question that is commonly implied in Western approaches to addressing the problem of black intellectual marginalisation. 

Yet this human capital framing of the problem and how it might be addressed are highly contestable. Not only do human capital indices and databases for analysis overlook African research, human capital measures of progress are also biased in favour of the West. The key databases for scientific advance mainly focus on journals produced and run in the West. So framing knowledge divides in human capital terms maintains invisibility, concretises discrimination, and normalises privilege, creating a paradox in which the construction of knowledge divides not only explains the status quo but also reinforces it. A fanatic religion, the mainstream human capital framework of analysis (which, among others, claims that obtaining education and experience are not only necessary but is also sufficient to address the problems of discrimination and marginalisation, and which also insists on rankings and league tables) privileges the powerful and further subjugates the rest, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy that must be confronted.

Confronting Knowledge Invisibility, Discrimination, and Privilege

One way to do so is to systematically seek, recognise, and utilise the ideas of black people themselves. Another way, commonly embraced by many Western institutions, is to build partnerships with African universities. Both approaches go farther than the mainstream human capital approach to analysis, but they fall short of asking much deeper questions: what is the historical record of Westerners seeking to visibilise African knowledge? In what ways is research produced by Africans utilised? How effective could solutions be, if they do not confront the wider problem of property, institutions, and social stratification in Africa? These three questions are not easy to address, but in a recent article in African Identities, we contribute to the conversation. The experience of Africans merely being listed as research assistants or named as the last and least contributor on research articles is well known. More recently, an editorial in African Affairs reminds the journal’s readers of the historic and continuing problem of marginalisation of Africans who have ‘partnered’ Western scholars. Many feel used and abused in these ‘partnerships’. Others realise that, while they ‘serve’, they are valued, but as soon as they seek their independence as scholars, they are devalued, dejected, and rejected.

Research by scientists from Sub-Saharan Africa is cited eight per cent less than the world average. Globally, course outlines used in Western universities typically exclude black scholarship. Africans have much less presence in the leadership of global universities, research institutions, and editorial boards of major journals. In settler colonies in Africa, such as South Africa, blacks are disproportionately under-represented in their learned societies and universities. Around the world, however, a small group of black scholars enjoy a healthy stream of attention. But the work of these better-received black researchers tends to support privileged and powerful groups. That is evidently the case with research on race that tends to cast doubts on racial motivation for police killing of black people. Such work enjoys ‘the most publicity in public policy discussions’. On the other hand, black studies that question such claims hardly get published in leading mainstream journals. Research by women who fundamentally challenge patriarchy tends to show similar features and fates

These characteristics reflect the colour of knowledge production, privilege, and power. In disciplines such as economics, many Africans and women, but particularly African women, are excluded from leadership positions such as editorships. Journals led by Africans tends to be devalued by Western rating agencies. Whether the assignment of low or no ranks to black journals is correlation or causation is moot. The key point is that consigned to the least powerful outlets, or refused indexation altogether, African intellectuals are not as able to influence the direction of research in their own fields nor promote the uptake of their own research.

Consider systematic research reviews, increasingly the gold standard in global policy making, for example. Most of such reviews must usually draw on journals indexed in databases that exclude much of the research published by Africans. So a system of excluding African journals and scholars is institutionalised. These claims are broad generalisations, of course, but they are also corroborated by specific examples, including the systematic devaluation and poor rankings of leading Africanist journals such as Africa Development, The Review of Black Political Economy and the Review of African Political Economy. Their role in developing new fields and subfields of economics, in providing alternative outlets for research that responds to local needs in a global world, and in decolonising Africa seems to count for little or for nothing. This argument has been made by both black and white scholars who identify a system of intellectual apartheid, dominated by a few transnational publishing corporations whose deleterious visible hand directs much of the academy. 

Therefore, repudiating this system is no easy matter. Black scholars can organise, of course, and many do, for example, around the National Economic Association and the African Finance and Economics Consult. However, African scientists, institutions, and processes seeking to make their name must rely on these problematic systems of command and control. Not only do funding decisions depend on them, global rankings also rely on them to bestow visibility on a few and obscurity on the many. Africans can reject this system, but at substantial social costs. Apart from becoming even more unknown and obscure, and having less and less influence on their own fields of study, they also risk losing their craft and work because these indices, originally prioritised by powerful groups within the Western academy, are increasingly imposed on African universities, too. 

Decolonising and Democratising Knowledge, Political Economy, and Power 

Pan-African research groups, such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, are pushing back against a trend which is clearly going to worsen existing knowledge divides. Their alternatives range from creating new databases, producing new ranking systems, and developing new systems of recognistion that better appreciate, celebrate, and disseminate African scholarship, as the Africa Knowledge Project tries to do. African journals and editors complement this effort. Not only do they support the publication of much-needed critical research relevant to African liberation, they also provide avenues to nurture intellectual leadership, as studies  on the history of the African Review of Economics and Finance, the Review of African Political Economy, and the Review of Black Political Economy show. 

Over the years, African scholars have been producing outstanding research. More fundamentally, this research responds to local needs. The historic and continuing appropriation of African and indigenous knowledge and science demonstrates the hypocrisy of so-called Western ‘standards’. Coupled with the systemic non-recognition and devaluation of black knowledge creation, it is quite clear that the knowledge divide today is not simply a ‘supply problem’. The sustained effort to recognise and make visible African scholarship can help, but more can be done. The black power movement has historically shown that the struggle to bridge the knowledge divide is not simply a struggle of ideas to decolonise, deconstruct, and democratise knowledge systems. It is, above all, a liberation struggle, a movement for total deconcentration of political-economic power toward a world of greater socio-economic inclusion, sovereignty, and self-determination. 

Thanks to Dr. Svenja Flechtner for constructive feedback on the post.

Franklin Obeng-Odoom is Associate Professor in the Discipline of Development Studies and at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He is the author of Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge). He can be contacted via Photo by Nadia Pillon.

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