Call for Papers African Dynamics series: The Individual in African History: The Importance of Biography in African Historical Studies

The editors of the 2018 volume of the ASCL/Brill series African Dynamics invite proposals for papers.

The biographical method promises to offer unique and unexpected insights in the study of African history. Ideally it should tell us something about the wider historical context, how individuals or groups of individuals have influenced the flow of historical events, but also how these people, their ideas and understanding of the world in which they lived, have been shaped by this historical context. Historically contextualised biography can offer us unique insight into the complexity of the individual, and provide us with valuable opportunities to give analytical nuances to our understanding of history.   

However, without an analytically reasoned narrative as instrument, our understanding of historical actors is undermined. This draws our attention to the perennial question of the historiography of Africa and its sources. African state archives’ relevance for the historiography of the post-colonial era is diminishing (often due to their deteriorating quality, deliberate destruction or politics of silencing). Moreover, colonial archives categorise and classify historical data in ways that perpetuate the blinkered perspective that was ingrained in colonial rule and tied to the purpose of administration and control. People could therefore easily vanish from the archived view. A focus on the individuality of the person or groups of persons would place the individual(s) at the centre stage of research and could help overcome fundamental strictures that are imposed on the historian by the specific nature of the archives concerned. This means that biographical research that does justice to the complexity of the individual and historical context should be based on other source material as well, for example ego-documents, as well as oral histories and personal reminiscences collected in the field. 

Such biographical research, which is firmly contextualised, can give us important insights about the wider historical context and the times in which the person under study lived, but also demonstrate the influence that the historical context exercised on the individual. Biographical research offers a unique opportunity to acquire an understanding of how ontologies have emerged in Africa as a product of the historical interaction between context and individuals. Such a focus enables us to obtain an insight in the process of meaning-giving to domains such as the political, the religious or the social in different African historical contexts and contemporary realities.

Taken together, this approach enables us to reconsider what makes people significant or remarkable in African history: people are not only remarkable for what they have achieved, for how they have influenced and defined history (traditional biography), they may also be remarkable and significant for how their being, their views and acts have been shaped by the interface between structure and agency, between ontologies and interpretation. Such biographical stories allow an analytical focus on the interface between the individual and the time in which they lived; they shed light onto how the historical context made people to what they were, a product of their time and place.

For the 2018 volume of the ASCL/Brill African Dynamics series, we invite proposals for papers that explore the interface between the individual (or groups of people/individuals) and their historical context in Africa. The papers should employ the biographical method and tie together a diversity of source material so that they yield insights that would otherwise remain hidden from the historical view. As such, the papers will reflect on what new insights in the history of Africa can be produced through a biographical perspective. African Dynamics is an annual publication of the Africa Studies Centre Leiden, the Netherlands. Every year, a different theme is discussed from various perspectives by scholars from all over the world.

Two consecutive workshops with the authors of selected papers will be held at the African Studies Centre Leiden on 29 and 30 September 2016, and another one in May 2017. 

Please send your proposal for an 8,000–10,000 word paper to, and on or before 03 June 2016. The proposal should contain the title of the paper, an abstract of the proposed paper (300 words), the source material used, as well your institutional affiliation and contact details.

Please bear in mind that the ASCL will not be able to fund travel costs.

The editors,

Jan-Bart Gewald, Klaas van Walraven and Meike de Goede

Date, time and location

03 June 2016