Prologue: reflections on historiography and biography and the study of Africa’s past

TitlePrologue: reflections on historiography and biography and the study of Africa’s past
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsK. van Walraven
EditorK. van Walraven
Secondary TitleThe individual in African history: the importance of biography in African historical studies
Series titleAfrican dynamics
Date Published2020
Place PublishedLeiden
Publication Languageeng
ISBN Number978-90-04-40781-7
KeywordsAfrica, biography, historiography, history

This essay deals with the relationship between historiography and various forms of biographical study – in the context of Western history but especially that of African studies. First, it charts how, earlier in the twentieth century, structuralist perspectives led to a disconnect between biography and Western-history writing, arguing that narrative and biography were among structuralism’s first casualties. However, subsequent genres in historiography, such as the history of daily life, women’s history, and African American history, helped to resurrect the interest in the study of individual lives. In addition, the subjective orientation inherent in post-modernism encouraged (but also potentially complicated) a focus on the persona. The essay discusses the historical evolution of biographical study and its various forms, as well as theoretical issues such as the relation with psychology, the ‘hero’ concept, the multi-layered issue of context, the distinction between biography and life-history researchand the concept of agency. It then confronts the nihilistic challenge posed to biography by post-modernism, arguing the importance of the notion of ‘self-fashioning’ (especially in an African context) and querying the nature of the ‘self’ in the context of Western and African history. The essay charts the birth of modern African biography and life-history research, whose roots go back to the eighteenth century but which came into their own with the development of academic African studies after World War II. The subsequent expansion of Africanist biographical research is discussed including in the fields of prosopography, women’s life history, and social history. The fragmentation of modern historical scholarship and the linkages with daily-life history and microhistory are outlined, including their importance in encouraging biographical study of different types of African (historical) actors. The final sections discuss the issue of representivity vs singularity of biographical subjects and introduce the different case studies of this volume.

Citation Key10647