Trends of epistemic oppression and academic dependency in Africa's development: the need for a new intellectual path.

Author:Andrews, Nathan


Development studies, regarded as a post-World War II preoccupation (Bernstein 1971), was greatly influenced by the 1948 Marshal Plan and the 1949 Truman Declaration which further elucidates its Eurocentric underpinnings generally. The process of decolonisation that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s made development both an ideology and an instrumental doctrine of the times, placing Africa at the centre of most of these discussions (Sumner 2006). But the fact is that from modernisation theory in the early 1950s to the contemporary neoliberal Washington consensus, Africa has been the recipient of many policy and ideological prescriptions, most of which only worsened the condition of the continent. Given the important role of knowledge in the development discourse and based on Robert Cox's (1986) popular premise that "theory is always for someone and for some purpose," this paper seeks to critically examine the state of African scholarship and whether or not it is capable of driving development initiatives on the continent. Michael Burawoy distinguishes between professional, policy, public and critical knowledge, each with its specific intents and objectives--the first two being instrumental knowledge and the last two being reflexive knowledge (Burawoy 2007). On the contrary, we posit that these types of knowledge are mutually constitutive. In our society where knowledge has a high price tag and thus, "lacking credibility is a considerable difficulty if one wants to make significant knowledge claims" (McConkey 2004). Hence, one can even be deprived of this credibility even when the context in question is one's own spatial location.

Undergirding this whole notion of academic dependency, epistemic oppression, injustice or inequality is cultural imperialism or chauvinism--the tendency to privilege one's culture over others based on the perception of one's own superiority. Cultural imperialism in this context refers to Western-centrism or Eurocentrism. Simply put, "Cultural imperialism describes the experience of groups who have their means of expression curtailed" (ibid., 202) often for a plethora of reasons. Hence, this trend has been the bedrock of the inability of many African countries and scholars in Africa to write and speak about their own situations. Some knowledge is deemed 'indigenous' or 'traditional' while others are deemed 'modern' and 'scientific', thus bearing the qualities of what constitutes 'good scholarship'. Other terms worth defining at this juncture are 'Euro- or western-centrism' and 'western scholarship'. Eurocentrism (or westerncentrism), as used in this paper, implies the neglect of geographical diversity and the imposition of one's ethnic group (in this case Anglo-American) and its standards over others with underlying superiority or narcissism (Bernstein 1971). Western scholarship, on the other hand, has nothing to do with geography per se; it is rather a 'world of thinking' or mindset.

Thus, what we mean by 'Western scholarship' is scholarship that perpetuates Eurocentrism in the sense that it celebrates theories, methods and research practices popularised in a particular area of the world without due regard to the diversity of perspectives existing elsewhere. Such practices and theories, according to Nabudere (1997), "tend to ignore the peculiarities of different countries and cultures seeking to find an existence within the international capitalist system of the world". Furthermore, since it is not limited to geography, scholars anywhere in the world can be promoting this kind of scholarship consciously or unconsciously. But it is no doubt a bane to epistemic freedom in the African context, as argued below.

The history of colonialism, coupled with the current socio-economic realities in many African countries (as well as the perpetuation of imperial or neo-colonial tendencies) has placed the continent in an unfortunate dilemma of whether to stick with the colonial form of education and books or use its limited resources to generate innovative ways of producing contextually relevant knowledge. This paper argues that the present state of intellectual capability on the continent is characterised by knowledge dependence and thus not well suited towards the development of Africa. Second, we describe ways in which this knowledge dependence is played out and explain why this is so, using a political economy analysis of Africa's own development trajectory characterised by neo-liberal hegemony and internal policy and political atrophy. The paper finally argues that development will continue to elude Africa unless the continent begins to carve a new path for itself instead of relying on policy handouts from 'outsiders'; and this can only be achieved when the continent is epistemically liberated. In conclusion we outline some ways the continent can take hold of its intellect and development.

Epistemic Oppression and Academic Dependency (1)

Epistemic oppression results from epistemic injustice built into the global knowledge production project. An aspect of this injustice identified by Fricker (2007) is 'hermeneutical injustice'--the situation where a significant aspect of an individual's social experience is obscured due to "prejudicial flaws in shared resources for social interpretation." The obscurity of 'other' experiences often results from gate-keeping tendencies of the sites of knowledge production which leads to the further propagation of dominant ideas and experiences. This hermeneutical inequality has made Africa unable to tell its own stories, and to publish works that are based on practical experiences and contextual realities. At the extreme, there is an 'uncritical receptivity' to these dominating forms of knowledge which makes one "vulnerable to the vice of gullibility" (Marshall 2003).

On the other hand, however, doubting or questioning the credibility of the speaker leads to "the vice of suspiciousness" (ibid., 174) in which case almost everything one says is taken with a pinch of salt. Being self-critical of established knowledge claims will cause one to be suspicious of taken-for-granted assumptions but in the case where the knower casts doubt on the legitimacy or credibility of this suspicion, it does not make a great deal of impact. In the broader scheme of things "the denial and distortion of recognition that takes place with epistemic injustice reinforces existing oppression and damages the status in society of the putative knower" (McConkey 2004, 204). This then perpetuates the cycle of epistemic oppression. Those who possess 'epistemic authority' (Lewis 2007) are often empowered and privileged knowledge claimers who view the world in their individualistic contexts as though no other forms of knowledge prevail elsewhere.

Epistemic oppression leads to academic dependency in the sense that the inability of an individual to make knowledge claims leads to the reliance on already 'established' knowledge. And the perpetuation of this trend tramps upon creativity, innovation, and the reflexivity needed to establish a viable intellectual independence. Dependency as captured by dependency theorist Dos Santos (1970) is "a situation in which the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subjected" (ibid.,231). This definition captures the state of inequality characteristic of the global capitalist system. (2) Any kind of dependency deals with these keywords; unequal (power) relations, and this can be expressed in economic, political, social, military, cultural or epistemic sense. Thus, academic dependency simply refers to the unequal structure that undergirds the production and circulation of knowledge within the global system. Therefore, the 'big powers' in economic and social terms are also the 'big powers' in the social sciences (Ake 1979). Thus, the social sciences, which were invented and constructed by Western scholarship, have perpetually become another home of socio-cultural dependency (Gareau 1988).

As the 'center-periphery continuum' in the social science corresponds to the North-South divide well noted by dependency and world-systems theorists, Alatas (2003) defines academic dependency as "a condition in which the social sciences of other countries are conditioned by the development and growth of the social sciences of other countries to which the former is subjected" (ibid.,603). He attributes academic dependency and what he also calls 'academic neocolonialism' to the global division of labour which comes in three forms: 1) the division between theoretical and empirical intellectual labour; 2) the division between other country studies and own country studies; and 3) the division between comparative and single case studies. In sum, academic dependency "recognizes an imbalance in the production of social sciences across societies and the resultant division of labour between the producers and consumers of such knowledge" (Alatas 2000, 84). The imbalance reveals the vertical and unidirectional flow of knowledge and information from the core to the periphery and the absence of communication among social scientists that belong to the former. And dependency is expressed in four main ways, namely; dependence on ideas as well as the media of ideas; dependence on the technology of education; dependence on aid for research and teaching; and...

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