Sociology African Societies
Linda Semu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0145


African societies are complex and diverse, requiring an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate and understand the continent’s economic, political, social, and cultural institutions and change. The study of African societies has become an established area of scholarship, with sophisticated analyses that are far from earlier works that presented them in simplistic terms and only in relation to the “developed” other regions. African societies have a philosophical worldview that is borne of the circumstance in which African peoples operate. This worldview has begun to gain currency in recent scholarship, starting with John Mbiti, who articulated it for the global readership. As issues of social and cultural change come to the forefront, this worldview has been captured in the writings of African literary authors who utilized their oral traditions to capture the dynamism and complexity of societies undergoing change. Inevitably, issues of economic development come to the fore, and while socio-historical factors have been critical in Africa’s stunted development, it is clear that even those who have purported to assist the continent have also let it down through their policy inconsistencies. Similarly, as grafted policy, economic and governance systems have not been adapted to suit local conditions, and governance and political challenges have further shortchanged African societies. Still, as more voices are being heard from scholars, policymakers, and practitioners, the diversity and complexity of African societies are being appreciated, which should lead to better outcomes. The categories used in this article are for organizational purposes only, because issues related the study of African societies are cross-cutting. They should therefore not be seen as definitive categories but rather as fluid organizational pillars that could be arranged and flow in various directions.

General Overviews

These works provide general overviews on African societies, by examining critical concepts, methodological issues, and new developments. The persistent and emerging development challenges within African societies have led scholars and Africanists to question received wisdom on development and to attempt to come up with alternative ways of studying, understanding, and prescribing solutions to the continent. The works in this section represent some alternative strategies and emerging intellectual orientations to the study of African societies. Bradshaw, et al. 1995 argues that African scholars should be involved in the theory-building process that utilizes interdisciplinary work, a view also addressed in Bandawe 2005 and Logan, et al. 2012. Hence, Ellis and ter Haar 2004 posits that African politics must be understood within the context of religious ideas that exist in the continent. Davison 1996 and Sudarkasa 1986 take this question further as the authors address methodological issues in the study of African women, while Mugambi, et al. 2010 focuses on the question of African masculinity, which the authors argue must be understood from multiple perspectives.

  • Bandawe, Chiwoza R. 2005. Psychology brewed in an African pot: Indigenous philosophies and the quest for relevance. Higher Education Policy 18.3: 289–300.

    DOI: 10.1057/palgrave.hep.8300091

    The author of this article narrates experiences of making a psychology course at University of Malawi’s College of Medicine relevant to the country’s sociocultural and economic situation, by incorporating the Ubuntu worldview (I am because you are, and because you are, therefore I am), which is uniquely Malawian in its implementation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Bradshaw, York W., Paul J. Kaiser, and Stephen N. Ndegwa. 1995. Rethinking theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of African development. African Studies Review 38.2: 39–65.

    DOI: 10.2307/525317

    This article argues that development processes are complex and depend on interaction between factors at various levels. It goes further to propose a methodological strategy called qualitative comparative analysis, which combines the strengths of qualitative and quantitative methods to examine phenomena at global, national, and local levels. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Davison, Jean. 1996. Voices from Mutira: Change in the lives of rural Gikuyu women, 1910–1995. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    This book addresses the key questions of how to study and narrate change in African societies, in ways that empower those studied. Recommended reading for scholars, students, and practitioners interested in understanding gender, women’s lives, development, research methods, and African culture and history.

  • Ellis, Stephen, and Gerrie ter Haar. 2004. Worlds of power: Religious thought and political practice in Africa. Hunt Series in Contemporary History and World Affairs. London: C. Hurst.

    This book argues that the presence of religious influence in politics is not by coincidence but is a revived continuation of tradition that scholars of African politics must pay attention to as they flesh out an African epistemology that relates to the spirit world, whose mediums are traditional spiritual mediums and whose religious leaders’ advice is regularly sought by African politicians.

  • Logan, B. Ikubolajeh, Francis Y. Owusu, and Ezekiel Kalipeni, eds. 2012. Special issue: Beyond the “post” and revisionist discourses in African development; Exploring real solutions to Africa’s problems. Progress in Development Studies 12.2–3.

    A special issue whose articles conduct a critical inquiry in African politics, administration, and development discourse so as to challenge the disingenuous intellectual and policy approaches to Africa’s problems. The articles advocate a move toward local- and community-driven solutions to Africa’s problems rather than recycling the same old theories that have proven bankrupt as far as solving Africa’s problems is concerned. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Mugambi, Helen Nabasuta, and Tuzyline Jita Allan, eds. 2010. Masculinities in African literary and cultural texts. Banbury, UK: Ayebia Clarke.

    This collection of eighteen interdisciplinary essays by African and Africanist scholars examines multiple texts, including oral (proverbs and folktales), performative (songs and films), and the familiar written texts (books, novels), through which masculinity is negotiated and produced across the continent. A good contribution to feminist, men’s, and cultural studies that is suitable for graduate or advanced undergraduate level.

  • Sudarkasa, Niara. 1986. “The status of women” in indigenous African societies. Feminist Studies 12.1: 91–103.

    DOI: 10.2307/3177985

    This article addresses methodological issues in the study of the status of women in indigenous African societies, showing the changes brought about by colonialism and capitalism that created the unequal relationships between the sexes. Scholars would be better served to focus on the modern era to inquire about the unequal status between men and women. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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