In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Social Movements and Rights

Anthropology Anthropology of Africa
Dillon Mahoney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0134


Anthropological research in Africa has a long and storied history. Even before the trained British professional anthropologists began long-term fieldwork in the 1930s, there had been a number of pseudo-ethnographic studies by missionaries and explorers. The colonial-era anthropologists are often criticized today for overly simplifying the complexities of the cultures they studied while focusing on equilibrium rather than change and ignoring the realities of colonial rule. While postcolonial critiques are certainly important and valid, there were many exceptions to the standard critique, including the anthropologists of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, who are discussed in The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and the Manchester School, among other sections. By the 1960s, anthropologists working in Africa were quite engaged with urbanization, the politics of ethnicity, social transformation, and Marxist debates. The critical and often revisionist studies of the 1970s laid the groundwork for modern anthropology as we know it in the 21st century. While facing a daunting task, this article hopes to capture the breadth and depth of social research conducted on the continent since the early 20th century. Those areas that were colonized by France and Britain are better represented in the anthropological literature because of colonial relationship between Africa and anthropology that made certain colonies on the continent the laboratories for anthropological investigation. “Africa” (the idea) also exists quite powerfully outside of the continent proper, but studies of the diaspora and the broader global impact and import of the ideas and realities of “Africa” elsewhere are not as prominent in this article as studies conducted within the continent itself. This article begins with discussions of colonial anthropology and moves to the postcolonial critiques and eventually to the large number of studies focusing on transformation and change on the continent. These sections have been broken into several categories, including Kinship, Gender, and the Family; Health, Healing, and Religion; Globalization, Development, and Political Anthropology; and Performing and Visual Arts. The article ends with a short section on Social Movements and Rights. This article is designed as a tool to help navigate, topic by topic, the researcher and student through a long and complex history. It should be viewed as but a starting point for much further and in-depth analysis and exploration.

General Overviews

There are many excellent volumes that provide general overviews of African cultures or representations of Africa more generally. Skinner 1972 is a classic survey of African cultures and peoples. Moore 1994 is one of the best works for understanding the history of anthropology in Africa. Grinker, et al. 2010 provides a useful and interdisciplinary volume that covers a great deal of information and provides classic as well as current readings on Africa and African cultures. Finally, Ntarangwi, et al. 2006 provides an important edited work that includes chapters from many African anthropologists who not only reflect on the history of anthropology in Africa but also discuss the role of African anthropologists for the future of Africanist anthropology.

  • Grinker, Roy Richard, Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner, eds. 2010. Perspectives on Africa: A reader in culture, history, and representation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    An extremely useful reader that covers the history and anthropology of Africa from the precolonial period to the modern day.

  • Moore, Sally Falk. 1994. Anthropology and Africa: Changing perspectives on a changing scene. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia.

    One of the best reviews of how the anthropological study of Africa and African peoples developed from the early evolutionary approaches through the colonial period and into the era of independence and nation building.

  • Ntarangwi, Mwenda, David Mills, and Mustafa Babiker, eds. 2006. African anthropologies: History, critique, and practice. Africa in the New Millenium. London: Zed Books.

    An important volume of chapters largely by African anthropologists that explore issues of identity, practice, and the place of colonial history in current anthropological work in Africa.

  • Skinner, Elliott, ed. 1972. Peoples and cultures of Africa: An anthropological reader. New York: Doubleday.

    An edited volume that supplies broad information on African cultures, political and social institutions, history, genetics, language, and ecology.

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