In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Science and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Early Theoretical Perspectives
  • Political Science versus the Study of Africa?

African Studies Political Science and the Study of Africa
Rod Alence
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0082


Political science contributes a large share of the social research on Africa, and research on Africa has contributed important insights within the discipline of political science. The region contains more than fifty countries, which have exhibited wide variation on “big” issues that motivate political scientists: issues of war and peace, dictatorship and democracy, poverty and development, and sovereignty and interdependence. Major studies of state collapse, ethnic politics, democratization, the political economy of development, and international humanitarian intervention reflect serious engagement with African experiences. The theoretical orientation of much of the field is broadly “institutionalist” in its attention to the organization of political life, informed by two (not necessarily incompatible) “institutionalisms.” One derives from rational-choice political economy and treats institutions as products of and constraints on goal-oriented actors. The other derives from political sociology and treats institutions as social constructions embedded in their cultural settings. Institutions are unusually important in African politics because they are unusually fragile and because the stakes of institution building and institutional failure are unusually high. The methodological orientation of the field is becoming more pluralistic, with studies that employ familiar qualitative methods joined by a growing body of quantitative and mixed-method work. More than ever, a versatile methodological tool kit comes in handy on the research frontier. This article addresses key areas in the study of African politics, including the structural and institutional context of politics (States), political regimes and regime change (Political Trajectories), and social and economic consequences of politics (Politics of Development). Most works cited are by political scientists, with some contributions by others on themes of interest to political scientists.

General Overviews

Overviews of African politics must strike a balance between identifying similarities across the region and capturing differences within it. Together, Nugent 2012, a long book, and Allen 1995, a short article, pull it off: Paul Nugent presents a detailed comparative history, and Chris Allen complements it with a framework that reduces the daunting variation to a few major political trajectories. Political scientists should read Allen 1995 first and stick a copy to the windshield before setting off down Nugent’s many paths. Cheeseman, et al. 2013 is a wide-ranging collection of concise essays on major themes in African politics. Cooper 2002, introduces debates about politics and development in modern Africa from the perspective of a leading historian. Young 2012 and Hydén 2006 contain critical syntheses of decades of research on African politics by two leaders in the field, with Crawford Young emphasizing state dynamics and Göran Hydén emphasizing societal foundations.

  • Allen, Chris. “Understanding African Politics.” Review of African Political Economy 22.65 (1995): 301–320.

    DOI: 10.1080/03056249508704142

    Argues that the diversity of postcolonial African politics can be reduced to a few political trajectories, defined initially by how and how well political leaders built ruling coalitions to manage divisions rooted in heterogeneous anticolonial movements, and later by how and how well those coalitions (or whatever remained of or replaced them) withstood the global economic and political shocks of the 1980s and early 1990s.

  • Cheeseman, Nic, David M. Anderson, and Andrea Scheibler, eds. Routledge Handbook of African Politics. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    A collection of thirty-two essays on major themes in the study of African politics, by leading scholars in the field. Organized into section on the state, identity, conflict, democracy, development, and international relations.

  • Cooper, Frederick. Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800290

    An extended essay on politics and development in Africa. Argues that the African state’s position as a “gatekeeper” to external political and economic benefits was established during the colonial period, and explores how political independence has modified the ways rulers use it.

  • Hydén, Göran. African Politics in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A synthesis of research on African politics, assessing its impact on the discipline of political science. Emphasizes “informal behavior and institutions,” from the personalization of political power, to patron-client networks, to “economies of affection” in agrarian society.

  • Nugent, Paul. Africa since Independence: A Comparative History. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    A comparative history of political change in Africa since independence. Addresses theoretical controversies through comparative analysis and “thick description” of individual cases.

  • Young, Crawford. The Postcolonial State in Africa: Fifty Years of Independence, 1960–2010. Africa and the Diaspora. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

    A comparative and historical study of postcolonial African states. Covers the first fifty years of African independence, identifying three cycles of hope followed (mostly) by disappointment, with the most recent cycle culminating in the divergent political trajectories of the post–Cold War era. Includes thematic chapters on civil war, political identity, and state performance.

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