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Putting the history back into ethnicity: enslavement, religion and cultural brokerage on the construction of Mandinka/Jola and Ewe/Agotime identities in West Africa c.1650-1930

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    Rights statement: Nugent, P. (2008). Putting the history back into ethnicity: enslavement, religion and cultural brokerage on the construction of Mandinka/Jola and Ewe/Agotime identities in West Africa c.1650-1930. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50(4), 920 - 948, doi: 10.1017/S001041750800039X

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http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2242108
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)920 - 948
Number of pages29
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Volume50
Issue number4
Early online date23 Sep 2008
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2008

Abstract

It does not always happen that academic debates result in an agreed victory or a tidy consensus. As often as not, the protagonists lose interest, or the terrain itself shifts. For that reason, it is worth remarking on the fact that after around two decades of debating the roots of ethnicity in Africa, something like a consensus has in fact emerged. The colonial thesis that Africans were born into “tribes” that were rooted in a timeless past has been effectively critiqued by historians and social scientists alike. Arguably beginning with John Iliffe, revisionists advanced a challenging antithesis, namely that colonial administrative practices generated the very identities that officials and missionaries took for granted. In Iliffe's famous formulation: “The British wrongly believed that Tanganyikans belonged to tribes; Tanganyikans created tribes to function within the colonial framework.” Although Iliffe coined the term “the creation of tribes,” it was Terence Ranger's contribution to The Invention of Tradition that really sparked an interest in the historicity of ethnicity in Africa. In fact, this was only one facet of Ranger's overall argument, one that was a good deal more nuanced than he has sometimes been given credit for. Be that as it may, the time was evidently ripe for a historiographical break, and during the 1980s and 1990s historians set about demonstrating that particular ethnic groups were indeed the product of an interplay between European interventions—by administrators, missionaries, employers, and colonial ethnographers—and selective African appropriations—through the agency of Christian converts, educated elites, urban migrants, and rural patriarchs. The steady accretion of case-study material has subsequently culminated in reflections that have distilled the broad comparative lessons. These have been helpful in creating a sense of agreement that the debate was necessary, whilst underscoring that a law of diminishing returns has set in, something more generally true of debates about constructivist approaches to identity.

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