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  • Africanistica: le culture orali dell’Africa
  • Umberto Pellecchia
Bernardo Bernardi, Africanistica: le culture orali dell’Africa. Milan: Franco Angeli (pb €23 – 978 8 84647 623 4). 2006, 478 pp.

Africanistica is the last book written by Bernardo Bernardi, who died on 17 January 2007. Bernardi is considered one of the founders of the Italian anthropological tradition in African studies: he was well known to Italian and international readers as the author of several manuals and theoretical essays; perhaps Age Class Systems (1985) is his best-known work. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the International African Institute, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and member of the scientific committee of the Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente. Bernardo Bernardi has provided a decisive contribution to the spread of African studies and British social anthropology in Italy.

The contribution of Africanistica must be considered in this perspective. In this book Bernardi leads us directly into the lives and works of the most prominent representatives of the anthropology of African societies, combining precise historical information of the discipline with his affectionate, personal comments. Indeed, alongside a description of the scientific productions and reflections of these authors, Bernardi offers a portrayal of personal motivations and historical facts that influenced their choice of fieldwork, theoretical approach and ethnographic methodology. The tone of the book is both intense and familiar.

In the first part, the author deals with British anthropology, describing in detail several key figures, principally those recognized as the ‘classics’ of African studies. Starting with Gerhard Lindblom, Charles Gabriel Seligman and the contributions of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, Bernardo Bernardi steers us with confidence into the works of Evans-Pritchard, Fortes, and Schapera, surveying the Manchester School and closing with Jack Goody. The reader follows the leads of the writer: concepts such as political system (Schapera), kinship and descent (Fortes), ritual process (Turner) pawnship (Douglas) and feudal state (Goody), among others, are fully explained by Bernardi, together with his personal suggestions and striking descriptions of the ethnographic contents of British anthropologists’ monographs. [End Page 509]

The second part of the book aims at describing the French anthropological approaches to African studies. Here too, Bernardo Bernardi starts off with the forerunners (antesignani, in Italian): Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. Then his overview tries to underline the well-known theoretical and methodological difference between French and British ‘classic’ anthropology: where the latter was more concerned with the social structure and the kinship systems, the French approach was mainly focused on symbolic systems, cosmogony and myths. Within the French tradition, Claude Meillassoux’s and George Balandier’s analyses are exceptions, being more concerned with economy and politics. With reference to Balandier, Bernardi, however, fails to describe some relevant concepts used by the French anthropologist, such as that of the situation coloniale or dynamisme, without apparent reason. Indeed, the chapter dedicated to George Balandier exemplifies the limits of Bernardo Bernardi’s essay: the author’s concern is primarily descriptive. His approach deals essentially with the ethnographic data of his masters and colleagues; he does not offer a comprehensive analytical framework to discuss and compare the theoretical stances of his precursors, leaving the reader with a collection of summaries of research monographs.

In the final part of the book Bernardi examines some Italian approaches to African studies: the research experiences of Vinigi Grottanelli among the Nzema of Ghana and the work of Francesco Remotti in the former Zaïre. The chapter dedicated to the thought of Lanternari on neo-traditionalism and religious syncretism offers an important contribution to understanding how Italian anthropology has contributed to advancing the discipline internationally.

With Africanistica Bernardo Bernardi addresses three of the most important European schools of African Studies. Although the subtitle reads ‘The oral cultures of Africa’ and each chapter is apparently structured on the oral/written dichotomy, the concern with orality is less developed than the overall history of anthropology.

Nevertheless Africanistica is not merely a textbook. It is the last testimony of the crucial influence of the British and French traditions on Italian anthropology, written in diary form by one of the most renowned scholars of the Italian tradition.

Umberto Pellecchia


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pp. 509-510
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