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Reviewed by:
  • Lieux de sociabilité urbaine en Afrique
  • Patrick Chabal
Laurent Fourchard, Odile Goerg and Muriel Gomez-Perez (eds), Lieux de sociabilité urbaine en Afrique. Paris: L'Harmattan (pb €48.50–978 2 29608 971 6). 2009, 616 pp.

This volume, which issues from a conference held in 2006, aims to extend to Africa the study of urban sociability. There is no doubt that it is timely both because the issue has not been studied systematically before and because there is increasing interest today in African cities. The rate of urbanization in Africa is rising all the time and Africanist scholarship has not kept up with events on the ground. The concept of sociability, though originally coined in Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, has come to be more commonly used in France, where from the late 1960s onwards it acquired impeccable academic respectability in the work of Maurice Agulhon. What it means, in simple terms, is that aspect of social intercourse that is wider than the family but remains defined by face-to-face contact. It is usually associated with a geographical location (such as a market, suburb, café, sporting facility, cinema, church or mosque) and/or with a particular social grouping (such as an association, parish, youth club, market traders' network, guild, or sports club). Above and beyond the sophisticated discussion of the theoretical foundations of the concept provided in the introductory chapter, the study of sociability in this volume is concentrated on well-defined and closely circumscribed groups or activities in major African cities.

The book is divided into four parts, each of which contains a short introduction and a group of chapters that concentrate on one key aspect of urban sociability: identity and power; meeting place and mixing; religious spaces; and the social uses of urban space. Although the chapters are very distinct, both in focus and range, the authors have made an attempt to draw out those aspects of sociability that matter most. However, this remains a collection of studies, each drawn from in-depth field work, that have little in common other than an interest in cities. Nor is the division into these four sections unimpeachable. There is a fair degree of arbitrary partition in the matter. This makes for a lack of coherence. For all that, the readers of this volume will undoubtedly come to know African cities better–from Tunis to Johannesburg, by way of royal palaces in south-west Nigeria, mosques in Ouagadougou, and street children in Antananarivo.

The main shortcoming of this volume is not that it is a compilation of disparate studies–although that is an issue–but rather that the concept of sociability is not tight enough to bring comparability or even cohesion to the book. In some of the chapters, on socializing or religious association, the notion is relatively clear but in others (for instance, on the spaces around water fountains or on painting), it is far less enlightening. Above and beyond a vague process of coming together for a particular activity (be it drinking or playing football) there is little gained by addressing the issue in the guise of sociability. The chapters are interesting in and of themselves but they do not [End Page 674] all contribute to a better understanding of what sociability actually means in practice. Indeed, the use of the concept is sometimes counterproductive in that it forces the presentation of the material into an unnecessarily narrow format, which attempts to show that the activity in question is part of a 'significant' process of sociability. In many instances, this adds nothing.

Where this volume is useful is in the detailed description of urban activities that bring people together around social, religious, artistic, sporting or recreational events. Here the details brought to the fore by scholars who are steeped in their own local research help paint a fairly vivid picture of what happens in those urban settings that are the stages for these socially relevant get-togethers. If the weightiest of these chapters focus on the role of religion and religious organizations, the most revealing are undoubtedly those that touch on less well-known activities, such as water collection, football, entertainment or...


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