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  • Doing Conceptual History in Africa ed. by Axel Fleisch and Rhiannon Stephens
  • Harri Englund
Axel Fleisch and Rhiannon Stephens (editors), Doing Conceptual History in Africa. Oxford: Berghahn Books (hb £85 – 978 1 78533 163 3). 2016, xi + 243 pp.

‘It is in the complexity of a concept that history can be found,’ Rhiannon Stephens writes in her chapter of this intriguing collaboration across disciplines (p. 23). Hers is the chapter in which the intellectual debt to Jan Vansina’s pioneering work on African historical linguistics is most explicitly acknowledged, not least because Stephens’ temporal horizon over a thousand years finds no parallel in this volume. Yet the contributors do more than reintroduce historical linguistics as conceptual history. The promise here is to enrich the two staples of African history as it is currently practised – social and intellectual history – through a re-invigorated interest in language. Reinhart Koselleck’s explorations of conceptual history in Europe provide one inspiration, particularly their attention to the uses as well as meanings of concepts on the basis of the widest possible range of sources. The appeal to scholars of Africa lies in the prospect of investigating intellectual lives in a more inclusive manner than would be possible in ‘the reductionism of exclusively studying elite thought’ (p. 2).

In their introduction to the volume, the editors chart the way by noting, among other things, important differences in how conceptual history has been done in Europe. One is the habit of considering national and linguistic boundaries in Europe as coterminous. While advocating language as a ‘historical source’ (p. 3), the editors recognize the need for methods that better account for linguistic [End Page 184] complexity in Africa. Such a need is further accentuated by the relative unevenness of written sources on the continent. The contributors to this volume approach methodological challenges according to the specific requirements of their subject matter. While the chapters on Julius Nyerere’s uses of ujamaa (Stråth) and on decolonization (Fraiture) can contend with policy and philosophical texts, others draw on historical linguistics and diachronic semantics to explore the concepts of ‘wealth’ and ‘poverty’ in Uganda (Stephens) and the concepts of ‘work’ among Nguni-speakers in Southern Africa (Fleisch), and on cognitive linguistics to discuss the domain of ‘marriage’ in Afrikaans (Pienaar). Yet others turn to oral literature when tracing the conceptual history of ‘land’ in Equatorial Guinea (Sá) and to nineteenth-century newspapers for insights into the same concept in Ghana (van Hensbroek). Sources familiar to most historians also include early colonial dictionaries for the meanings of ‘work’ on what Mager calls the North-Eastern Cape frontier and early missionaries’ ethnographic work as well as oral history on circumcision in Uganda (Khanakwa).

Although the volume reflects on doing conceptual history as well as on what results it may yield, the chapters indicate variable degrees of interest in methodological challenges. While always interesting and well-executed, some read as standard social and intellectual histories with special references to certain keywords. It is in the individual chapters by the editors that we get the clearest vision of what doing conceptual history in Africa involves. Fleisch contrasts his approach with the one taken by Jean and John Comaroff in their account of a borrowed lexical item among the nineteenth-century Batshidi. For the Comaroffs, an adopted concept of work serves to mark a transition to the European labour regime. Fleisch questions such a binary opposition between different regimes and points to a more protracted process through which colonial labour notions came to be adapted locally. He does so by comparing several Nguni languages – especially isiZulu, isiXhosa and isiNdebele – over a long period of time along with contemporary interviews and linguistic corpora. Instead of ending up with an argument about lexical polysemy as such, he emphasizes the kinds of lexical polysemy that competing notions in these languages provide. His somewhat startling conclusion states that ‘inherited forms express the novel notions, borrowed forms represent older understandings’ (p. 63).

Fleisch’s methodological reflections are also instructive. He notes the limited scope of African-language newspapers of the period (1870s and 1880s), which he considers formative in Southern African debates on work. As a linguist, Fleisch...


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