Contact Information

Concept Africa
Department of World Cultures
P.O. Box 59
Unioninkatu 38 B
00014 University of Helsinki


Outline of the Project

Concept Africa

World history looks at events and processes whose magnitude reaches far beyond local, national or even continental histories. Such broader accounts are typically centred on European or Western ideas of how history is to be written, both in terms of the spatial origo of the events and processes viewed, and with regard to the concepts used for their explanation. Against this backdrop, more and more voices can be heard pleading a non-Western-centred approach to global history. Scholars working within many different approaches have uttered their concern. Post-colonial theories have long drawn attention to the inadequacy underlying much Western writing on the exotic Other—from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to Dipesh Chakrabarty's proposal of Provincialising Europe (2001).

Africa’s position with regard to these considerations is strangely ambivalent. Africa has long been globally connected and her fate is often depicted as an immediate result of global political, commercial, and military factors. African historiography reflects this in peculiar ways. World histories tend to relegate Africa to the status of a continent that reacts. In contrast, “authentically African” history is more often than not understood as local, at best regional, and only relatively few grand narratives on long-term African history at a broader geographical level have been attempted. A methodological concern enhanced the divide. While global histories, including those paying a good deal of attention to Africa, tend to rely on the kind of sources known from its European tradition, local historiographies and accounts of pre-colonial African history are mainly based on linguistic and archaeological data.

The Global translations project – which began with an investigation of Asian conceptualisations of the social and the economic, and which now proceeds with a focus on the corresponding African terminology – had set out to develop ideas towards establishing a horizon that “is not one where the Asian or African conceptualisations are played off against the European but one where European, Asian and African semantics are entangled in historical processes. A frequent argument in the postcolonial critique deals with a continuous Eurocentric agenda and that therefore full autonomy must be based on interruption of communication under development of indigenous discourse. The project wants to challenge this argument and search for possibilities of a non-Eurocentric transcultural dialogue. Pdf about the project

In search of an African contribution to such an endeavour, the conceptafrica network looks at two domains—the social and the economic—in a number of linguistic and cultural settings across Africa.

Academic backdrop

Much of the work by social and economic historians, especially if from an historical materialist background, on how economic processes are understood and how social institutions are maintained rests on allegedly universal mechanisms and thus highly general theories. What is problematic about these approaches is that they reify mechanisms, thereby downplaying human agency. A strength of these explanations lies in their broad scale, but the theory-driven explanations may obfuscate how these assumed processes work or miss out on relevant detail. Approaches which are very loyal to the observed historical facts often describe economic processes, including their historical dimensions, in great detail, but they are less prone to allow for generalising beyond the individual case. As a result of this dilemma, the economic activities of communities in Africa and their social interaction is phrased in western terms when they are being integrated into broader historical narratives.

Aims and objective

Economic and social driving forces underlying events and processes in the past are at the core of many historical explanations. But how exactly is economic activity conceptualised in the societies whose past we are interested in? We need to understand these in order to gain a richer and fuller picture of relevant processes and institutions in the past.

We are particularly interested in the dissonances and incongruities between European and African language cultures for three reasons.

1. The contact situation between Europe and Africa with different kinds of economic interrelation requires an understanding of how these are entangled. It is simply insufficient and will automatically lead to a Western bias if we do not include African conceptions. This is not just a question of shifting the angle, but rather a more substantial change in how global history may be envisaged.

2. European languages dominate the analytical and interpretative frameworks within which we phrase our explanations and understandings, even in cases in which we deal with African languages and cultures in a considerably longue durée. We want to investigate how we can integrate African conceptualisations in our perspective. In order to get a better grasp of historical processes, we need to understand how economic factors, often argued to be causally significant, are put into practice by the societies or communities under study.

3. Historical agency does not simply include actions as reaction to environmental, economic, political and other historical conditions, but also the expected by other actors. How African historical agents made decisions based on expected – but not necessarily effective – reactions by European counterparts is too often neglected.

Theoretical key notions

What we have in mind is not a naively romantic attempt at “understanding cultures in their own terms”. Understanding relevant conceptual categories is not a shallow attempt at authenticating historical accounts by relying exclusively on emic categories. Necessary and adequate as this may be, relevant theoretical concerns reach beyond this rather shallow requirement of emic adequacy. This resonates with critical approaches (for an insightful discussion of how conceptual history relates to critical approaches, constructivism and discourse theory, see Ifversen 2003) and it also ties in with the renewed interest in linguistic relativity as expressed by linguists and linguistic anthropologists (e.g. Gumperz and Levinson 1996; Levinson et al. 2002).

Some of our most central theoretical points of departures are elaborated in more detail in a position statement and further texts contributed by Bo Stråth.

Our strategy

  • Bringing together scholars from different Africa-related backgrounds. All of the members of this research network are recognized specialists in their respective fields. Their areas of expertise include the study of African languages, early history, the history of ideas and intellectual history with regard to Africa.
  • Scrutinizing different methodological approaches to African history that rely on language data. The approaches range from “Words-and-Things” (or Wörter und Sachen, as originally coined in German in 1909; see Vansina 2006 for more on this) to interpretive approaches of critical discourse analysis, and from the investigation of archival sources on economics and social processes to diachronic aspects of cognitive semantics.
  • Carrying out specific studies that address situations of European-African contact. This contact can be either between the actual users of languages, or between the concepts that are derived from both different backgrounds.


Chakrabarty, D. 2001. Provincialising Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gumperz, J., & S.C. Levinson (eds.) 1996. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ifversen, J. 2003. ‘Text, Discourse, Concept: Approaches to Textual Analysis’. Kontur 7: 60-69.

Levinson, S. C., S. Kita, D. B. M. Haun, & B. H. Rasch 2002. ‘Returning the tables: Language affects spatial reasoning’. Cognition 84(2): 155-188.

Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Vansina, J. 2006. ‘How to Distil Words and Obtain Culture History’. History in Africa 33: 499-511.