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Social Anthropology and Two Contrasting Uses of Tribalism in Africa

  • Peter P. Ekeh (a1)

A remarkable feature of African studies has been the sharp discontinuities in the characterization of transitions in African history and society from one era to another. Thus, for an important example, colonialism has rarely been related to the previous era of the slave trade in the analysis of any dominant socioeconomic themes in Africa. Such discontinuity is significant in one important strand of modern African studies: The transition from the lore and scholarship of colonial social anthropology to postcolonial forms of African studies has been stalled into a brittle break because its central focus on the “tribe” has been under attack. Social anthropology gained strength through its analysis of the tribe and its associated concepts of kin groups and kinship behaviors in colonial Africa. However, following criticisms of the mission and manners of social anthropology by postindependence African scholars and politicians, and a brave reexamination of the conceptual problems of their discipline, social anthropologists more or less agreed to abandon the use of the tribe and of its more obvious derivative tribalism with respect to Africa.

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