/ Forschung

Call for Papers: "The moral landscapes of drugs in Africa" (Politique africaine, special issue)

Coordinated by Corentin Cohen (Sciences Po/CERI, OxPo) and Gernot Klantschnig (University of Bristol)

This special issue of Politique Africaine will draw its attention to the ever-shifting line between the licit and illicit. It proposes to explore the meanings of legal and illegal activities and practices associated with drugs, drug consumption, drug trade and drug money to question their changing degrees of local legitimacy and legality. Using the idea of moral economies popularized by Scott (Scott 1976) and that has proven useful to understand different practices including corruption (Olivier de Sardan, 1999), the organizers will move from an existing focus on official views of the drug criminal and « drug trafficker » to the question of the users and trader and the social debates regarding these activities. While the international narratives on drugs and organized crime are clearly identified and contribute to a criminalization of drugs, little has been said about trader and consumer narratives and how they co-exist, challenge or use political narratives, as well as the popular discourses on the threats and opportunities offered by drugs. 

In the light of the existing literature on criminal activities, the question of the legitimacy is particularly important given the livelihoods that drug activities may generate and the ‘social bandit’ role moral entrepreneurs can contribute to build up. This dimension has not been discussed in research, even though it is made clear by recent movies such as Wulu (Mali, 2016) or Drug Barons (Nigeria, 2017) showing that different morals co-exist and are the object of controversies. As has been the case with the illegal mining activities in the DRC and the development of Bana Lunda, one would be tempted to ask if there are other narratives that frame this illegal trade or consumption and which could point to the emergence of new classbased and gendered identities (Monnier, Jewsiewicki and De Villers 2001). These narratives can also reflect market driven social transformations as is the case with the market for drug mules and associated services (Cohen 2019), and efforts of different actors undermining and producing legitimacy. Taking the case of Guinea Bissau, Henrik Vigh, for instance, has shown the ambiguities regarding the perception of cocaine as a drug and the acceptability of its incomes depending on individual’s situations and relations (Vigh 2017).

Thematic axes

To further our understanding of the moral economies of drugs in Africa, the issue welcomes articles reflecting particularly on three dimensions:  

  • The articulations between licitness and illicitness, with a focus on the different entrepreneurs who contribute to the definitions of the moral economies of drugs and to the shift in moral landscapes. What kind of moral discourses do religious actors or local communities produce? To which extent can « big men » or so-called traditional leaders encourage or tolerate certain practices? How do these moral economies embody or challenge existing definitions of morality, success and wealth? Does a generational approach allow to understand these moral economies – a point that has been highlighted in related work on the legal drug alcohol (Willis 2002)? What are the perceptions of these moralities and discourses by the different actors involved in drug consumption or trade? Do these actors develop counter-narratives and how do they negotiate and produce moralities?  
  • The special issue raises the question of the representations of drug consumption and trade. Do these representations differ according to the drugs themselves or the mode of consumption? What is the role of local and regional media, music, film, art, literature and other cultural artefacts and their makers in the establishment of tropes, stereotypes regarding trade and consumption of drugs? What social representations do they contribute to create? What are the representations of users; are they seen as deviants, immoral, or as in need of help? How do cultural artefacts represent the trade and its political and economic implications? To what extent do global imaginaries of Reggae, Rap, Latin American « narcos » and Western modes of drug consumption circulate? How do they affect existing representations and reflect the unequal dynamics of globalization?
  • Finally, such an approach recognizes that drug markets, practices and moral economies can also be invested by political actors who negotiate and build up different relations through this issue. This would particularly be the case in spaces where consumers and traders are publicly identified and have a major economic role. What are the negotiations implied by existing moralities, how do politicians use the issue and how do they navigate and articulate their positions vis-à-vis international agendas? Under what circumstances can « criminals » be accepted or tolerated in certain communities and how do the moral discussions affect the enforcement of law and its making in different spaces?

The editors of this special issue welcome contributions from different disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology, politics, but also literature or media studies) and related approaches with original empirical data on a range of illegal and semi-legal substances, such as cannabis, cocaine, khat or synthetic opioids. We invite all the authors to adopt a reflexive position regarding the data and methods they will use, the role of « official » devices of power and narratives in their approaches.
Selected contributors will have the opportunity to present their research at different side events and workshops organized by the editors in 2020 before the final submission date.


20 April 2020: Deadline for submission of proposals (One-page summary in French or English) to be sent to Corentin Cohen and Gernot Klantschnig 
30 April 2020: notification to the authors of the acceptance or rejection of their proposal
15 November 2020: article deadline. Articles can be submitted in French or English.   
For more information on the format of the articles to be submitted, see