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Call: Normative Politics in Africa: Collaborative workshop series

Call, Normative Politics, Africa

Afternoon 5th March (London) / Morning 11th April (Oxford) / Afternoon 9th May (London)

We invite participants to a collaborative series of workshops to forge new research directions in the study of normative politics in Africa. Co-organised by scholars from LSE and Oxford ID departments, together we will develop an important new research agenda in the politics in Africa, as well as an innovative approach to collaboration that reflects the reality of research and writing as an iterative and co-produced process. Over the course of two closed workshops participants will develop a paper to be presented at an open workshop in the Summer Term.


The study of politics in Africa has long been focused on the material. In privileging clientelism, patronage, corruption, and money politics, as conceptual frames, mainstream analysis has presented politics as reducible to practical transactions. When attention has turned to public policies, it has been through the prism of ‘valence’ or ‘public’ goods, terms borne of economic theories of voting by rational actors. The genealogy of African politics as a field of study still retains the assumptions of the neo-patrimonialism discourse. Where the state has so long been characterised by scholars as venal, violent or both, it is understandable that those who competed for state power have been seen as nefarious political operators, devoid of values or meaningful political aspirations.

However, there is growing recognition that political contestation cannot be understood without attention to the role of ideas. Indicative recent work, reviving an early interest in the place of political thought in post-colonial African politics, highlights the role of political will and visionary leaders in bringing about transformative change. This workshop builds on this growing interest but seeks to interrogate more deeply the normative assumptions behind dominant conceptions of concepts like development, progress, democracy and good governance. How are the normative ends of political actions constructed, defined and contested?

Answers to these questions will inevitable start from empirical exploration, but must be willing to move beyond the current confines of both methodological individualism and normative universalism, to engage in a wider interpretative enterprise. Elections provide perhaps the most obvious site for interrogating political contestation but applicants are invited to reveal the normative political content of social life in Africa wherever they find it. This may include policy- making and reform, political parties, street-life, interactions between African actors and donors / international institutions etc.

The study of normative politics provides opportunities not only for de-otherizing African politics, but also for expanding the limits of the political. By focussing on how essentially contested concepts are given meaning in African political systems, this workshop seeks to bring African Studies into conversation with empirically-grounded Comparative Political Theory. At a time when the assumed ends of liberal democracy are radically in question in the West, taking the

normative aspects of African political life seriously provides us with a source of conceptual innovation and critique, and shows the fruitfulness of re-centring Africa in political thought.

How to apply:

Participants are be invited to submit an abstract and paper outline, indicating how their work brings new empirical research to bear on the key questions of the workshop, as captured by one of the 4 streams (see below). Co-authored papers are also welcome. Abstracts and outlines will be circulated among participants, who will come to the first closed workshop in London ready to discuss them.

The first and second workshops will allow the group to have structured informal discussions to work on their papers, flesh-out core concepts and develop shared approaches. The aim is to build a small committed community of scholars (8-12 people) to develop new, empirically grounded work within the sphere of normative politics in Africa. This may include, but is not limited to, scholars from the fields of Development Studies, Politics, Anthropology, Sociology, History or African Studies.

The format of the workshop series is motivated by a belief in the value of face-to-face collaborative discussion in knowledge production. This collaborative process will culminate in a third open workshop at the LSE in the summer term, where each of the participants will present the revised version of their paper. Senior academics from LSE, Oxford and SOAS will act as discussants and presenters will receive feedback from a broad audience of scholars and students. We intend to eventually combine these papers in an edited volume or special issue.

To apply please submit the following to by the end of Friday 9th February:

  • Paper Abstract (up to 300 words)
  • Paper Outline (bullet point overview of proposed paper and its connection to one of the four streams. This should include some indication of the key debates it would engage with, nature of empirical material, and theoretical argument. Max 400 words)
  • Brief bio / cv
  • Confirmation that you will be able to attend the three sessions (in exceptional circumstances participation could be via Skype for those for whom access or caring requirements would otherwise make participation impossible.)
  • The organisers especially welcome applications from non-Western and African scholars and women. Kind support from a LSE Department of International Development RIIF-funded Small Research Grant means we can offer limited funding for participants within the UK travelling from outside of London. Successful participants will be notified by Monday 19th February.

For more information email: Dr Portia Roelofs, Department of International Development, LSE or consult the announcement (pdf)