BA Art History and History

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Africa and Development: A Political History of the Social Sciences

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST32221
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


Eurocentric notions of ‘development’ constitute the primary lens through which Africa is appraised. Yet, they make invisible the genealogies of these narratives, and how African thinkers have interpreted, and tried to change, the world. To rectify this state of affairs, the module offers an intellectual and political history of the social sciences’ engagement with Africa in the 20th century. The module provides a critical genealogy of the concepts, categories and methods through which ‘Africa’ has been constructed under colonial rule, but also illuminate the multiple ways in which African intellectuals and social scientists have used the language of the social sciences to interrogate their position in the world and conceptualise alternative forms of political belonging. By looking at case studies from the history of anthropology, demography, and economics, the module will also provide students with a wide range of historiographical tools to conceptualise the relationship between knowledge and power.


Restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes (please check your programme structure for further details).

No prerequisites, but ‘Colonial Encounters’ or other modules dealing with African history are recommended.


  • Become familiar with key themes and concepts in the history of anthropology, demography and economics in the 20th century;
  • Gain knowledge of African colonial and postcolonial history through the lens of the contested concept of ‘development’;
  • Study how different historiographical and sociological traditions have interrogated the political implications of different forms of knowledge production.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Become familiar with theories of ‘development’ across different disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences
  • Reassess key concepts (such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘neo-colonialism) and intellectual traditions (such as Marxism) in light of their application to African realities
  • Appraise and analyse the contribution of African authors to debates in the social sciences
  • Problematise the relationship between social knowledge, state formation, and political belonging
  • Ask questions on why and how ideas and discourses change over time

Intellectual skills

  • Learn how to analyse critically a wide range of quantitative and qualitative sources
  • Become familiar with key trends and concerns in the political, economic, and intellectual historiography of colonial and postcolonial Africa
  • Become familiar with the different ways in which scholars have interrogated the political implications of the social sciences

Practical skills

  • Essay writing
  • Seminar participation and communication of complex ideas to a wider group
  • Analysis of evidence (both primary and secondary source) to establish independent interpretation.
  • Autonomous research
  • Utilisation of online databases and internet resources appropriate to the module.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Present nuanced interpretations via advanced written and oral communication
  • Accomplish independent research projects
  • Work collaboratively as part of a team
  • Critical thinking and analysis

Employability skills

Students can expect to develop an important set of skills which will be highly valued in the workplace: 1) To convey complex ideas via written and verbal communication skills 2) The ability to collaborate in team-work settings. 3) Acting autonomously and taking leadership (through independent research, seminar preparation and contribution, assessment activities) 4) Critical thinking and analysis 5) Locating, organising and interpreting large quantities of evidence.

Assessment methods

Source Analysis: 40% 

Research Essay: 60%

Feedback methods

Feedback Methord Formative or Summative
Verbal feedback on group disscusions/in-class tasks Formative 
Written feedback on coursework submissions via turnitin  Summative
Additional one-to-one feedback (during office hours or by making an appointment)  Formative


Recommended reading

Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard (eds., 1998) International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Corrie Decker and Elizabeth McMahon (2021)The Idea of Development in Africa: A History. Athens (OH): Ohio University Press.

Adom Getachew (2019) Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Charles Mayer (2005). Naija Marxisms: Revolutionary Thought in Nigeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

V.Y. Mudimbe (1988). The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kwame Nkrumah. (1965) Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons.

James C. Scott. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Helen Tilley (2011). Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Gerardo Serra Unit coordinator

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