Precolonial States and Precolonial Cultures: Concept Formation and Misinformation the Historical Renaissance

Colloquium | October 31 | 12:30-2 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Martha Wilfahrt, Assistant Professor, Political Science, UC Berkeley

 Center for African Studies

Scholars in political science and development economics are increasingly identifying historical, ‘root causes’ of contemporary development outcomes. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this has renewed a particular interest in the precolonial past, with a series of prominent papers identifying precolonial 'centralization' as a key driver of differences in contemporary development levels both across and within states. This work largely relies on George Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, which codes the majority of the world’s ethnic groups on a number of anthropological attributes. I problematize Murdock's measure by arguing that it leads us to conflate precolonial centralization as a group-level property - Murdock’s own purported goal - and centralization as spatial institutions occupying territory, e.g. states. I demonstrate the value of the former by generating estimates of the spatial extent of precolonial African states in the 19th century by georeferencing precolonial capitals and key villages, to reveal the gap between the locations of actual centralized precolonial polities and ethnic groups with political hierarchies as measured by Murdock. Critically, I argue that our conceptualization of antecedent causes, the historical renaissance in the social sciences could advance our theorization of more or less plausible mechanisms of persistence.

Martha studies African politics with a focus on redistributive politics and political economy of development. She is particularly interested in how interactions between state and social forces drive long-run development outcomes. Her current book project builds on extensive fieldwork in rural Senegal to argue that the contemporary politics of representation and local service provision under democratic decentralization are intimately shaped by the precolonial past.

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