Publisher: African Studies Association

Ralph Bunche and African Studies: Reflections On The Politics of Knowledge

Pearl T. Robinson
KEYWORDS: Ralph Bunche and African Studies: Reflections on the Politics of Knowledge


“The dominant force in modern Africa is that of change.” These words, penned by Ralph Bunche in his 1934 doctoral dissertation (72), prefigured the ethos of what would come to be called, by the 1950s, the new field of African studies. Bunche's thesis, written for Harvard's Department of Government, offered a comparative analysis of French colonial administration in Dahomey (a colony under French rule) and Togoland (a League of Nations Mandate administered by France). His treatment of the subject wove together debates about colonial administration, race relations, and the responsibilities of the international community toward dependent peoples and non-self-governing territories—with the ultimate goal of producing a work of both academic and policy relevance. As a fundamental principle, Bunche insisted that the study of Africa should not be divorced from the study of the larger sweep of world history and global change because “the African is exposed to the pressure of forces of an outside world which is itself in process of transformation” (1934:73). Moreover, in a stance that was unusual for its time, Bunche set out to study Africa from the perspective of the African

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