I-4. Long-Term Ethnography in Africa: Its Peculiar Contribution to the Development of Local Civil Societies

Conveners: Mariano Pavanello (University of Rome “Sapienza”, Italy); e-mail: mariano.pavanello@uniroma1.it, Pino Schirripa (University of Rome “Sapienza”, Italy); e-mail: pino.schirripa@uniroma1.it

Ethnographic research has gone through a radical revision in the last few decades, which in turn led to a critical reconsideration of its epistemology, theory, fieldwork practices and scientific objectives as well. As far as the Italian scenario is concerned, African ethnographic studies are largely rooted in specific academic traditions that have historically flourished within groups of scholars whose research practice has developed within an institutional framework, provided by both academic and governmental agencies. Since 1954 – when the Italian Ethnological Mission to Ghana was established by Vinigi Grottanelli – other ethnological missions have been promoted with the twofold aim of investigating African societies on a long-term perspective, and providing young trainees in anthropology with an ethnographic field to experience. The institutional networks and the long-term relations with local people established by the scholars who had done fieldwork in the same contexts have facilitated these initiatives. Such a scenario, partly common to other countries, calls for a comprehensive and critical reflection, that should not only address the epistemological aspects of ethnography, but also consider its political implications, legitimacy, and the restitution of the knowledge produced with local people. Moreover, the peculiar nature of an intergenerational ethnographic effort that unravels in a wide time span should stimulate members of ethnological équipe to take stock of the changes occurred in time in their way of comprehending and experiencing the field. The panel aims at gathering contributions based on a critical and reflexive assessment of the opportunities and challenges linked to the reiterative frequentation of African fields by anthropologists under the institutional umbrella of a Mission. It welcomes proposals that: (a) enlighten the rich variety of theoretical and methodological approaches implemented in different times and contexts; (b) reflect in an original way on the restitution strategies adopted by scholars to share the outcomes of their research with local actors; and (c) stress the multiple ways that the recurrent frequentation of the field may contribute to the development of the local civil societies. The following key-questions could be addressed: what are the opportunities disclosed by the reiterative frequentation of a field? What are the implications of local people getting used to the pervasive presence of anthropologists and their intellectual curiosity? What role do obsolete Africanist ethnographies acquire in the current theoretical and methodological debate? How can contemporary scholars undertake the sensitive task of revising the interpretative categories used by their “ancestors” in their past research? How can the local cultural heritage explored during long-term ethnographies contribute to the development of local communities? Lastly, the panel aims to provide an open forum for a debate about the theoretical and methodological implications of doing ethnography in a collective dimension and in a long-term perspective in African contexts. Such an enterprise should arise from the papers as a historically determined cognitive practice, which largely depends on the political, cultural and economic contingencies that affect the ethnographic relation.