In this paper, I am less interested in the differences between the main competing schools, than in their similarities. The differences were often artificially emphasized at the expense of basic common assumptions. All approaches we have used in African studies are deeply rooted in 19th-century epistemology since the neo-Marxist epistemological break never materialized (Jewsiewicki, 1987). Notwithstanding the fundamental importance of Marxist approaches to the transformation of academic knowledge about societies in Africa, there was no intellectual revolution.
The modern world system approach that belongs to the radical paradigm partially accounts for this failure. As knowledge is socially produced and strongly related to the power relationships, one cannot expect a radical epistemological break to occur in a society that is a historical product of 19th-century economic and social systems. In radical paradigm terms, how can one expect a capitalist mode of production to produce an epistemology and a theory that would be a “Copernican revolution” (Sahli quoted in Jewsiewicki, 1986: 5) in knowledge?
As Martha Gephart (1986: iii) stated recently, “An overview paper is a fortuitous marriage of an important topic and… individual.” Such is the case of this paper initially commissioned as an evaluation of Marxist African studies. The final result mediates my personal history as an African scholar and my perception of the growing difficulties of African studies with ‘Africa,’ their invented object. (Mudimbe, 1988)
In many respects the ambitions of this paper are similar to the goals of Meier and Rudwick (1986: xi):
We grew less interested in analyzing specific works than in understanding the interrelations between the trajectory of a scholarly specialty and developments in the changing social milieu and in the profession at large . … Thus, this volume is not a standard historiography, but an examination of several topics that illuminate the rise and the transformation of black history as a research field.