Issues relating to household and community are of central importance in social scientific research on contemporary Africa and the experience of its peoples in the twentieth century. Early anthropological theory categorized African social organization, for comparative purposes, with that of indigenous America, New Guinea, and other classless and early state systems. Most of these other peoples are now minority populations in colonized states, politically and economically marginal. Only in Africa have advancing capitalism and non-peasant, relatively weakly stratified, highly flexible forms of social organization been forced into a long-term working relationship with one another over such a vast area and such a wide variety of conditions. Most recent scholarship—and the scholarship I will limit myself to in this paper—is not only concerned with substantive questions of what has happened as a result of this confrontation, but also with the methodological problems of describing and explaining it in a comparative framework.
Over the last twenty years, this has resulted in two major shifts of approach, which cut across all the divisions amongst the classic theoretical schools of thought. They are, first, a shift from explanation of local forms in terms of local social and ecological conditions to consideration of their position in regional, national, and international structures; and, second, a shift from classification of local forms in typological schema, either synchronic or evolutionary, to understanding in terms of processes of change which are to some degree indeterminate.
Taking the first issue, the increasing use of terms like “household” and “community” constitutes a relatively new departure. They are classic analytical concepts in the study of peasant societies and carry with them the implications of a local social structure and tradition of life within a wider stratified political and economic system under a state form of government.