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Title: Uncertainty, Innovation, and the Quest for Order in Africa
Authors: De Boeck, Filip #
Issue Date: 2009
Conference: Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) 'Living Partnership' conference edition:2 location:University of Bayreuth, Germany. date:21-23 October 2009.
Description: Uncertainty, Innovation and the Quest for Order in Africa (A)
Today, no pair of concepts seems to describe the African continent better than uncertainty and innovation. Uncertainty arises from the precarious basis of most African economies, political instability, the vulnerability of its people to natural and man-made disasters, the continent’s continued dependence on unreliable external financial, material and ideational inputs for its further existence, as well as its apparent inability to meet the expectations of the younger generations. Uncertainty, therefore, seems to describe the conditions under which most Africans appear to live and the difficulties they encounter in coping with crumbling political, economic, social, cultural and normative orders.

Innovation and creativity have increasingly come to be seen as Africans’ responses to their condition or, to put it differently, as the expression of local agency in Africa. Anthropological research has repeatedly shown the enormous versatility of social action in responding to natural and human constraints. Terms like innovation and creativity describe the adaptation of tradition to new challenges, Africans’ appropriation of external inputs, the endeavour to integrate them into their lives and, most importantly, their responses to the ever new situations that result from innovation itself. The research challenge that emerges out of these findings should, however, not consist in celebrating Africans’ apparently pervasive innovation skills, or in taking creativity for granted. Tradition and conservatism, and even apathy, have also been reported as reactions to adversity. There is certainly a need to put innovation in its proper context. In this sense, the notion of uncertainty carries, for better or worse, the idea of an open future and makes improvisation and innovation its inevitable companions, as these latter notions invoke change and transformation, whether emerging from within the continent itself or from domesticated foreign inputs. Uncertainty points to the enormous degree of spontaneity and improvisation Africans have to muster in order to deal with these challenges.

Creativity and spontaneity may succeed in limiting uncertainty leading to more stable living conditions for the people if they offer an element of certainty and predictability. In this sense, changes wrought by creativity and spontaneity can be subsumed under the more general framework of a quest for order which can be assumed to lie at the heart of any kind of socialisation. Responses to perceived or felt uncertainty can be observed in new forms of making sense of the world, such as can be found in new Christian movements, Islamic fundamentalism, new moralities, neo-traditional orders, or accusations of witchcraft. Other responses to uncertainty may consist in new forms of civic associations, conflict regulation at the local level, or a specific entanglement of politics and the economy. All of them seek to create new forms of order which aim at controlling uncertainty.

Following the framework of this research area, doctoral projects may relate to the following broad fields and perspectives:

1. Social and political orders, new civic associations

2. Religion and healing

3. Family, kinship and law

4. Urban culture and youth movements

5. Appropriation of external goods and ideas
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa
# (joint) last author

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