Modernism in Africa By Mahmoud, Yahia

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO10-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 17 April 2024, from


Though they often escape critical scrutiny, concepts such as modernism, modernity, and modernization are at the heart of the concept of development, and thus omnipresent in development studies. In the late nineteenth century, the new discipline of sociology undertook to study, explain, and guide the social transformations unfolding in Europe. Equally, the relationship between the machinery of knowledge construction and that of the modern state was tightened, with concrete consequences on how social life was perceived, organized, and lived. Following the spirit of the Enlightenment, the founders of sociology aimed to study social phenomena as their counterparts in natural sciences studied nature. Often, this ambition, coupled with the tightened bond of power/knowledge, led to reductive representations of social realities through dichotomized and hierarchized categories: modern vs. traditional, rational vs. irrational, urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, developed vs. underdeveloped, and so on. These dichotomies initially affected power relations in Europe, but other geographic areas and societies soon became objects of study for European social sciences. European production of images of other societies has a long history and remains central for constructions of European identities. The wave of Western European expansions from the late fifteenth century onwards marked a new and more aggressive era in the use of science to describe, categorize, analyze, and subordinate other cultures. Science in general and social sciences in particular became crucial elements of colonialism. Broadly speaking, the Middle East and Asia were the first to be scrutinized by European social sciences, then the Americas and finally Africa. Focusing on the last of these, I start here with a rough picture of the meaning and evolution of modernism, modernity, and modernization in development studies. I then explore how modernization and modernity narratives have informed some African intellectual streams. Finally, I assess some of the tendencies in the debate today.

Modernization and Development Studies

The late twentieth century is to development studies what the late nineteenth was to sociology. The radical socio-economic transformations brought to the nineteenth century by the industrial revolution and the consolidation of capitalism in Western Europe generated social unrest in much of the continent. These events introduced a wide array of objects and subjects for social theory. Excepting ethnology, tightly associated with the study of the ‘other’, almost all social sciences engaged in the study of how capitalism was transforming and shaping Europe. A recurrent theme was the movement from traditional to modern societies and its various social implications (e.g. Karl Marx, Ferdinand Tönnies, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Max Weber). The body of European knowledge created between the late nineteenth century and the 1940s, in combination with the international power relations arising from the Second World War, came to define development studies. Initially, economics dominated, driven by the belief that economic transformation and growth would inevitably lead to modern societies (e.g. Rosenstein-Rodan, Rostow, Harrod-Domar, Lewis). In the 1950s, development economics were challenged by other disciplines claiming that focusing solely on economic transformation would not lead to the desired results. Consequently, the idea of modernization was broadened to encompass social and political transformation. Various theories and strategies were pursued to help the developing world – Africa in particular – to ‘modernize’. Development studies became strongly attached to policy-making, reinforcing the nexus of knowledge–power. Embodying this nexus, development agencies were integrated into Western state structures. The explanations why Western countries embarked on ‘modernizing’ the rest of the world are many and controversial, ranging from philanthropy to economic exploitation. Any overview of modernist intellectual currents in Africa must therefore ask: what does modernization mean in the context of development studies? What are its key characteristics? Has its meaning(s) changed over time? What is its legacy?

Etymologically, the defining element of the term modernus is time. However, development studies initially privileged a spatial dimension: the modern frequently meant what is taking place in ‘the West just now’. This is why some scholars equate modernization with westernization while others make a distinction. The latter argue that modernization requires a change in beliefs about how the material world operates, while westernization entails a change in beliefs about how one should live. As with other social sciences, development studies struggled in the late 1950s to conceptualize and find metrics for modernization. For some, modernization was a process; for others, a state (Bendix 1967). Similarly, there was no consensus on the adequate unit of observation and analysis: did it occur at the societal (Levy 1966, Lerner 1958), communal (Abu-Lughod 1964, Sjoberg 1964) or individual level (Kahl 1968, Inkeles 1969)? Next, social scientists had to define modernization’s characteristics. Despite the large number of approaches and theories that emerged about how to identify modern societies, there are three recurrent traits: industrial capitalism with economic growth; a political system that guarantees public participation; and a degree of individual autonomy. In conjunction with these, measurable characteristics such as the degree of urbanization, agricultural efficiency, health and health-care standards, literacy levels, media participation, and secularization of cultural norms dominate development research.

During modernization theory’s dominance of development studies in the 1950s to 1960s, many newly independent African countries appeared to be already moving towards constructing modern societies as Europe had done. Marx’s famous verdict that the ‘country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future’ (Marx 1967 [1867]: 8–9) was implicit in the intellectual spirit of the time. However, this optimism was soon questioned. In the late 1960s a group of scholars known as modernization revisionists criticized the modernization approach on several key points. First, they did not perceive the relationship of modernity-tradition as a zero-sum game as their predecessors had. Second, to them traditional institutions and attitudes were not necessarily hindrances to modernization. Third, they rejected the idea that modernization was unilinear, with modern features gradually replacing traditional ones. They argued that traditional features might, in fact, be revitalized and strengthened by modernization (see Schraeder 2004).

Another stream of thought that influenced African studies during the 1960s and early 1970s was the dependency school. This heterogeneous school was influenced by several Marxist theses (e.g. Rosa Luxembourg and V.I. Lenin on international trade) on the geographic effects of capitalist expansion and a set of theories on international trade (e.g. Raul Prebish and Hans Singer) from the 1940s. Dependency theorists argued that the origins of underdevelopment and economic stagnation in the Global South could not be understood unless the entire international economic system was studied. They saw development and underdevelopment as outcomes of the same process (e.g. Baran, Frank, Amin). In other words, underdevelopment was not a condition but a consequence of development. Rodney (1972) argued that before the spread of international capitalism the African continent had been developing both politically and economically, but capitalism’s incursion via European colonialism had hindered independent development: Europe became richer and more developed at Africa’s expense. For the dependency school, the way out of this unequal relation was a detachment from the international economic system. Many of these arguments were embraced in political and intellectual discourses in Africa, and some survive now.

At a first sight modernization and dependency seem to represent opposites, but the common ground is bigger than we might expect. As correctly argued by Manzo, for all the criticism of modernization theory the

dependency school was unable to detach itself fully from the assumptions of the mainstream paradigm it sought to undermine because it was equally rooted in the nineteenth-century social theory […] and left intact the classical image of the Western state as the image or model of what it means to be ‘developed’.

(1991: 30)

Furthermore, recognizing the role played by different geographic regions in European wealth accumulation never led the dependency school to question modernity as exclusively and monolithically European. Instead, modernity is a multiple and shared condition: ‘Western patterns of modernity are not the only authentic modernities, though they enjoy historical precedence and continue to be a basic reference point for others’ (Eisenstadt, qtd. in Houben and Schrempf 2008: 9). Some researchers indicate modern features in non-Western societies well before contact (see Woodside 2006, Kahn 2001). Others emphasize modernity’s historical dynamics and assert that the ‘[g]enealogy of cultural forms is about circulation across region, the history of these forms is about their ongoing domestication into local practices’ (Appadurai 1996: 17, qtd. in Houben and Schrempf 2008). Yet others, such as Mitchell (2000) question the notion of multiple modernities as adaptation to local circumstances presupposes a singular origin. At the same time, a local view underestimates modernity’s powers of expansion, subordination, and exclusion. Mitchell calls this process representation: modernity is staged, a representation that unavoidably incorporates the production of difference and displacement (Houben and Schrempf 2008: 11).

The construction of Western representations of Africa, which started during colonial domination, has become a veil on the continent’s realities. The matter is of such magnitude that no genuine intellectual effort to approach Africa’s realities could proceed without confronting those narratives. Distinguished African and Afro-American thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Amilcar Cabral, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have successfully engaged in this enterprise. Evaluating the meaning of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in this context Gikandi (2001) asserts:

For reading Things Fall Apart brought me to the sudden realization that fiction was not merely about a set of texts which one studied for the Cambridge Overseas exam which, for my generation, had been renamed the East African Certificate of Education; on the contrary, literature was about real and familiar worlds, of culture and human experience, of politics and economics, now re-routed through a language and structure that seemed at odds with the history or geography books we were reading at the time.

(2001: 1)

Humanities in general and fiction in particular are often more successful than social sciences in constructing – and deconstructing – social realities. This is partly due to the parochial character of many social sciences disciplines, until the recent revival of interdisciplinary research. In development studies, for instance, post-colonial works on the socio-cultural consequences of colonialism such as Fanon (1952, 1961), Césaire (1955), Memmi (1957), and Said (1978) received no serious attention until the 1990s. Sylvester (1999) argued that development studies and post-colonial studies focused on the same topics, but ignored each other. While development studies sought to understand socio-economic and political dynamics in the developing world, it ignored its Eurocentric colonial heritage. Similarly, post-colonial studies overemphasized issues of identity and representation but neglected economics and politics (Sylvester 1999, Abrahamsen 2003). Today, post-colonial studies inspire much of the research in development studies, and explore traditional development studies topics (see McEwan 2009). This might be a small step towards studying social transformation and adaptation to global capitalism in ways that transcend stereotyped dichotomies and Eurocentric paradigms of modernity.

Just as colonialism’s consequences were manifold with distinct local particularities, so were intellectual reactions to it. Scholars from various disciplines have taken up several themes to dispute and reveal the reductionist character of Western mainstream paradigms and colonial stereotypes. These range from revealing how European history texts had been biased against Africans (e.g. Diop 1954, 1960; Bernal 1987) to the unequal economic exchange imposed on the continent (e.g. Rodney 1972; Amin 1972). In recent debates two deeply intertwined and recurrent themes are the role of African leadership and elites and the decolonization of the mind. Some see African ruling elites as bearers and defenders of modernity, but others as a hindrance to it. As these issues are central to African modernist cultural production, the next section presents and discusses how some African scholars have approached these topics.

Modernity and African Ruling Elites

The decline of the European colonial system after the Second World War represented a period of hope for many African societies. After almost a century of struggle for independence, country after country was ready to fulfill its dream. The struggles varied with context, but the objectives were the same. Similarly, all struggles had symbols and leaders that varied in style, objectives, and ideology. Many of the leaders were more successful in leading armed struggles than in constructing modern functioning societies, whilst others paid with their lives but stayed in the memories of the masses as true to those original dreams. Two features unite these leaders. First, they all aspired to construct modern nations capable of competing with other nations on equal terms. Second, all of them were educated in a Western ethos. Today, some argue that Africa’s post-colonial ruling elites have prolonged the conditions of colonial rule (e.g. Fanon 1952, 1961; Bhabha 2004; Monga 1996; Araeen 2010). Rasheed Araeen refers to these as a ‘surrogate bourgeoisie that takes pride in mimicking Western values in the name of Africa’s modern progress’ (Araeen 2010: 277):

[C]olonialism was not a monolithic regime under which everything was carried out by force of stick or gun. The success of a colonial regime depended not only in its violence but also on liberal means by which it successfully enticed natives to participate in its consolidation and administration. This produced an educated class in Africa, as in other parts of the colonial world, which accepted the modernity of a Western system and, by adopting it, not only took part in the colonial regime but ultimately took over its very administration in the name of postcolonial independence and self-determination.

(2010: 278)

At an early stage of independence African revolutionary thinkers warned that political independence should be seen only as a small step towards a real decolonization, including a decolonization of the mind. Only then does ‘freedom from servitude and the possibility of an autonomous African subject’ arise (Mbembe 2001: 14). One of the most prominent of those early revolutionary voices was that of Amilcar Cabral. Three intertwined ideas recur in his thinking. First, every society should be able to create its own culture, and master the techniques and processes that allow for self-regeneration and self-renewal. Second, without underestimating what can be learned from other cultures, including the former colonizer, progress will come only if African societies can liberate their own productive capacities. Third, due to cultural diversity the struggle for liberation must allow positive values to merge, and diversity and tolerance to thrive (see Jeyifo 2007, Creary 2012). These proposals are by definition modern and in Cabral’s discourse they are justified in the name of development and progress. He refers very seldom to modernity but frequently to liberation, development, and social change. Cabral’s achievements are not just theoretical. He developed strategies for political participation decades before the birth of participatory methods in Western universities. He championed elected village committees that included women, promoted girls’ education, and challenged forced marriages decades before Western engagement with gender issues in Africa (see Cabral 1970, 1979; Fogel 1986). Cabral also insisted that progress should not come at the expense of cultural origins and values. Above all, Cabral’s theory and practice see no contradiction between learning from others while staying close to the sources.

The issue of the decolonization of the mind generates more debate among African scholars today than it did on the eve of independence. An oversimplification might allow us to discern an evolution in this debate, where the object/subject of study is shifting. The first wave of critics (e.g. Fanon, Achebe, Cabral, Diop) emphasized the external factor, noting how colonialism not only occupied the land and resources, but subjugated the minds of Africans with a false history. The second wave shifted the focus towards internal factors – modern African leaders – blaming them for the inability to deliver the promises of modernity. The most recent wave focuses on the ‘ordinary’ African’s responsibility for failures and stagnation. Perhaps the best representative of this genre is Achille Mbembe, who ‘glosses over the fact that the so-called “ordinary people” never really think about themselves as ordinary in the sense of having limited aspirations or baser instincts’ (Zegeye and Vambe 2011: 20). For Mbembe, Africa’s problems are generated by the interaction between ruler and ruled:

In the postcolony, an intimate tyranny links the rulers with the ruled. Just as obscenity is only another aspect of munificence, and vulgarity a normal condition of state power. If subjection appears more intense than it might be, this is because the subjects of the commandment have internalized authoritarian epistemology to the point where they reproduce themselves in all the minor circumstances of daily life.

(qtd. in Zegeye and Vambe 2011: 21)

Mbembe, like other scholars struggling with the issue of representation in the developing world, is trapped in the dilemma of denouncing the shortcomings of colonialist paternalism, and adhering to Western theoretical fallacies. He is prone to generalize about a continent where diversity is, perhaps, the most visible feature. In the Provisional Notes on the Postcolony, Mbembe stresses that ‘the postcolony is chaotically pluralistic, yet it has nonetheless an internal coherence’ (Mbembe 1992: 3). Furthermore, he correctly claims that in ‘order to account for both the mind-set and the effectiveness of post-colonial relations of power, we need to go beyond the binary categories used in standard interpretations of domination […] These oppositions are not helpful, rather, they cloud our understanding of postcolonial relations’ (1992: 3). Nonetheless, Mbembe ultimately fails to articulate an alternative approach for understanding post-colonial Africa.

Summing Up

To explore the meaning of modernity in Africa today, I started with the foundations of European modernity in the nineteenth century. With the rise of colonialism, modern Europe imposed the image of itself as the universal benchmark for rationality, development, and even humanity. Science, technology, and religion were used to ensure the colonial enterprise, notably in development studies, a discipline designed to assist other societies to modernize. The eventual decline of colonialism led to skepticism about the European project of modernity as African thinkers uncovered the biased character of many Western social theories’ representations. And while the post-colonial period did bring broad social progress, that progress is still measured in terms of Western modernity: democracy, economic development, etc. To understand this conundrum, African scholars have pointed in different directions. Some have focused on colonialism’s detrimental effects. Others have blamed post-colonial African leadership’s incapacity to bring about development and democracy. Yet others blame ordinary citizens for tolerating corrupted political systems.

All these analyses might be accurate for specific African contexts, but certainly not for all. As mentioned earlier, one of the most visible features of the continent is its diversity. The very same European modernity had been adopted, adapted, and re-adapted throughout the continent in ways that makes it difficult to ignore Africa’s contribution to global modernities.


1 The positivist line develops from August Comte through Herbert Spencer to Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology.

2 See, e.g. Foucault.

3 See, e.g. Said.

4 This was certainly the case of sociology, political economy, and geography.

5 For more on modern development studies see Escobar, Preston, and Nederveen Pieterse.

6 Late Latin for ‘just now’.

7 For earlier discussion of modernization vs. westernization see Rip.

8 Some argue that gender and environmental issues are features of a later or second modernity (e.g. Beck, et al.).

9 Among the authors associated with the modernization revisionism we can find Joseph Gusfield, Milton Singer, Reinhard Bendix, Lloyd and Suzanne Rudolph, S.N. Eisenstadt, and F.C. Heesterman.

10 Many trace the participatory methods and action research back to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s and John Heron in the late 1960s, but it is the work of Robert Chambers in the 1980s that popularized participatory methods in the field of development studies.

11 See, e.g. Creary, Zegeye and Vambe, Eze, Araeen, Janis, Mbembe ( 2001), Kaphagawani, Monga, and Mudimbe.

Further Reading

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  • Amin, S. (1972) ‘Underdevelopment and dependence in black Africa: origins and contemporary forms’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 10.4 (December): 503–24.

  • Araeen, R. (2010) ‘Modernity, modernism and Africa’s authentic voice’, Third Text, 24.2: 277–86.

  • Beck U. Giddens A. Lash S. (eds) (1994) Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Bendix, R. (1967) ‘Tradition and modernity reconsidered’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9.3 (April): 292–346.

  • Bernal, M. (1987) Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

  • Bhabha, H. (2004) [1994] The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

  • Cabral, A. (1970) Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts, New York: Monthly Review Press.

  • Cabral, A. (1979) Unity and Struggle, London and New York: Monthly Review Press.

  • Césaire, A. (1955) Discours sur le colonialism, Paris: Présence africaine.

  • Creary N.M. (ed.) (2012) African Intellectuals and Decolonization, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

  • Diop, C.A. (1954) Nations nègres et culture, Paris: Éditions Africaines.

  • Diop, C.A. (1960) L’ Afrique noire pré-coloniale: Étude comparée des systèmes politiques et sociaux de l’Europe et de l’Afrique noire, de l’antiquité à la formation des états modernes, Paris: Présence africaine.

  • Escobar, A. (1995) Encountering Development, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eze, C. (2011) Postcolonial Imagination and Moral Representation in African Literature and Culture, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

  • Fanon, F. (1952) Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, Paris: Les Éditions du Seul.

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  • Janis, M. (2008) Africa after Modernism: Transitions in Literature, Media, and Philosophy, London: Routledge.

  • Jeyifo, B. (2007) ‘An African cultural modernity: Achebe, Fanon, Cabral, and the philosophy of decolonization’, Socialism and Democracy, 21.3: 125–41.

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  • Lerner, D. (1958) The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

  • Levy, M.J. (1966) Modernization and the Structure of Societies, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • McEwan, C. (2009) Postcolonialism and Development, London: Routledge.

  • Manzo, K. (1991) ‘Modernist discourse and the crisis of development theory’, Studies in Comparative Development, 26.2: 3–36.

  • Marx, K. (1967) [1867] Capital, vol. 1, New York: International Publishers.

  • Mbembe, A. (1992) ‘Provisional notes on the postcolony’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 62: 3–37.

  • Mbembe, A. (2001) On the Postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Memmi, A. (1957) Portrait du colonisé, précédé du portrait du colonisateur, Paris: Buchet/Chastel.

  • Mitchell T. (ed.) (2000) Questions of Modernity, Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.

  • Monga, C. (1996) The Anthropology of Anger: Civil Society and Democracy in Africa, Boulder, CO, and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

  • Mudimbe, V.Y. (1988) The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, London: James Currey.

  • Nederveen Pieterse, J. (2010) Development Theory, 2nd edn, Los Angeles: SAGE.

  • Preston, P.W. (1996) Development Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Rip, C.M. (1977) ‘Modernization or westernization’, South African Journal of Sociology, 16: 47–53.

  • Rodney, W. (1972) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.

  • Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books.

  • Schraeder, P.J. (2004) African Politics and Society: A Mosaic in Transformation, 2nd edn, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

  • Sjoberg, G. (1964) ‘The rural-urban dimension in preindustrial, transitional, and industrial societies’, in R.E.L. Faris (ed.) Handbook of Modern Sociology, Chicago: Rand McNally.

  • Sylvester, C. (1999) ‘Development studies and postcolonial studies: disparate tales of the “Third World”’, Third World Quarterly, 20.4: 703–21.

  • Woodside, A. (2006) Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Zegeye, A. and Vambe, M. (2011) Close to the Sources: Essays on Contemporary African Culture, Politics and Academy, New York: Routledge.

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Mahmoud, Yahia. Modernism in Africa. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/modernization-development-studies-and-modernity-in-current-african-debates.

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