Institute for Humanities in Africa

Research themes



HUMA's research themes are deliberately broad and expansive. They are intended to function in two ways simultaneously: on one hand, to constitute a collective intellectual project, which gives coherence and cohesion to the intellectual life of the Institute, and on the other, to create space therein for individual researchers to make their own way into the issues. An architectural metaphor perhaps captures this best: if the Institute is imagined as a building, the research themes give it size and shape, at the same time as creating many rooms which individual researchers can inhabit in their own way.

Each theme encompasses three modes of analysis: theoretical and conceptual; empirical; and ethical. While separable in some respects, these are also closely interconnected, and the research themes create opportunities to explore these linkages too.

The research themes are envisaged as vehicles of interdisciplinary research and engagement - with the intention of discussing and debating what interdisciplinarity might entail.

On being human

If modern histories of racism and colonialism exposed the contradictions at the core of Enlightenment affirmations of a shared human nature, late modern identity politics - associated with violent, sometimes genocidal, assertions of irreducible difference - have also blighted efforts to establish peaceful and mutually respectful modes of living.

This theme aims to contribute to resurgent scholarly interest in questions of what we humans share, even if in recognition of profound differences - as the basis for grappling with the contours of 'a good life'.

To this end, the theme is structured around three key concepts and their obverses: 'human', 'humane' and 'humanist; and obversely 'non-human', 'inhumane' and 'anti-humanist'.

  • Human/non-human:

    The human/non-human frontier is a critical, even foundational, question for most disciplines, in constituting their object of knowledge and appropriate modes of inquiry. This means too, that debates about interdisciplinarity should include efforts to revisit disicplinary genealogies of the human and their points of convergence. Of particular interest here are the prospects for reformulating and revisiting the old 'nature-nurture' debate in the light of the new genetics and its challenge to socially constructivist epistemologies that have dominated the humanities in recent years.

    Particular modes of defining and distinguishing the human have been equally formative of varying regimes of law, culture and power, across space and time. This research theme aims to explore the epistemological, as well as historically contextual and comparative, dimensions and implications of the ways the human has been defined and distinguished from what it is not - be it animal, material or spectral.

    Such questions have global resonance, both in respect of varying national and transnational histories as well as in the emergence of regimes of international law and regulation.

    In the South African case, the concept of a shared humanity is at the very core of South Africa's democratic constitutionalism: written into the constitution, the cornerstone of the doctrine of human rights, and the ethical driver of the project of 'national reconciliation'. It is, however, a surprisingly ill-defined concept - as was the idea of the 'reconciliation' to which the country aspired. This research theme brings legal, philosophical and socio-historical scholars into conversation, about different versions of our humanity, 'reconciliation', the much vaunted notion of 'ubuntu', and the juridico-legal, ethical and political consequences thereof. Such questions are of local and global interest, and engaging them allows for a comparative reflection on South Africa's experience of democratisation and its imprint in more global experiments in humanistic 'reconciliation'.

  • Humane/inhumane

    This conceptual couplet draws attention to historically and geographically varying patterns of violence, cruelty, exploitation etc., and their limits - with a particular interest in South Africa, Africa more widely, India, Latin America and post-soviet Russia. We are as interested in the different experiences of the inhumane as in the conditions which produce and sustain the humane, such as care, empathy, love, as well as the pursuit of dignity and virtue. This includes empirical studies of the relationships, institutions and networks associated with the humane/inhumane -- including the effects of gender relations, family forms and modes of domesticity, religiosity and modes of faith, communal organisations, support groups etc.

  • Humanist/Anti-humanist

    These concepts signal one of the major sites of ethical debate in the contemporary world - with a long history of intellectual and political engagement on the kind of society we want to inhabit. We are interested in a genealogy of humanist thinking and its critiques, with a particular interest in the resonances of these issues in South Africa and the continent at large. Also of interest are concepts of human rights, as well as projects of humanitarianism and the ideological and political interventions associated with them.

Circuits of consumption

If the first research theme grapples broadly and variously with our relationships with others, this research theme focuses on our relationship to 'stuff' - again, theoretically, empirically and ethically.

Most fundamentally, we need to revisit ways in which materiality and the material world - specific things, as well as the planet at large - have been comprehended and apprehended. Modern social orders have treated the material world as inert and plastic, wholly available for human regulation and consumption. What happens then, to our ways of thinking and acting when we attribute elements of agency and potency to the material world, as a sphere beyond wholesale human subjugation?

The human consumption of material stuff has been central to the production of human sociality, culture, inequality and power from their inception, with things invested with historically and geographically specific repertoires of meaning. As the metaphor of circuits suggests, patterns of consumption take transnational forms, as goods and the ideas, desires and ambitions associated with them, travel across the globe. But the ways they arrive in particular destinations are shaped by more national and local considerations. In the attempt to understand these journeys of things and their impact on peoples' everyday lives, politics, identities, we need to theorise the nature of consumption and the factors that shape consumption histories. And this in turn draws on empirical research across a wide range of topics. This includes - inter alia - biographies of ordinary objects (eg cars, shoes, dress, pills, cell phones, computers, magazines - the list is endless); and the many ways in which patterns of consumption link up with histories of gender relations, sexuality, class, status, inequality, violence, corruption, war and domination.

As with the first theme, the geographical focus of this research theme is wide-ranging, although with a particular interest in South Africa and the African continent at large - but in ways that are cognisant of the worldliness of local histories of consumption. So the links with the USA, China and Japan are interesing and important, as well as comparative discussions with other parts of the world - such as India, Brazil and post-Soviet Russia.

In the case of contemporary South Africa, such issues have an obvious salience.

One of the most dramatic features of democratisation in South Africa, as in many other countries struggling to shake off authoritarian pasts, has been the spectacle of consumption - particularly on the part of people newly liberated - closely associated with changing patterns of class and status formation, and new generational styles of identity and self-display. New repertoires of consumption are obviously crucial in determining the post-apartheid polity, economy and modes of sociality - and need to be understood historically, as having roots many decades back. Consumption patterns and lineages have also been profoundly formative in locating South Africa in more global economic, political and cultural fields, often as a marker of worldly aspirations and identifications. Yet South Africa's consumption history is virtually entirely unwritten. This lacuna is connected, in turn, with a significant gap in existing histories of the workings and legacies of race. The apartheid version of race was, like most others, a judgement about peoples' worthiness to consume; the production of racial hierarchies regulated the propensity to own, display and accumulate things. In opening up the study of consumption in South Africa, this programme therefore also deepens the study of race and its articulation with issues of culture, generation and gender, here and elsewhere.

Charting histories of consumption in South Africa in turn adds to efforts to understand new elites and their historical trajectories, including the erstwhile bantustans. Likewise, this research theme opens up questions on meanings and histories of corruption, here and elsewhere.

This research theme also encompasses ethical questions and debates on the place of material things in our lives: as vectors of care, love, dignity and other personal and social goods, as much as tools of power, exploitation, lust, and the distortions of consumerist regimes of value.