Western academic research about Africa has been likened to industrial mining: researchers arrive uninvited, extract knowledge from local communities using ‘foreign’ technologies, and disappear back to where they came from, leaving no meaningful benefit for those communities. While the intimate relationship between western knowledge production and (neo-)colonialism is well known, this may create a misleading impression wherein all-powerful western actors can easily exploit agency-less African victims. My experience, over two decades of time spent in Central Africa’s Copperbelt region, has been very different: not only did local societies resist and reshape the exploitation of their mineral resources, land and labour, they also had their own distinct discourses and characterisations of their own history and social reality that they sought to impose on visiting researchers.
The Copperbelt, a region encompassing the bordering mining towns of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been a site of study for western social scientists for nearly a century, as they sought to document a centre of urban ‘modernity’ in a continent otherwise (mis-)understood as one of rural backwardness. As my new book Living for the City: Social History and Knowledge Production in the Central African Copperbelt shows, generations of researchers have documented social, political, economic and cultural change in the Copperbelt, encompassing the rise of a consumer society, new class, gender and ethnic relations, innovative political identities and formations, and exciting new artistic forms that, in linking the local to the global, helped these new societies make sense of their changing realities and to advance claims in relation to it.
These findings were, Living for the City argues, consistently and consciously shaped by local communities in ways that external researchers hardly appreciated. For example, in the mid-1950s, unionised mineworkers in colonial Zambia actively and successfully influenced the findings of Rhodes-Livingstone Institute scholars investigating the ‘adaptability’ of Copperbelt Africans to ‘modern’ urban life, so as to present an image of advancement and respectability that strengthened their claims to citizenship and political independence. In the 21st century, Copperbelt residents experiencing the legacy of decades of mine-based pollution have shaped their engagement with researchers in ways that dovetail with contemporary environmental concerns. Outside the overtly political, Copperbelt residents have expressed their diverse understandings of social change via letters to newspapers and magazines, in the lyrics and notation of popular songs, visual arts and more everyday forms.
Academic research about non-Western societies has tended to treat ‘social history’ and ‘knowledge production’ as separate spheres: the latter is generally understood as an essentially elite, academic and/or top-down process and counterposed to the former, understood as a more or less accurate reflect of changing social reality. However, Copperbelt societies – indeed, all societies – have always made sense of their history and experience by producing meanings and knowledge about it. If we appreciate that knowledge production, in its diverse forms, is the way that communities make sense of and advance claims in relation to social history, that it is social history, then it becomes possible to integrate its own history into that of the region in a way that reveals how social changes and expressed ideas about these changes have developed in a mutually constitutive way.