Looking for Bamako’s future: An ethnographic manifesto

It is probably premature of me, perhaps even somewhat rash, to choose this time to write about my next research project in Bamako. After all, the book manuscript stemming from my current project (on the city’s changing contours of marriage and gender relations) has languished for months in review purgatory. I began fieldwork for that project way back in 2010, a time when Barack Obama was all the rage among Bamakois and Al Qaeda seemed an incredibly remote threat. I have now spent over 20% of my lifespan studying marriage in Bamako, and as eager as I am to turn the page on this project, its publication prospects are hazy.

But, like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,” I have come to the realization that I if I am ever to move on from something, I first have to let it go. The following manifesto is my bid to do that.

While I cannot yet foresee what my research will focus on, I am making the following four-part pledge, and I want you to hold me to it.

1. My research focus will remain on Bamako.

Bamako remains not only Mali’s largest city but one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet. Its unprecedented demographic, economic, and social dynamics call out for further study. As uncertain as it might be for an American to commit to working there in the long term, I will persist in conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Bamako for as long as I am able. I owe it to the Bamakois I’ve gotten to know over the years. And, let’s be honest, at my age it’s not easy to start over someplace else. (Perhaps this is my own personal “sunk cost fallacy.”)

2. My research will be collaborative.

In graduate school I learned to conduct solo ethnographic research; this is a true rite of passage for cultural anthropologists. Apart from a one-year postdoc under the supervision of two senior colleagues, I have never been part of a team of researchers. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the primary trade-off of “lone ethnographer” methodology: while it maximizes flexibility and independence, it also poses unnecessary burdens on the researcher. Working interdependently with other researchers can generate more connections, better insights, and more thorough review of my research while it’s underway. I hope to engage in collaborations across scholarly disciplines and national boundaries. Ongoing projects elsewhere in the region involving anthropologists like Sten Hagberg and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan offer models for such collaborative research.

3. My research will be participatory.

A lot of social science research is “extractive”: when you’re a foreign researcher in a place like Bamako, you go in, gather your data, and leave without much positive impact on the people who agree to share their experiences and ideas with you. After you’ve finished analyzing your findings, you generally don’t present them to people of the community you worked in (most can’t read your publications), and even if you did, they might not see the point of it. Too much of my own past research has conformed to this model.

But there is an alternative approach, called “co-research,” in which researchers work with members of the community where they do their research to determine the problem or question to examine. Instead of the scholar’s customary “technocratic engagement” with the host community, co-research stresses democratic engagement. I don’t know if students are learning about this alternative in anthropology graduate programs these days; I certainly wish that I had learned about it 20 years ago.

4. My research will study pressing problems in the lives of Bamako residents.

This final plank of my manifesto follows from the preceding ones, and relates to the challenge of determining my future research focus. First as a graduate student and then as a tenure-track professor, I have enjoyed considerable freedom to study whatever I wanted. As long as I was able to convince various gatekeepers (my graduate advisors, grant funders) of the significance of my chosen topic, I could study whatever I wanted. It didn’t have to be oriented toward solving problems or informing policy.

Image taken from https://www.keele.ac.uk/media/keeleuniversity/microsites/greenkeele/kusrn/Action%20Research%20for%20Sustainability.pdf

I was most curious about issues like migration and marriage–particularly polygamy in its modern urban form–so that’s what I studied and wrote about. But the Bamakois I knew didn’t often share these priorities. During preliminary fieldwork in 2010, a university student participating in one focus group discussion about marriage challenged me: Weren’t there, he asked pointedly, more important issues to study in Bamako–bad governance, corruption, the dysfunctional education system? I didn’t think about it much at the time, but that young man’s question haunted me a year and a half later when the very problems he named helped bring Mali to the brink of collapse, where it remains today. I began wishing that my research had been more oriented toward problems that people in Bamako cared about.

There’s no shortage of worthwhile issues to study in Mali’s biggest city, from river pollution to water consumption, from waste management to land tenure. The challenge will be to come to a research project through the collaborative, participatory approach sketched out above. This is the challenge I have set for myself in the months and years ahead.

My first step will be to write a version of this post in French and share it with my Malian colleagues. If you’re interested in joining such a collaboration, please reach out to me.

[The cartoon above is taken from a 2015 document entitled “Action Research for Sustainability.”]

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9 Responses to Looking for Bamako’s future: An ethnographic manifesto

  1. Mary Jo Arnoldi says:

    Excellent piece. We all need to commit to collaborative and participatory research in Mali.

  2. Jeff Dorsey says:

    A major issue in Bamako is land-grabbing in an urban context. We’ve had the recent examples of the National Art School (INA) and every other valuable Government parcel and every open space in ACI-2000 handed over to cronies of those in power at bargain-basement prices. More generally, land in villages surrounding Bamako has become increasingly valuable and chefs du village in cahoots with authorities have parceled it up to the detriment of village residents to accommodate more housing for sprawling Bamako. I would be interested in knowing how people in the villages and their relatives in town have responded and how they could be helped to get fair value for their land rights in such villages as they turn into bedroom communities for Bamako’s growing populations. I already did some work on the transformation of one village which I bike to and would be interested in seeing how people respond and how they could be helped to respond better.

  3. Really nice post and sentiments, karamɔgɔ! Looking forward to following along! Ala ka nafa bɔ i ka baara la!

  4. Cecilia Op de Beke says:

    Your blogs have been informative. Whatever you do will be worthwhile.

  5. janetgoldner says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I am intrigued by your interesting new direction. I’d love to discuss it with you. I’ve done a lot of collaborative and participatory projects. And my work has always been activist. As you know I’ve worked in the cultural community and I see myself as part of that community. So I have both insider and outside status. I see myself as a member of families which I assume you do too. My aim has always been to break down barriers and question to what extent problems, ways of doing things, ways of thinking are as different as they seem at first blush.

    I’ll leave it here for now.

    Best, Janet

  6. Hi Bruce … good luck with your participatory search for a research topic. A worthwhile goal! Your description of review purgatory is disheartening. I hope that turns around for you.

  7. Guy Lankester says:

    Hi Bruce, very interesting starting point. For me, your student’s point: “Weren’t there, he asked pointedly, more important issues to study in Bamako–bad governance, corruption, the dysfunctional education system?” hits the nail on the head, not only of the general outside academic approach to research on Mali but on the current international military and UN presence here. I live in bamako and am married to a Malian. Of all Mali’s grave and pressing issues, marriage, the relationship between the sexes and even polygamy to me seem the glue that keeps the society functioning. Indeed, it seems to me that a study on these issues would be less educational for the Malian and more for the outsider to reflect upon their own society. For instance, compare Mali’s divorce rate with any western country. I think by far the greatest tension in Mali today, which arguably was behind last year’s coup d’etat, is a general feeling that the entire international presence here is doing absolutely nothing to address Mali’s very real problems. A relevant recent example to your area of study: MINUSMA recently announced a joint declaration with the Malian police to stop rape as a tool of conflict. Rape is western universities’ gender studies concern, not the most pressing issue in Mali. The current threat to women in my wife’s region – the Dogon country – is not rape, it is murder when groups of men on motorbikes go into villages and spray bullets about, or attack buses on main roads completely void of any military security presence. If anyone is being raped in these attacks, there’s nothing the Malian police or MINUSMA can do about it because they are absent.

    Might I suggest an approach to this subject? It strikes me that one of the most unifying aspects of Malian ethnography, the glue that keeps the communities going and the country united, is shared from the Tamashek in Kidal to the Dogon in Koro to the Peul all over, the Bambara in Bamako and on to Kayes and Sikasso, and between Muslim and Christian and animist traditions, is a common approach to marriage and gender relations. A positive approach to this side of Malian cultural life, rather than the usual starting point that there is something there to be fixed, might also throw up some light on what your student identified as Mali’s more important issues.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Is the divorce rate higher in Mali, or in any Western country? I haven’t seen the statistics. As for the study of marriage, your description sounds a lot like the book I’ve recently written (and am anxiously trying to get published), except that I can only do fieldwork in Bamako these days, and that’s the community that my book focuses on.

  8. Amadou Niang says:

    Bruce, what you are proposing here, as your future research trajectory in Mali, sounds like a plan to me. I truly liked the Malian student’s questioning of the research agenda, not just yours, but in general the research agenda in a country where people are facing so many pressing issues. Yet, I do not think this sense of urgency should derail your drive to study phenomena that are meaningful to you. Some topics may be initially seen as “trivial,” but whatever you study and publish on in Mali is going to be useful ultimately because everything needs to be formally known and documented there. Some Malians who are not familiar with the academic research processes and requirements may not understand the need to study what they consider to be “less important,” however those who are confronted with the lack of documentation on a given topic and the demands of academia to engage in conservations with other scholars who have written on that topic will be appreciative of any related work they may find. As the Malian nascent field of graduate studies expands, students will increasingly need pioneering work on a variety of topics they may not consider now. By the same token, Western academic publication review boards may not necessarily see the need for a manuscript that discusses experiences they have no interest in knowing, but their decisions do not make those manuscripts less interesting or deserving to be known to the public. I encourage you to do the research you want in the Malian context and on topics that excite you. I would personally be happy to collaborate with you on any research pertaining to Mali.

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