Research ProjectsThe IARA is currently engaged in two more encompassing research projects. Each involve a team of researchers. A first one focuses on the anthropology of secondary cities, a second one concentrates on borders and borderlands in northern Namibia. You can find out more by following these project links. Additional information is found under the entries below (outlining the doctoral theses currently on their way), and at our staff pages. Be sure to also check out our overview of completed doctoral dissertations.
PhDs in progress
- Mbongeni Ngulube: PhD research proposal : (re)BUILDING ZIMBABWE”; The developmental potential of Social Movements. Promotor: Ann Cassiman
Development, vague as it may be, is nonetheless, a looming and inescapable reality, particularly in the African context. This research seeks to uncover the set of complex social, economic and political interactions in Zimbabwe by probing a single contemporary development discourse, (used as a privileged empirical pathway) carried, and promoted by various State and non State actors. A preliminary study shows that; ‘Rebuilding Zimbabwe’ has become a catch phrase in recent times for many organisations and individuals with any interest in Zimbabwe. Since the political and economic turmoil that gripped Zimbabwe in 2000, various remedies have been sought, suggested and pursued by various actors over the past decade through political, humanitarian and economic engagements. Currently this tempo seems to have slowly tapered toward a non-partisan development agenda under the banner “Rebuilding Zimbabwe”. To this end, (and in conjunction with wider global events) I have identified four main groups that have emerged within a complex, tangled interaction all proclaiming this singular discourse – albeit from different points of view, motivation(s) and through varying remedies. ‘Rebuilding Zimbabwe’ has become a slogan and a type of rallying point for State Actors, Civil Society (mainly the church), Rural Farmers and most recently, Zimbabwe’s Diaspora; all together whose agenda(s) and approach(es) may well be incompatible. However, it is still arguably Zimbabwe’s first potentially inclusive (post-independence) national project. This research will focus on understanding, through this single discourse, the resulting social milieu with a bias towards the rise of what I will call the “New Diaspora Class”; in reference to the gamut of development oriented, Zimbabwean Diaspora Organisations that recently mushroomed, particularly in the United Kingdom and their (potential) effect on Zimbabwe’s development arena through a multi sited ethnographical study in Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom.
- Hannelore Verbrugge, Speculating Life: An anthropological study of women in small-scale gold mining communities in Tanzania. Promotor: Steven Van Wolputte. (Funded by VLIR) Fluctuations in the stock market can be attributed, to a certain degree, to investor sentiment. This ‘speculative trading’, as it is called, has profound consequences both on a global and a local level and lies at the heart of the gold market. As a result of the global financial crisis for example, many countries now rush to increase their gold reserves. But not only nation-states or investor corporations are attracted to the gold trade. Far away from big financial centres such as New York, London or Beijing, millions of men and women are try to eke out a living by digging up the precious metals and minerals. This doctoral research focuses on miner families in small-scale gold mining settlements in Tanzania. It pays specific attention to women’s livelihood strategies, and to the rapidly unfolding new family structures they make part of. Remarkably, though, only scant attention has been paid to women living in mining communities. Often, moreover, the few existing analyses confine themselves to bland platitudes about the role of women in ‘male’ environments often discussed in terms of prostitution. This doctoral thesis, wants to move beyond this stereotype. It examines how in a speculative environment cultural constructs of sexuality and intimacy are being transformed. Situated against a backdrop of global-local interrelations, male-female interrelations, and urban-rural interrelations, it argues for a sociocultural ethnography of altered corporealites rather than one-dimensional interpretations of women’s gold-digging activities. .
- Geertrui Vannoppen Possible urban futures and everyday lives in Ghana: an anthropological analysis of urbanization processes in Sekondi-Takoradi Promotor: Filip De Boeck This PhD research seeks to analyze the impact of the changing economic reality of Sekondi-Takoradi on the urban and peri-urban infrastructure, fabric and dynamics. In 1925 a deep-sea harbor was established in Takoradi, together with the establishment of the railway in 1903 it gave opportunity to the once uninhabited area to develop into a highly planned, cosmopolitan and economically important harbor-city. This research seeks to analyze these spatial legacies and how they still define todays dynamics and networks that make up the urban fabric. Once again the twin-city is finding itself at a transitional time, posing a challenge for urban planners. In 2007 the discovery of large off-shore oil reserves marked the transition of the “twin-city” into “the oil-city”. This new identity is creating a lot of excitement and expectations and is bringing a boom in public and private infrastructural (upgrading) projects as well as informing the vision of an ‘iconic city’ urban planners have. The research seeks to zoom in on this changed identity that is attracting a new set of private investors who are occupying an authoritative position in the planning and management of the city, and how the inhabitants and users of the urban site perceive the changes taking place. The tension field between the practices and realities of everyday lives and the vision of “the oil city” urban planners have will be analyzed through the recordings of life histories and narratives of urban inhabitants, interviews of key-informants and documenting the historical and material transformations of the urban environment and its periphery. .
- Esmeralda Mariano Understanding experiences of reproductive failure in various medical systems in Southern Mozambique Promoter: Prof. Ann Cassiman Exploring reproductive failure in southern Mozambique from the women’s experiences as objects and subjects of structural inequities, the study aims at understanding how they make sense and also muddle through the contradictions of “politics of reproduction”. The ethnographic field experience carried out from 2009 to 2011 reflects the ways how women deal with reproductive afflictions. They are not analyzed from a fixed assumption of universal motherhood or considering woman as passively subordinated to male dominance; on the contrary it is observed women’s agency in negotiating and creating social position and power, overcoming external challenges and resistance over their effort in fulfilling social reproduction. Plural healing practices coexist in the heterogeneous and hybridized context that Mozambican society is today. Traditional healers emerge as the more proximate in treating reproductive disorders, managing psychosocial afflictions addressing expectations in economic achievements and social status. Traditional healing practices do not only configure on the body’s malfunctioning, but also call upon the need of the reestablishment of a moral order, body integrity, encompassing visible, invisible and spiritual components, desires and social relations. Biomedical approach instead, emphasizes the physical body as fixed entity, giving primacy to it. Following therapeutic itineraries allows understanding women’s health decision-making, their reliance and compliance upon the prescriptions of different healing paradigms. It takes us on a journey in a landscape of plural epistemological healing perspectives that are intertwined, contrasted and complemented. It unfolds to an ethical discussion as a sensitive and complex issue. The most critical aspect was conceiving a practical stance addressing reproductive failure and healing the women in need. Moving forward to therapeutic effectiveness of reproductive failure is still elusive. It does not detract from the efforts under ethno-gynecological and bio-gynecological paradigms and healing practices. It does not undervalue either women ability in finding an answer to their quest. Framed in the field of medical anthropology, the research intends to have an academic and institutional outcome. It is designed in the context of the Developmental Program in Reproductive Health and HIV & AIDS, an inter-university collaboration between the University Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique and the Flemish universities, represented by the Inter-University Council, Belgium (VLIR-UOS). The project started in 2008 and its main objectives are academic capacity building and increasing knowledge in reproductive health in Mozambique..
- Guillaume Bumba Kamudiongo
Dancing to the Drums (Ngoma) of the Youth. At the Crossroads of Shifting Cultural Grounds: the Bana Lunda Youth as Agents of Transformation. Promotor: Filip De Boeck.
Dancing to the Drums of Youth From 1991 onwards the D.R. Congo has been experiencing a multidimensional crisis that has polluted the economic, political and social environments. This nationwide failure has turned parents into powerless bodies while children have dropped out from schools. Even those who do finish their schooling usually have a hard time to find a job. In fact, since the government is not capable of responding positively to the basic needs of its population, some of the D.R.C’s youth have been forced to cross the border to look for better living conditions elsewhere. One of these destinations is the risky and dangerous Angolan diamond-rich province of Lunda Norte. It is there that many youngsters hope to find the material means to build a better life and to fulfill their dreams, desires and imaginations. Hence their name: Bana Lunda (children of Lunda). Economically and socially, they have become new bodies of power who invite and force everybody in this border region to dance to the beat of their drums; a ‘dancing space’ where tradition and modernity meet and clash, creating a new societal order in the process. Himself a native of this border area, Guillaume Bumba carried out almost two years of field research (2007-2009) on both sides of the border between Congo and Angola, living with these Bana Lunda and following their movements back and forth. He is currently in the process of writing up his field data..
- Peter Crossman, Ancestrality in contemporary African religion.
This dissertation attempts to offer a reinterpretation of ancestrality, a term used in opposition to the religious definition of “ancestor worship” and defined in the anthropological sense of cult as the complex of beliefs and practices related to presumed genealogical or cultural ancestors. It argues that ancestrality is best understood in ontological and experiential terms as opposed to the heretofore dominant social order approach of structural-functionalism and the psychological-religious approach of evolutionary ethnographers and theologians. The argument is based on a case study of the Shembe movement or Nazirite Church in South Africa, involving extended fieldwork in rural and urban KwaZulu-Natal, and a critical analysis of recent South African ethnographic interpretations of ancestrality. Promotor: Renaat Devisch
- Tom Devriendt, The construction of a new identity among young Afrikaners in the New South Africa. Promotor: Filip De Boeck
One of the biggest problems Post-Apartheid South Africa will have to cope with is the failing of many intentions to close the gaps between the perceived ‘racial’ communities. Many studies show that the majority of the South Africans still dwell in ethnically isolated enclaves. Recent studies concerning social integration, as for example the ones carried out by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, confirm this hypothesis. The result is not exactly encouraging. The logical question seems to be why this is happening. Why do ethnic relationships seem to stagnate? In future research we aim at shedding a light on the side of the white Afrikaner community, more specifically the younger Afrikaner generation.
With the anecdotal data about the dismemberment of Apartheid, a quiet enhancement in the field of ethnic cooperation and a shining rainbow nation in the back of our mind, these questions don’t let themselves being solved easily. Reality looks more grim. Our research, based on anthropological fieldwork, will investigate how the New South Africa neglected to work out in concrete forms many underlying problems concerning the concept of identity and ‘race’. The moral internal and external pressure to put an end to Apartheid seems to have resulted in the overlooking of an elaborated analysis of internal and interracial frictions, despite the existing free public space.
Hypothesis of our research is that a non-racial South Africa still remains an international mirage. Many young white South Africans turn out to be very reluctant when it comes to the particularity of ‘racial’ factors within their society: a majority fears to be accused of re-racializing that very society, not the least inspired by an uncertainty that is based on intra-white rows. They lack a clear spot in the public and urban space to create, for themselves, a new identity, let alone to bridge the ethnic gaps. Promotor: Filip De Boeck.
- Els Hoorelbeke,
Beyond the border: the political ecology of the Kunene frontier, 1850-1950. Promotor: Steven Van Wolputte
Grounded in the Beyond the Border-project, this research probes into the experiences of past life in south-western Angola and north(-west)ern Namibia and how these are remembered and lived through nowadays. Attempting to bring a phenomenological and political ecological stance into historical anthropology, the study examines praise songs, local histories and memories of colonisation as clues to the dynamic and interdependent making of landscape and lifeworld in the Dhimba community in Namibia. Interviews are combined with participant observation so as to situate painful accounts of violence, entertaining songs about heros or cattle, and lengthy magical realistic stories of e.g. the Kuvale war (1940-1941) into the lived complexity of today’s (ever-)changing world and the negotiated character of history. The dialectics of bodily ways of knowing and discursive knowledge, of uncertainty and control all make part of the focus. One specific research question relates to the border, what it is made to mean by different interest groups (locals, representatives of the states) throughout time and what the interplay of those meanings implicates for landscape and lives. Through multi-sited fieldwork, different case studies are met along the way, and different interactions and threads as reached on in interviews are followed (to eg Ovahakaona, Ovahimba, Ovatjavikwa, Ovankumbi, Ovangambwe, Ovadongona, Ovambo, Portuguese, English, German and Afrikaner people). Archival research in Namibia, Angola, Portugal and France plays a complementary methodological role. Promotor: Steven Van Wolputte.
- Julie Poppe, Conservation, management and commodification of nature reserves in Eastern Burkina Faso: an anthropological study of environmental initiatives and perspectives in the periphery of park W. Promotor: Ann Cassiman; co-promotor: S. Hagberg (Uppsala University) (Funded by VLIR)
This doctoral research wants to grasp multidimensional local dynamics at the interfaces of the local, national and global environmental politics, present in the Burkinabé periphery of the park W. Since the late 1990s, the transnational park W has been governed by international environmental institutions in cooperation with the three nation-states at stake (Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger). My anthropological study is specifically interested in the agency of the residents in this complex arena of environmental politics. How do residents interact with each other due to the changing access to natural resources in the periphery of a nature reserve? How do the different actors negotiate their stakes and create room for manoeuvre in this strictly regulated space? Can we conclude that ethnic rivalry or, more generally, violence between different interest groups is on the rise in the periphery of nature reserves, where access to natural resources is limited? Which claims of ethnicity, autochthony or other identity markers are made in the conservation context and why? In short, how do residents flesh out the environmental governance in daily life?
As such, this research wants to contribute to international scientific, policy and public debates on nature conservation and local development in the South, and to the theories of anthropology of the state and environmental anthropology.
- Koen Van Synghel. De architectuurkritische dimensie in de beeldende kunst. Promotor: Filip De Boeck
- Katrijn Asselberg. Promotor:Steven Van Wolputte
The research is located in Mererani, originally a small village in the Maasai Steppe in northern Tanzania that has developed into a bustling mining town after the discovery of the gemstone Tanzanite. Mererani’s mining industry is characterized by a high level of uncertainty, because the miners are dependent on lucky finds and the international market, and because the supply of Tanzanite is expected to run out in one or two decades. Despite these challenges it has attracted many in search for opportunities, which has turned Mererani into a multi-ethnic town where socio-economic conditions are diverse and fluctuating. While the Tanzanite has created networks that reach all over the world, the town and its inhabitants have largely remained in the shadow. This research aims at developing insights in the lives of people inhabiting the mining town through the notions of subjectivity, subjunctivity and social navigation. This will allow to discuss the agency of the inhabitants and their perception of the future, constantly adapted and readjusted to their shifting social and economic conditions. With the research, I hope to contribute to the understanding of the role of smaller towns in social, cultural and economic development in Africa. The doctoral research is supervised by Prof. Steven Van Wolputte.
- Thomas Hendriks: An ethnography of a logging concession in the DRC. Supervisor: Filip De Boeck
Tropical forests constitute a common background for a lot of ethnographical writing in its attempt to analyze the everyday life worlds of people living in tropical forest regions. However, in most cases, the ethnographical detail accorded to so-called ‘forest people’ is not expanded towards other rainforest ‘actors’. Indeed, in the existing anthropological literature, logging companies are often described as the powerful destroyers of ‘local cultures’ and exploiters of natural resources and labor. Nevertheless, this monolithic characterization of logging companies is often made without any thoroughgoing ethnographical research, as anthropologists and other social scientists have been more interested in the sociocultural logics of local people than in the life worlds of supposedly ‘well-known’ and ‘western’ globalized companies.
This PhD research goes beyond this local/global distinction and offers a thick description of everyday life in a logging concession in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a complex Umwelt where globalised capitalism, national state politics, regional history and local modes of production interact. It analyzes the day-to-day activities, discourses, beliefs and hopes of the different people working/living in a logging concession. During this analysis of everyday praxis in the concession, I specifically focus on technologies of power and resistance, knowledge production and heterodox bricolage, and the making of subjectivities and dynamic group culture. As such, this workplace ethnography shows the ‘banality’ of concession life beyond its moralistic or apocalyptic representation in dominant discourse and feeds into ongoing anthropological discussions about globalization, the ‘African’ state and postcolonial knowledge and science. However, while necessary for the everyday ethnographical praxis of this research, the ‘bracketing’ of moral judgment in such a highly unequal field of power reintroduces ethical considerations and methodological consequences which affect the final product of ethnographical writing and the never ending self-criticism on the field and beyond.
- Joana Vasconcelos, «Shedding light on a double invisibility: how girls and young women strive to overcome the youth predicaments in Bissau (Guinea Bissau). A case-study.»
Supervisors: Filip de Boeck (KUL) and Lorenzo I. Bordonaro (ISCTE-IUL)
[bi-diplomeering programme in African Studies (ISCTE-IUL) and in Social and Cultural Anthropology (KUL)]
This project is not on “spectacular youth” (youth in violent conflicts, street children, delinquents, or global/local trendy youth subcultures) but on youth that is spectacular in its own (invisible) way: girls and young women who struggle to make ends meet and to find strategies or tactics for social mobility and changes in the general gender relations framework. Girls and young women seem to be rather absent from both the literature on youth in Africa (which tends to focus more on boys) as well as from gender and women studies in Africa (with a bias towards adult women). Through the case-study of Bissau, the capital of the Western African state of Guinea-Bissau, this project intends to shed light on two elements rendered invisible in the current academic literature on youth in Africa: first, it will offer a picture of youth which contrasts with the generally negative stereotyping of youth in Africa. Secondly, the doctoral research will focus particularly on the strategies that girls and young women conceive and put in place to overcome their specific predicaments.
In this post-conflict country, where people are still living under recurrent political and military instability, the predicaments which have a bearing on youth prospects include the limited availability, quality and relevance of education; scarce employment opportunities for both qualified and unqualified youth; limited opportunities for youth to channel their concerns and be heard by political decision-makers; changing family patterns, disintegration of community structures or contraction of social networks and of the “economy of affection”. What, then, are the strategies that girls and young women conceive of and put in place in order to overcome these youth predicaments? In this exploratory study, youth will be approached according to a threefold analytic framework: 1) as a historical and social construct (which entails understanding how processes of protracted economic decline, rapid urbanisation, social restructuration and reconstitution of the State impact on youth, mainly the female youth); 2) as a relational concept (examining the perceptions of youth by different actors, as well as the mechanisms, strategies and politics of inclusion/exclusion of (female) youth that are put in place and controlled by these actors), and 3) as heterogeneous and proactive social actors (in an attempt to deconstruct the homogeneity of the category of youth, by adding a much needed gendered dimension to the anthropology of youth but also by considering how economic, ethnic, religious or other pertinent social variables and features produce different strategies and assessments of specific predicaments among young women.
- Joshua Awienagua Gariba: sustainable peace and development at large: In search of cultural paths for conflict resolution and peace building in Ghana. Promotor: Filip De Boeck; Co-promotor: Ann Cassiman
This research focuses on the ongoing 100 year old land conflict between the Alavanyo and Nkonya, two ethnic communities of the Volta Region of Ghana. The area covering the disputed land was demarcated in 1913 by a German colonial cartographer, Henry Grunner; and is alleged to contain gold, mercury, and very fertile for agricultural activities. The two communities have been close neighbours for nearly 600 years and their relations are characterised by intermarriage, joking relations, common participation in funerals, festivals and other social activities. This research contends that, in Africa, not least Ghana, land appropriation/misappropriation is a key factor to the understanding of local and state politics of landed property and in as much as land may be seen as a physical entity; it also belongs to the spirit world. Thus, this project seeks to examine the beliefs and practices about land as an economic and religious entity, how it determines ethnic identities and boundaries, autochthon and non-autochthon categories, and how its use/manipulation may/may not lead to conflict. While it does not belittle the influence/power of the security forces (the military and police) and non-governmental organisations in settling current land disputes between the Alavanyo and Nkonya, thee main contention of this research project is that the most sustainable means to lasting peace in the area lies in a cultural pathway. The project seeks to understand how colonial and post-colonial narratives have impacted on local land tenure system(s) and notions of ‘peace’ and ‘development’. Moreover, this project will analyse the impact of religion (traditional and Christian), gender, power relations, and joking relations on the daily praxis of interactive life between the two communities and show how all of these fields may be used to handle differences and enhance peaceful coexistence.