SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of West Africa

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2

The first, introductory, term is designed to help you learn: how to pursue your interests, how to find source materials, what have been the major debates in the literature, how to read sources critically, and how to express your evaluation of them. The book review essay at the end of first term assesses how successful this learning has been. The first term curriculum is in three parts: an introduction to the region (its nations and ecology, traditions of writing about it), an exploration of its main historical trends, and long-term cultural realities (ideas of the person and society; of the person and cosmos; of age and gender); an ‘ethnographic survey’ of the main forms of indigenous/pre-colonial society; a provisional account of colonialism and its aftermath, of conversion to ‘world’ religions, and a discussion of ‘modernity’.

With this general context established, the second term is able to explore particular problems via more local case studies without losing sight of the bigger picture. The second term has a predominant focus on contemporary issues: from ethnicity and the post-colonial state, to a wide range of topics relating to development (these vary from year to year but may include: class, gender, youth politics, migration in different forms, corruption, slavery, resource control, trade etc.). A conclusion looks at West Africans in diaspora.

As preparation for the course students are best advised to read a good recent monograph (the review pages of the journal AFRICA give plenty of clues to what might interest you), or to read some West African fiction (for instance, Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri ….. for Nigeria; plenty of others elsewhere), or seek out showings or loans of some West African films.


This course is available to students on degrees in MA Area Studies as a minor only.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

By the end of the course, students:

  • will be able to research independently with a good critical sense of the interrelation between context, problem and argument in writings about West Africa;
  • will have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of the region. 

This grasp of theory, method and problem will enable MA Anthropology students to write their dissertations (10,000 words) on a West African topic should they so wish. Skills in reading and contextualizing works on West Africa are readily transferable to other regional studies.

Method of assessment

The written exam will count for 60%. 2 pieces of coursework will count for 40% (20% each) towards the final mark.

Suggested reading

The nearest thing to a textbook is:

  • Eugene L. Mendonsa 2002 West Africa: an Introduction to its History, Civilization and Contemporary Situation, Carolina Academic Press

    Also see:

  • Carola Lentz 2013 Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa, Indiana University Press
  • Reginald Cline-Cole and Elsbeth Robson 2005 West African Worlds: Paths Through Socio-Economic Change, Livelihoods and Development, Routledge

If you want a reader; this is a useful selection of articles (but not just about West Africa):

  • Roy R. Grinker, Stephen C. Lubkemann, and Christopher B. Steiner (eds) 2012 Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History and Representation, Wiley-Blackwell
  • Stephen Ellis 2011 Season of Rains: Africa in the World, Jacana.

A good and concise history of the recent past (again for Africa as a whole):

  • Frederick Cooper 2002 Africa since 1940: the Past of the Present, Cambridge

And for the more distant past:

  • Richard Reid 2011 A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present, Wiley-Blackwell

Also see:

  • Achille Mbembe 2001 On the Postcolony, London & Berkeley

A journalist’s intelligent and comprehensive tour of end of the millennium Nigeria can be found in:

  • Karl Maier 2000 This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis, Penguin


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules