SOAS University of London

Africa Section, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

Culture in Africa

Module Code:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Full Year



Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the module the students will be equipped with a good understanding of approaches to the study of culture in Africa. They will have explored in depth, the central themes of orality, performance and identity within the African context and will be able to illustrate these issues with reference to case studies from specific cultural areas of the continent. Students will be introduced to subject areas such as African literature and film in Africa. This, alongside the broad range of cultural areas covered, will assist them in choosing their individual fields of specialization in the subsequent years of their studies.


Total of 22 weeks teaching with 3 hours classroom contact per week (2 hours lecture, 1 hour tutorial)

Scope and syllabus

This course investigates how Africans (on the continent and in its diaspora) and outsiders construct and perceive culture in Africa. Term 1 is dedicated to case studies on forms of religious expression and literary and musical production in a number of African and diaspora settings. In term 2, we investigate different ways of recognizing and framing culture through the lens of different academic fields, and through exploring how different elements of social behaviour can turn into ‘Culture’ and become associated with an imaginary group while at the same time contributing to its creation. We interrogate how such essentialised collective identity can be created by fore- and backgrounding different aspects of social practice and by reframing them as indexes of identity in a dialogue between in- and outsiders, researchers and research participants, through creating contrast, similarity or alterity, being mindful of power dynamics and questioning Eurocentric notions and perceptions.
Africa is a continent hosting huge cultural and linguistic diversity that is tied into the wider spaces of the Atlantic and Indian ocean. Rather than offering an exhaustive canon on culture in Africa that would be an imperial project, the course will equip students with critical tools enabling them to understand how ‘culture’ is perpetually (re)created, (re)presented and (re)appropriated, and how different perspectives create different forms of social practice and authorize some of them to stand for ‘Culture’ and ‘cultures’.

Culture in Africa is a core course for first year African Studies degree students, which may be taken as an “open option” unit by other SOAS first or second year students with the consent of the course tutors. NYU and other Year Abroad students may also take it as an “open option” for Term 1 only, for term two and three or for the whole year, subject to the consent of the course tutors.

The lecturers for this course come from different academic disciplines and regional backgrounds to offer a vast and areally anchored overview of Africa’s diverse cultural landscapes.

The course outline for term 1 

Method of assessment

One three-hour written examination taken in May/June (60%); one essay to be submitted on day 1, term 2 (15%); one essay to be submitted on day 1, term 3 (15%); two presentations 10% (5% each).

Suggested reading

Four monographs are required readings for the course and should be read by all students during the first half of term 1. These set readings for the course reflect the diverse viewpoints from which ‘culture’ can be approached, offering insights on constructions of religion, race, gender and language:

Matory, J. Lorand. 2005. Black Atlantic religion. Tradition, transnationalism, and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Written by an African American anthropologist, this study of the Candomblé describes how diaspora culture is not simply related to a source culture that it ‘preserves’ under violent conditions, but how it creates networks of interaction with what becomes to be seen as the ‘homeland’, and how expression and meaning of the Candomblé are constantly negotiated under the influence of its practitioners on both shores of the Atlantic, and by those who research it.

Mbembe, Achille. 2017. Critique of black reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Originally from Cameroon and now teaching in South Africa and the US, Achille Mbembe has become one of the most influential political philosophers and cultural theorists of the 21st century. In this newly translated book (those of you who read French can try the original, Critique de la raison nègre), he traces notions of blackness and race back to the slave trade and the European enlightenment (hence the nod to Kant in the title) and links them to a humanist vision.

Buchi Emecheta. 1979 (reprint 2008). The joys of motherhood. London: Heinemann

This Bildungsroman by Nigeria-born British novelist Buchi Emecheta is a gripping feminist account of women’s roles as set out in different cultures, contrasting rural and urban configurations and the different conceptualizations of gender and personhood in an Igbo society rapidly changing under British colonialization. It is not only a work of literature but also constitutes a woman’s view on her own society and how it culturally frames women’s roles.

Lüpke, Friederike & Anne Storch. 2013. Repertoires and choices in African languages. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

This co-authored monograph written by two anthropological linguists draws on a broad range of case studies to discuss the role of languages in expressing different aspects of identity and culture, also drawing on the colonial history of African studies and African linguistics, when flexible, multilingual practice became cast in essentialist labels.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules