Revisiting colonial legacies in knowledge production on customary authority in Central and East Africa

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Renewed attention on customary authority in both scholarship and development interventions renders it pertinent to revisit how contemporary engagement with this form of authority is still informed by colonial legacies. These legacies include: first, the penchant to see customary authority as solely invested in ‘chiefs’, rather than being relational and multifaceted; second, compartmentalized approaches that emphasize chiefs’ role as political authorities, while overlooking ritual, medicinal and spiritual aspects; third, misanalysing the role of female agency in the customary domain; and fourth, drawing on dichotomies that are often heavily inscribed in Western understandings, in particular, the modern versus traditional and state versus non-state divides. A growing body of work, however, has overcome these biases and developed more nuanced understandings of customary authority. Building on this work, this article proposes to approach both the constitution of customary authority as well as knowledge production on this social institution in terms of ‘contested coproduction’. This concept helps focus on the socially constructed boundaries between different categories, and to see customary authority as a contextually shaped product of both structure and agency. It, therefore, advances the project of developing general conceptual tools that can capture the bewildering variety of expressions of customary authority while still enabling comparison.

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