The Bureaucratization of African Societies

Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group in Senegal

The Max Weber Foundation supports a new Transnational Research Group (TRG) in Africa since January 2017. The TRG “Bureaucratization of African Societies”, which developed from a research project by the German Historical Institute  Paris started in 2015, studies bureaucratic practices in the colonial and post-colonial epochs in Africa.

This joint German-French-Senegalese project is a cooperation between the German Historical Institute Paris, the Centre de recherches sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) and the University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar. In addition, there are partnerships with

  • the Forum Transregional Studies in Berlin,
  • the Point Sud programme
  • the Humboldt University Berlin
  • the University Mohammed VI in Rabat and
  • the Centre de recherches internationales in Paris (Sciences Po).

The Transnational Research Group has its main office in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, one of the key economic locations in Africa. A managing body consisting of representatives of the aforementioned partner institutions advises the TRG on strategic issues and projects.

The focus of the work is on the emergence, formation and institutionalization of bureaucratic practices in Africa which developed in the colonial period and are still in use today. The origins of bureaucracy as a form of societal organization can be traced back through more than five centuries. In the course of European expansion, it spread almost globally, thus becoming a characteristic element of both the New and the Modern Era. But what are the specific features that make bureaucracy, which we often perceive as ubiquitous, a concrete form of government? Every commonwealth in which hierarchies and rational norms, but also general professionalization, play a major role, can be seen as a functioning bureaucracy. Moreover, this specific form of government is characterized by the education of an “administration élite” for the apparatus of state.

The Transnational Research Group studies both the local, national and transnational levels on which bureaucracy takes place, and the various spheres within these levels. Bureaucratic practices can be perceived as “top down” and “bottom up” in a society. Using this approach, the state itself and its administrative facilities, for example, are institutions reflecting “top down” government. Associations, churches, non-government organizations and commerce, in contrast, constitute the bureaucratic sphere “bottom up”. Between these two spheres there are “mid-level” players whose task it is to mediate and translate between the two poles. Important elements within this procedure are figures, papers, order systems and stamps, but also the places where bureaucratic processes are produced, above all the office and the paths of correspondence. The relations between, and interweavement of, bureaucratic processes must be worked out and sorted out in order to overcome the structures’ diametrical positions.

The establishment of bureaucracy strengthened socio-political control and the development of nation states in Europe. This set of instruments was transferred to Africa by the former colonial powers. Closely linked with this process was the formation of civic consciousness and hence the states’ own identity. This was a deep intervention into existing African societal structures, aiming to set up a government that could control collectives and smaller communities. In this context the role of the individual was just a subordinate one: the individual often remained a somewhat invisible subject. What is of particular interest for the researchers is how pre-colonial procedures and ways of life interlocked with the principles of bureaucracy and bureaucratization introduced from outside.

To cover the phenomenon of bureaucracy on the African continent in its entirety while at the same time taking regional differentiation and the importance of local players into account, the projects combined in the research group look at different periods (nineteenth to twenty-first centuries) and various regions and countries in Africa (including Senegal, Mali, Morocco, Chad, Ivory Coast, Congo). The project is divided into four individual lines of research dealing with the following key themes:

  • Axis 1: Identity, Identification and Bureaucratization in Sub-Saharan Africa (19 – 21 ct.)
  • Axis 2: The Bureaucratization of the Political
  • Axis 3: The Bureaucratization of the Economy
  • Axis 4: The Bureaucratization of the Social and the Religious

The funding format of the Max Weber Foundation’s Transnational Research Group was set out in 2012. The format aims to create cross-border humanities networks, above all with regions where German institutions have until now been underrepresented. In addition, the Transnational Research Groups are meant to help develop sustainable research infrastructures even beyond the project period. To achieve this, an institute of the Max Weber Foundation can receive financial support in the amount of EUR 500,000 per year for up to five years.

The first Transnational Research Group of the Max Weber Foundation on “Poverty Reduction and Policy for the Poor between State and Private Actors: Education Policy in India since the Nineteenth Century” was established by the German Historical Institute London in New Delhi in 2013.