The Bureaucratization of African Societies

Max Weber Foundation Transnational Research Group in Senegal

The Max Weber Foundation funded the transnational research group (TFG) “The Bureaucratisation of African Societies” in Dakar from 2017 to 2021.This was based on a cooperation between the German Historical Institute Paris (GHIP) and the Centre de recherches sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) in Dakar, which already launched a first joint research project at the end of 2015. From 2017 to 2020, Dr Susann Baller served as the academic director of the TFG. In 2021, Dr Amadou Dramé took over the coordination. In total, nine PhD students and seven postdocs from Senegal, Germany, France and other countries in Europe and Africa received fellowships of 2 to 4 years. The TFG was accompanied in strategic issues by a steering committee consisting of representatives of the TFG partner institutions: In addition to GHIP and CREPOS, this included the Point Sud programme (Bamako)/ Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Humboldt University Berlin and the Centre de recherches internationales (CERI) de l’Institut d’études politiques in Paris (Sciences Po).

Building on the experience and networks of the TFG, the GHIP has been one of four German partners of the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) at the University of Ghana in Legon, Accra since 2018. MIASA is funded by the BMBF. The six-year main phase began in September 2020. From 2021 to 2023, the GHIP will provide the MIASA director from the German side with secondment to Accra. In addition, the GHIP organises an annual workshop on “Female Academic Careers in Africa” in Accra and Dakar.

Research profile

The research programme examined the proliferation, appropriation and negotiation of bureaucratic practices in colonial and postcolonial contexts in Africa and the African diaspora at local, national and transnational levels. Bureaucracy refers to the systematic use of norms, rules, standardisations and/or categorisations that aim to produce and legitimise domination. Bureaucracy is often associated solely with the state and specially trained administrative elites. Yet bureaucratisation processes are almost omnipresent and by no means limited to state structures alone. Bureaucratic practices are not only carried out, imposed and/or enacted “from above”, i.e. within state institutions and administrative systems, but also invented, challenged and reformulated “from below” in the everyday life of non-state actors, such as associations, NGOs, churches, trade, cooperatives, etc. (Hibou 2012). The TFG addressed the “cité bureaucratique” (Bayart 2013) in all its political, social, cultural and economic facets. In addition, the dimension of the “middle” (“from the middle”) (Austen 2011) was considered, the perspective of all those who mostly function as “mediators”, as “translators” in the literal and figurative sense.

The TFG focused on bureaucratic practices themselves (compiling statistics and registers, writing reports and correspondence, etc.), the basic components of bureaucratic processes (numbers, paper, filing systems, stamps, etc.), and the sites and spaces of bureaucratic production (the office, the office building, as well as the routes of bureaucratic correspondence). Following Mudimbe’s concept of the “colonial library”, the expert systems on which bureaucratisation is based create a “bureaucratic library” – and its archives. However, similar to the discussion of the “colonial library”, the “bureaucratic library” demands a complex exploration between the lines and beyond what is put on paper. On the one hand, bureaucratic practices constituted and continue to constitute a massive intervention in African societies, an intervention that can be experienced right to the margins of African states (Das and Poole 2004). Secondly, this “bureaucratic library” is not a closed space, but a field of different actors. Local actors translate and transform social objects and ideas according to their context. Bureaucratic practices offered and still offer risks and opportunities at the same time, but also did not encounter an empty field, but intertwined with practices of pre-colonial social organisation.

Academic activities

The TFG fellows were from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, such as history, ethnology, sociology, political science and religious studies. The projects explored different periods (19th-21st centuries) and regions of Africa (including Senegal, Mali, Morocco, Chad, Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Benin). The fellows spent at least half of the year in Dakar, the centre of the project. A series of public lectures, the “jeudis à Dakar”, took place regularly in Dakar from January to June. The TFG also organised seminars, workshops and conferences. From 2017 to 2019, three summer schools were held, each at one of the partner institutions (2017 in Paris, 2018 in Berlin, 2019 in Bamako). The research results of the TFG were published on the project's blog and in an “atelier” of the journal Francia (48) edited by Dr Susann Baller.

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.


Dr Susann Baller
Academic Project Manager 2017–2020