Assumptions and desires on gender in Africa

NAI-researcher Maria Eriksson Baaz is one of the keynote speakers at the Nordic Africa Days in September, a two-day conference that this year will focus on gender and change in Africa. In her talk, Eriksson Baaz will offer critical reflections on how researchers’ theoretical and political positions shape what they see ‒ and do not see ‒ in their research.

You talk is titled “Assumptions and desires on gender in Africa.” Do you mean that researchers have preconceived opinions that shape their research?
I think most scholars – whether the topic is gender or not – subscribe to the idea that knowledge is never neutral or objective. And this has been particularly acknowledged in feminist and gender research, which has long emphasised the need to position oneself as a researcher and be reflexive. Yet I would say that much of that work focuses on how our positioning in terms of colour, class and gender, etc. shapes our work. And that is important, and I will partly address it as well. But the main point I want to make here is that we rarely engage in critical discussions about how our various theoretical and political positions and the desires attached to them shape what we see and do not see in research. That also includes my own work and myself.

Is this something especially true of gender research in Africa?
There are, of course, various positions and my division into more ‘policy oriented/mainstream’ feminist and ‘post-structuralist-inspired’ scholarship is a huge simplification, and we are all to some extent shaped by the dominant ideas of gender and war. Still, I think that the various positions that we take shape our research. And in that regard there is not much difference in relation to research on Africa. The same divisions can be discerned in relation to gender and conflict elsewhere. At the same time, there is something specific, since research on Africa is shaped by various, mostly problematic, assumptions that there is something different about how gender works in Africa. Also, the more post-structuralist position is perhaps more often accused of relying on a particular ‘Western’ theorisation and understanding of gender – something which I will also discuss.

What do you mean by a policy-oriented mainstream research approach, and how is it different from a post-structuralist approach?
In very simple terms, the assumptions and desires embedded in the more policy-oriented mainstream approach can be seen in the frequent equation between gender and women, and in a limited engagement with issues of masculinities. It is also based on a more stable and essentialist notion of men and women, with men being seen as perpetrators and war-makers and women as victims and peacemakers.  Maintaining such distinctions by highlighting women’s roles as both peacemakers and victims is also seen as essential in order to promote women’s interests. And that naturally, as I argue, has consequences for the stories and conclusions reached in such research. It leads, for instance, to difficulties or a certain reluctance to see and recognise men as victims of war and violence. But it also leads to a somewhat uncritical approach to women’s stories of victimhood.

So is the other position truer or more correct then? Is that what you suggest?
No, that is not at all what I suggest. Post-structuralist scholarship ‒ to which I subscribe myself ‒ is limited by our guiding assumptions. In simple terms, such positions are based on an idea that it is the assumed difference between men and women that is problematic and upholds gender inequalities. For instance, the connection between women and victimhood and men as perpetrators is here seen as problematic in that it again always situates men in a position of power. So this kind of research is driven by a wish to problematise such commonly accepted ‘truths’ about gender and war and instead show that women can also be violent and that men are also victims of war. As a result, such research risks, for instance, having an uncritical position in relation to men’s stories of victimhood. I will provide various examples of that from our own research.

So I do not argue that one position is better than the other. My hope is simply that we engage in more self-critical discussion about how our various positions and desires shape the stories we tell ‒ it is these types of discussions I hope to encourage.

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