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Research Clusters

PAS will focus on three central themes of research this year: Environment, Human Security and Development in Africa; Health and Healing; and Avant-Garde Africa. We will reserve one session of our weekly seminar (Wednesdays at noon) for each research cluster to meet, brainstorm around shared interests and discuss activities to foster collaborative work and exchange.

Environment, Human Security, and Development in Africa

Bringing together scholars from Feinberg, Kellogg, Medill, SESP, the Law School, and WCAS, we will begin conversations across Northwestern about the centrality of environmental concerns and sustainability; human security related to health and well-being, particularly surrounding agricultural production/water/nutrition as well as political security, conflict, and human rights; technology adoption and social networks; risk and financial markets; and gender and household decision making. For more information, please contact Chris Udry (economics, Global Poverty Research Lab).


Health and Healing

Addressing questions relating to life and death, illness and disease, and therapeutic pluralism, these efforts will bridge expertise in history, anthropology, and sociology and also forge strategic links with Northwestern’s global health and medical humanities programs. Topics will include continuities and ruptures in forms of African therapeutics and traditional medicine, changing disease environments and newly emerging diseases, reproductive politics, pharmaceuticals and intellectual property, and surgery and biomedical care in resource poor settings. Contact Adia Benton (anthropology), cluster leader, for more information, or join the listserv Health and Healing.

Avant-Garde Africa

Enhancing PAS’s role as an international hub for African writing, visual arts, and performance by drawing attention to emergent literary and artistic trends in Africa and its Diasporas.  The humanities broadly conceived offer exciting responses to problems and opportunities on the continent and foreground new issues that preoccupy African artists (e.g. human rights, migration, environmental justice, gender and sexuality).  Join the Avant-Garde Africa listserv for updates on events and meet-ups, or contact D. Soyini Madison (performance studies) to get involved.


Past Working Groups


Gender and Performance Working Group

Recent legislation criminalizing queer and gender nonconforming people in various parts of Africa has reinvigorated discussion about the place of the queer African in African studies as well as various modes of producing knowledge about the queer African community. Several scholars have directed their attention to the nuances of neoliberal and religious conservative parties in Europe and the U.S. who contribute to the homophobic agenda in various African states. In addition, they have demonstrated how certain European/American NGOs who fund LGBTQIA movements in African countries usually set an agenda that requires those movements to cohere with the NGOs’ terms and conditions. As a way to publicly discuss these complexities, we will run a lecture series and a discussion group that provides a rigorous platform for contemporary scholars from various disciplines who work on queer African studies to critically assess the state of queer African studies, its various methodologies and modes of knowledge production

For more information, please contact Delali Kumavie, English or Mlondi Zondi, Performance Studies.

Access to Health and Human Rights in Mali Working Group

The Northwestern Access to Health Project (ATH) is an interdisciplinary global community health project that brings law, public health, medical, and business faculty and graduate students together with communities, health advocates, government and university institutions, and human rights organizations in other countries. Working in Nigeria with local partners Justice & Empowerment Initiative Nigeria (JEI), and the Nigerian Slum / Informal Settlement Federation (Federation), ATH has designed a first-of-its kind teacher training curriculum for community-based health educators living in informal settlements. Still in the iterative stages, this project includes strategies for adult education, mobilization, and community-motivated behavior change models. By developing these training tools to teach community-based peer educators, the project ensures that information is community owned, readily accessible in target communities, and sustainable. Simultaneously, the project will map health center and hospital access for partner communities, using information on services and hours provided by the health centers to ensure accountability and use. To facilitate these steps, ATH will support a Federation Health Advocacy Committee – made of stakeholders and leaders from across the over 76 partner communities - to build lasting relationships with the Lagos State Ministry of Health and other government interests. 

For more information, please contact Professor Juliet Sorensen, Northwestern Law School.

Nollywood Working Group

Funded by a PAS Working Group Award for AY 2015-16, the Nollywood Working Group (NWG) has fostered a multidisciplinary conversation about Nigerian filmmaking in all its diversity—looking at where it came from, where it is going, and its influence around the world. This working group builds on interest among PAS faculty, staff, and students in exploring emergent artistic and digital trends in Africa and promoting arts in African languages. Through a series of lectures and discussion sessions, this group will explore film production in Nigeria. The industry rests on an amalgam of lively indigenous cultural traditions, market literature, traveling theatre, and national and state television. Initially an outgrowth of the Yoruba traveling theater, Nollywood films are now produced in English, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Pidgin and other local languages. The Nollywood industry is self-funded, market-driven, and responsive to its audience. It has spawned a celebrity culture as well as a number of international websites. Not only popular throughout Nigeria, Nollywood films have found enthusiastic audiences throughout Africa and the diaspora. Genres include horror, comedy, urban legend, mythic parable, romance, witchcraft, Christian morality tale, historical epic. While some promote Christian or Islamic ideas, in general they deal with moral dilemmas facing modern Africans, telling familiar stories with familiar characters in recognizable situations. They touch popular sensitivities to local aspirations, values, worldviews, and cosmologies. Their content is unapologetically African.

For more information, please contact LaRay Denzer, Program of African Studies.

Oral History in Africa Working Group

This working group will conduct interviews with artists from South Africa and Zimbabwe whose work deals with both countries' shifts to independence and the developments in their relationship throughout and after that process.  We hope to contribute to the many conversations happening about the role of art in resisting colonialism in this region and the less examined role of art in mediating the complex relationship between Zimbabwe and South Africa.  We will return to Northwestern to stage a week long installation compiled of the interviews and selections/recreations of each artist's work, expanding the Oral History and Performance as Social Action archive at the Program of African Studies.

Democracy in Africa Working Group

An interdisciplinary working group of faculty and students will be created to discuss and conduct research on democracy in Africa. A community of scholars will be developed at Northwestern in parallel with an online community emerging via the Africa Demos Forum (ADF).  Members of the group will meet on a regular basis to reflect on advances and setbacks to democracy in Africa, comparing experiences in the continent with those in other world regions. The working group can evolve, in stages, to become a Colloquium on Democracy in Africa which can serve the following purposes: provide guidance to students, graduate and undergraduate, before and after field research in Africa; connect faculty and students to an international network of democracy scholars and analysts; promote student research projects using the Herskovits Library and other resources; establish links with research and policy institutes for faculty and students; and create opportunities, via the ADF, for faculty and students to publish essays and commentaries for a global readership.