Critical ethnographies of African media and creative industries

Convenors: Alessandro Jedlowski (University of Liege)

The introduction of new media and telecommunication technologies, coupled with ongoing processes of political and economic liberalization, has opened up new economic possibilities and provoked the emergence of entirely new sectors in the economies of most African countries. The rapid growth of media industries around the continent that resulted from this trends has attracted much scholarly attention over the past few years, and the study of modern forms of what Karin Barber (1987) famously defined as “African popular arts” made the object of several publications in Africa as elsewhere. Simultaneously, in a global context that is marked by the price volatility of raw materials such as oil and copper, media and creative industries, described as the new “African black gold”, have attracted the interest of a large number of both African and non-African players, making the African creative sector the object of unprecedented corporate interests.

The majority of the studies which focused on media and creative industries in Africa have adopted research methodologies drawn from the field of cultural studies and critical political economy, and have thus focused mostly on the analysis of the contents produced and circulated by these industries, or on the analysis of the larger web of political and economic factors influencing them. These studies tended to share a common optimistic assumption: in societies considered (from a western point of view) as generally lacking freedom of expression, the introduction of new technologies and the exponential increase in creative expression would provoke an acceleration in processes of democratic transformation and an increase in the chances for upward social mobility. This optimism has often hidden the complex intertwining between the opportunities for the formulation of critical thinking that this emerging production has created, and the forms of political control and economic marginalization that it has equally helped in consolidating, and has thus participated in obscuring rather than highlighting the complex processes “by which art is produced and meanings conveyed” (Cooper 1987: 102).

As Brian Larkin underscored, “what media are needs to be interrogated and not presumed. The meanings attached to technologies, their technical functions, and the social uses to which they are put are not an inevitable consequence but something worked out over time in the context of considerable cultural debate. And even then, these meanings and uses are often unstable, vulnerable to changing political orders and subject to the contingencies of objects’ physical life” (2008: 3). In this perspective, ethnography acquires a central role for the interpretation of the wide range of social and cultural practices that surrounds media production, circulation and consumption. In fact, media do not only transmit contents, they also “represent cultural ambitions, political machineries, modes of leisure, relations between technology and the body, and, in certain ways, the economy and spirit of an age” (Larkin 2008: 2).

On the ground of these assumptions, this panel invites contributions based on a critical ethnographic approach to the study of media and creative industries in Africa that can offer a more nuanced understanding of the historical, social and cultural processes from which these industries have emerged and within which they operate. We welcome papers on all aspects of media production, distribution and consumption which can participate to the production of a thick description of the ongoing transformation of the creative sector in Africa and further our understanding of its implications for larger political and economic issues affecting the continent.


Barber, Karin. 1987. “Popular arts in Africa” African Studies Review 30.3: 1-78

Cooper, Frederick. 1987. “Who is the Populist?” African Studies Review 30.3: 99-104

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press.


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