New Political Topographies? No rest for the curious

The contours of economic and political power don’t sit still.

Chambishi Copper Mine Zambia

Chambishi Copper Mine via Zambia Reports

Burgeoning levels of Foreign Direct Investment in sub-Saharan Africa’s  large scale infrastructural works reveal the shifting constellations of actors across the continent. New roads, ports and pipelines are in development from the Guinean coast to the (once) sleepy towns of Mtwara and Bagamoyo in Tanzania.

Rising BRIC powers are particularly identified with such developments, with China alone involved in projects in over 30 African countries, notably Angola, South Sudan, Zambia and the DRC. The proliferation of foreign business and investment within these economic zones has inevitably altered the configuration of power and authority. Some commentators go so far as to deem the Chambishi copper region in Zambia a Chinese ‘enclave’. These dynamics, however, are not solely externally driven nor purely extractive.

Intra-African trade and investment continues to rise and the investment portfolio continues to diversify.[1] Indeed, transboundary flows in Africa are as likely to be found in informal, localized networks of exchange as in the formal economy.

transboundary image cropped

Social media flows with permission from Eric Fischer @enf

The intensified movement of people, resources and ideas around the African continent and beyond has reignited debate and indeed conjecture about what this means for the state. Whilst the state remains pivotal in world politics, a general consensus has settled within relevant disciplines that we are witnessing not the demise of the state, but rather new configurations of power and authority above, below and through it.

The state endures, therefore, but our traditional view of it as the primary container of economic and political activity no longer holds. This is not just true of regions conventionally portrayed as ‘weak’ with regard to state governance but is rather increasingly characteristic of politics in ‘most of the world’ (Chatterjee 2004). As such, whilst the conference title addresses ‘Africa’, it is also about identifying patterns and continuities that resonate beyond the continent.

With this in mind, the spotlight has turned towards mapping and understanding new nexuses, or ‘topographies’, of economic and political power — whether related to the extraction of raw materials, the protection of critical infrastructure, or sites of conflict and/or aid intervention. In such nexuses a wide range of agencies meet, consuming, contesting and even co-producing public authority via formal and informal practices.

The examination of these processes cross-cuts a wide range of disciplines, from economics and business studies to sociology, anthropology and political geography as well as ‘politics’ itself. There is considerable expertise at the University of Edinburgh already  in this burgeoning area of research. Our hope is to bring together fresh insights from these different disciplines from within the university as well as from other research institutes.

Of course, multi-disciplinary research is more easily said than done (by a nose: it’s a tongue-twister). Whilst we will indeed need some methodological spadework to reconcile different approaches, the growing interest in undertaking ‘practice-based’ enquiry will at least lend a handy starting point for conversation.

A practice-focused approach, centered on political/economic hubs and situated in the ‘everyday’ realm of political actors in the broader sense, draws water to varying degrees in most social science disciplines. We are looking at where the political, economic and social meet in everyday life in the 21st century: politics in 3D rather than the planar perspective of traditional IR. What has changed and how? And what conditions the exercise of these new forms of governance and authority?

With this in mind, the conference’s two keynotes speak directly to this theme of the shifting political landscape. Rita Abrahamsen’s extensive work on conflict and security actors in Africa demonstrates not how ‘public’ governance has been rendered irrelevant, but rather reconstituted with new players. Andrew Barry, a political geographer with a background in natural sciences, has ‘interrogated’ at length where the social, material and political meet and what repercussions this has for scientific enquiry more broadly. His most recent book explores the shifting constellation of political actors around the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Such research sets the scene for the conference, welcoming contributions that interrogate new and contested forms of ‘public’ authority, as well as how state and non-state actors legitimate such authority in the changing global landscape.

Speakers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds will develop these themes further in presenting recent empirical research from Africa and beyond. Finn Stepputat will present new research on transboundary Somali trade networks, in line with his ‘Global Political Ethnography’ on how new actors and technologies are changing policy regimes. Jana Hönke with Iván Cuestas Fernandez will present some early findings from their new project on emerging political geographies around large-scale economic infrastructures, particularly mines and ports. On a slightly different theme, looking at the conditions of non-state political authority, I will present on the material, discursive and political components of the legitimacy of NGOs in the increasingly crowded marketplace in Tanzania. Other eminent scholars from Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies and Politics and IR will confirm their contribution on related themes in due course.

So, there should be a little of something in the conference for everyone! (At least those with an interest in material politics in a shifting global order, which is everyone surely?) More information for the conference can be found on the Centre for African website and the New Political Geographies project website. The call for papers closes this Friday (30th January). Registration will open from February with the usual early bird and student concessions so watch this (political) space. We look forward to seeing you there!

Kathy Dodworth

[1] See Ernst & Young’s 2014 report on the changing profile of African FDI.


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