Mazrui’s scholarship is vast thematically and theoretically, but above all, challenges positivist conceptions of hegemonic, universal and objective truths. His early work revealed the political, social and cultural function and limitations in established knowledge; later, Mazrui actively challenged and undermined constructed truths.
Can we classify the scholarship of the master-classifier Ali A. Mazrui? Mazrui had a special liking and gift for classifying different concepts, events and processes in original way. And this intellectual fascination of him had occasionally brought him into collision course with some of his colleagues who were less impressed by his colorful typology of particularly such phenomena as African-ness, slavery, racism, miscegenation, terrorism and sexism. Some of these men (and women) saw (and rejected) implicit (and sometimes not so implicit) hierarchy in his classifications. But for the indefatigable Ali Mazrui nothing was unclassifiable, almost everything must be classified. The irony was that his scholarship itself defied classification—until now.
The concept of classification and its place in social inquiry will be clarified toward the end of this essay.
The fertility of Mazrui’s mind has been often commented upon both by his admirers and by his critics. By the time of his death in October 2014, Mazrui had already published nearly 40 books and a large number of essays. It is this vast scholarship, which I would like to make sense of by classifying it on the basis of its shifting thematic trajectories over the past fifty years. To do so, I borrow a schema from the noted Canadian Philosopher of Science, Ian Hacking. Mazrui’s scholarship (Mazruiana, for short) can thus be classified into six overlapping categories or phases: historical, unmasking, ironic, reformist, rebellious and revolutionary.
Historical Mazruiana is explicitly non-evaluative discourse about the object of narration. A good example of this form of Mazrui scholarship is his “Africa Entrapped: Between the Protestant Ethic and the Legacy of Westphalia,” a chapter in a book edited by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson in 1984. In this chapter, Mazrui narrated the historical evolution and the predicaments of the African state in a seemingly detached way. Historical narrations form the bulk of Mazrui’s early writings, especially those whose subject-matters were Africa. The second category of Mazruiana is concerned with refuting a hegemonic idea and undermining its authority by exposing the function it serves. This is unmasking Mazruiana. “Ancient Egypt in African Political Thought” represents this type of Mazruiana. In his quest for unmasking the hidden structures of power relations, Mazrui puts, to borrow a phrase from a colleague, “the allegedly self-evident truth into the limelight of criticism.” I would also classify Mazrui’s “Pretender to Universalism: Western Culture in a Globalizing Age” in the same category.
Thirdly, we have ironic Mazruiana, which not only narrates the historical object, but also suggests that the object would have been different if it had been conceptualized differently. In this vein, Mazrui once asked: “What is Africa?” His elaborate answer included: “…although the scholarship has paid greater attention to the artificiality of the borders of African states, the borders of the continent themselves were not much less artificial.” He then contested the notion that “Yemen, which is separated from the African landmass by a ‘stone’s throw’, was regarded not part of Africa while Madagascar or Mauritius with their respective distance of 250 and 1200 miles from Africa’s coastline qualified as parts of Africa.” Mazrui continued: “How much of this Euro-centrism of geography is reversible?” And his answer was: “Much of the Euro-centrism of contemporary geographical knowledge is beyond repair.” In other words, Mazrui was saying we are stuck with it. Mazrui employed a similar line of reasoning with his characteristic eloquence, but with greater subtlety, when he analyzed the dilemma of African nationalists between “the insult of being unknown” and “the dignity of being unfamiliar,” and their ambivalence about “whether to be pleased that the European explorers “revealed” so much, or to be insulted at the presumption that there had been so much to “reveal”.”
Reformist Mazruiana also perceives the existing state of affairs as a product of social, cultural and political forces, but also states, usually implicitly, that something needs to be done about it. There is then rebellious Mazruiana, which actively maintains that the constructed “reality” is not only undesirable but also unacceptable. Many of Mazrui’s writings in the last decade, especially those dealing with US foreign policy under President George W. Bush, seemed to reflect revolutionary Mazruiana, which represent a move from the level of ideas to that of action in order to actually undermine or demolish the received truth.
In short, much of Mazrui’s scholarship in the first half of his active professional life show historical, unmasking and reformist orientations; and in the second half, increasingly rebellious and even revolutionary tendencies are clearly discernible in it.
Now let me address a theoretical issue that is related to the process of classification itself. Positivism is premised on classification and categorization. It is said (natural) sciences always carry within themselves the project, however remote it may be, of an exhaustive ordering of the world. In the sciences, objects needed to be grouped into different classes before generalizations were made about their behavior or attribute. In the positivist social sciences too, the necessity of classification, even its possibility, is almost taken for granted.
If classification occupies such a central place in the positivist project, and if Mazrui’s scholarship is anti-positivist in its orientation, then how can we resolve the apparent tension between his scholarship and positivist social science? Let me start, first, by stating the three reasons why I say that Mazrui’s scholarship is anti-postivist. Mazrui did not believe that a knowable reality existed out there which was driven by immutable natural laws and mechanisms. He did not believe that inquiry took place through a one-way mirror in which values were prevented from influencing outcomes. And he did not believe that manipulative and experimental method of inquiry was the ultimate path to knowledge. Mazrui’s scholarship was thus anti-positivist, or even post-positivist, body of knowledge.
With regard to the tension between classification and Mazrui’s scholarship, the crucial difference is that positivism employs classification as a tool for explanation, which is ultimately bound up, in turn, with expectability and prediction; Mazrui employed classification as a tool for understanding and intelligibility. The difference between explanation and understanding is significant in this context since each is based on markedly different assumptions. Those who pursue explanation and prediction, the positivists, start from the precept that human behavior is determinate and repetitive, but understanding pledges no such commitment partly out of recognition of the problem of reactivity.
Let us interpret, classify, and critique Mazruana from different perspectives. Only in that way could we contribute to the production of knowledge that helps to release Africa’s creative energies. Amen.
* Seifudein Adem (PhD, Binghamton University) is a colleague of the late Ali Mazrui.
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