Interview: Celine Jacquemin on African Studies in IR

In this episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to Celine Jacquemin, Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations at St. Mary´s University, San Antonio, Texas.

Listen in, as Jacquemin gives insight in her understanding of African Studies, explains how one should (not) talk about African countries, and explores the future of the field. 

Find a short transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Iroulo: Let’s start with the basics. What is African Studies?

Jacquemin:  African Studies can be a lot of different things, depending on where it is housed in different universities. In some places it may be more in the humanities, in others a little more in the social sciences. A lot of universities actually have components of African Studies inside of their international and global studies programs. For example, for us at St. Mary’s University we have some of the components inside of our peace and security tracks in political science.

Iroulo: What do you feel is the place of African Studies in the universities right now?

Jacquemin: Well, certainly some of the recent comments by the President of the United States have opened a conversation about Africa being a continent with many countries, a renewed interest from students, and a realization of much more diversity. We are seeing a real great interest from students in understanding places that often get put aside because students have this feeling that a lot of their need, requests and interests for their future have been put aside. I think there is some parallel between some of what they are seeing done to other countries in the media right now or by politicians, and some of the ways that they are being told they are “not ready”. That is something that is often told about African countries, that they are not ready for democracy, and the students are being told they are not ready to be democratically active. So those parallels are not being lost on the students.

Iroulo: This makes me wonder, how do you as a teacher tackle that challenge when you have Donald Trump saying Africa is a “shithole”?

Jacquemin: Well, a couple of things: As a constructivist, I try to make sure not to reuse certain terms because every time we utter them I think it gives them power. And it reproduces the narrative. I am very wary of that because I am the sole Africanist on our campus and because of my background. I am actually originally born and raised in France and I study the African continent. So I am very aware of the colonial authoritarian kinds of lines and the importance of shifting the discourse. Actually, for the conversations I try to ask the students how it makes them feel and how it makes them feel about their knowledge. Would they be able to refute such a claim or do they have knowledge that has been reinforced in thinking that that claim is correct? And so we actually get deeper and then leave the statement where it was and get into the understanding that knowledge is grounded in a lot of our experience. That really opens up a great area for the students to realize that they can completely shift the way they understand and see the world with more knowledge. We have a lot of students interested in doing study-abroad – very non-traditional study abroad – which at our university we have the ability to assist our students with. That is really opening up new horizons for them.

Iroulo: Knowing that you teach a course on international theory, what is the place of African Studies in International Relations?

Jacquemin: This is really a great question because international relations theory is so clearly centered on the West. I mean it starts very Eurocentric. You have Realists telling us their roots are grounded in Greek and Italian theorists, and who see a world very clearly mapped upon the concept of nation-state as it started in Europe at the time that they were starting to colonize the world. So there are two ways to approach the implications of some of the theories. One is I tell my students we need to know the theories that were taught to the people who are currently controlling the world because if you do not understand how a realist sees the world and why they see the world the way they do, then you have an issue. Even if you look at liberalism, which is kind of a flip-image of realism in some ways with a lot of things in it that they see as missing, trying to make it better, more open and seeing more of the world; but it will focus, for example, on civil and political rights and not on a lot of economic community rights that are so central to African culture. It is really important to ground the students first in what  the theories themselves are, where they start, why they see the world a certain way and why it is okay for them to see the world this way and to make sense of them. Usually students will say “well, I do not like this theory, it does not make sense to me”, all because you are able to see parts of the world that do not fit the theory. Why are you caring about those parts of the world, why is this something that makes sense to you? Certainly, that is something that then we open up with the students. What we do is, when we arrive into constructivism, which opens up theory a lot more, we are able to bring in a lot of questions about identity, norms, about, the way that we as humans construct the world, construct the rules: We see how indeed it has got to be humans who will change those. Then, we are looking at agency on the continent, what different constituencies on the African continent in different countries and different indigenous groups on the continent are.

Iroulo: What do you think is the future of African Studies?

Jacquemin: You know, this is a tough question for me because if I were at a university that is much larger, I might say “gosh I really would love to push for, a larger department, an acknowledgement of just that on our campus”. But I also, over time, have realized the beauty of having the smaller context, of a smaller university where we all really try to help, the departments work with each other. We have our international and global studies program that is truly interdisciplinary and that brings so much opportunity. Because I think African Studies is becoming really important again, Routledge is working on an entire series of African Studies Encyclopaedias. There is a clear need to focus conversations and to provide that space, that academic space. I think it is both because African countries are starting to show some great progress at the same time that they are continuing to see challenges. But we have also seen those challenges in the rest of the world. I think there is a clear renewed interest in African Studies, both linked to some of the African American experience as well as linked to what is going on on the African continent and what some of the ways are that we can learn. This past month in March, there was a summit held in Kigali, where the 56 African countries were coming together, talking about creating one market. They have already been pretty successful at creating the East African Community, where there are really open borders – despite very different situations in the countries, within the countries in the Eastern part of Africa. So, African countries are making it clear that they are becoming a growing power and they are interested in doing the kind of things that reinforce and secure some of their power internationally. It may be just wishful thinking but I certainly see a very important place of African Studies in the future.

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