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Associate Researchers

David William Cohen

In the early 1960s, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I became interested in possible and still undeveloped bridges between the disciplines of anthropology and history. At the time, the challenges of producing new and powerful histories of Africa seemed to offer openings to a productive integration of the disciplines, yet there were significant resistances. As I began to pursue PhD studies (at the University of London), I sought a field of historical research where I might do a little bit of trying-out of methods and orientations of anthropology. Before taking on field research in eastern Uganda (the area of Busoga), I had considered the Adriatic region and southern Morocco. Then, after the PhD, I found myself working on the development of an anthropology and history programme at Johns Hopkins (the Atlantic programme), and I became enchanted by the energy and creativity of students working through research interests within this interdisciplinary nexus, and this pleasure has continued across nearly four decades, most recently in and around the Doctoral Programme in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. My engagement with the unfolding of historical anthropology has grown alongside students' explorations beyond the literatures and programmes of the historical discipline. In their work, these wonderful young scholars have kept these programmes of knowledge production, of interpretation, and of scholarly authority in view, even as they have - in the field and in the archive - focused on specific historical questions. They have foregrounded the complexities of interpretation and representation of Africa's past. Moving beyond the discovery trope, they have recognised African fields already thick with prior work and references. The 'unsettled' state of knowledge is not a cause for despair but rather an opening to examine the ways in which knowledge of Africa has been produced. Within their studies, these young scholars have 'found' and worked with 'African voices', but they have done so not simply to give authenticity to their texts but more so to engage them in terms of the histories and fates of claims to authentic, grounded, and transcendent African accounts. The authority of the scholarship of these former and current students is located as much in the serious regard and the sensitive contextualisation of such prior work and of early 'voices' as in the authority associated with the discovery of new ground, new facts, on the African continent. Here, the 'how it has been done' question is as important as the 'how to do it' question, affirming the values of modesty and humility in addressing vast, complex and tendentious historical questions and historical materials relating to the past of Africa. Their scholarship is also marked by a sensitivity to the pluriversal or multiversal character of knowledge production across the world, more particularly to the frames of authority that are located beyond their own formative institutions, beyond their own discipline, beyond perhaps the academy itself. Lastly, their collective scholarly work, their project, reflects a strong responsibility to the subjects of historical investigation in the present, past, and future. From the mid-1980s, I collaborated with the late Professor E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, on what became a trilogy of books relating to western Kenya and contemporary Kenya. More recently, in retirement from the University of Michigan and as an APC Fellow, I have been doing research and writing on a single text authored by the late economist Barack Obama, Senior, as well as writing and publishing in the field of historical anthropology. I have also returned to a long-deferred project on precolonial Busoga, Uganda, first with a 2010 paper offered to the APC workshop, and currently an essay on historical kinetics, which may be a second piece of a volume of papers on Busoga in the 18th and 19th centuries.
dwcohen@umich.edu