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The (im)possibility of Southern theory: the opportunities and challenges of cultural brokerage in co-producing knowledge about China-Africa relations

Mohan, Giles; Lampert, Ben; Tan-Mullins, May and Atta-Ankomah, Richmond (2019). The (im)possibility of Southern theory: the opportunities and challenges of cultural brokerage in co-producing knowledge about China-Africa relations. In: Mawdsley, Emma; Fourie, Elsje and Nauta, Wiebe eds. Researching South-South Development Cooperation: The Politics of Knowledge Production. Rethinking Development. Routledge, (In Press).

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The last decade has seen the expansion of an academic field and arena of often heated policy debate concerning ‘China-Africa’ relations (Alden and Large 2019). In the wider context of China’s intensified international engagements, this field of inquiry responds to the significantly increased involvement of a range of Chinese actors, including government agencies, state-owned enterprises, private companies and migrant entrepreneurs, in countries across Africa since the turn of the Millennium. China’s expanded engagements with African countries are rooted in a complex of factors including Chinese interests in natural resources and new markets for low-cost manufactured goods as well as African desires for alternative sources of development finance and an escape from ‘Western’ conditionalities (Alden 2007; Cheru and Obi 2010; Brautigam 2011; Power et al 2012; Mohan et al 2014). Consequently, ‘China-Africa’ relations, especially in terms of diplomacy, aid, trade, investment and, more recently, migration, have come to been seen as a prime arena for exploring the nature and potentials of ‘South-South’ cooperation (Mohan 2016) in what is heralded as an increasingly multi-polar world.

The rise of China and the expanded set of international relations this has brought into being has not only enabled the examination of alternative modes of international cooperation, but also presents new methodological opportunities and challenges. While China and many of the countries it increasingly engages, especially in Africa, tend to be framed as ‘Southern’, much of the theorisation of the relations between them has come from the global North, reinforcing long-standing North-South asymmetries in the production of what tends to be internationally most recognised as critical scholarship. This chapter reflects on some of our experiences of conducting research on ‘China-Africa’ relations while based in the UK and yet seeking to move beyond the entrenched international asymmetries of intellectual endeavour.

As a tripartite set of British, Ghanaian and Singaporean academic colleagues who have worked together to different degrees and in various configurations over a series of ‘China-Africa’ research projects, we discuss some of the challenges we have faced in putting together North-South research teams in which the production of theory about ‘China-Africa’ relations is a truly shared endeavour. We trace these challenges in part to what we tentatively suggest are the competing imperatives of the different institutional contexts in which we and our ‘Southern’ partners operate. Drawing on work on ‘Southern theory’, we highlight possibilities for negotiating these challenges, highlighting ideas of inter-cultural connection and mixing. This brings us to a discussion of ‘cultural brokerage’ as a potential means of creating connection in order to move closer to the meaningful co-production of theory with ‘Southern’ partners. Here we draw on our experience from one of our projects in which we worked with a ‘Southern’ partner who was able to operate as a cultural broker between British, African and Chinese contexts. Through this process, this cultural broker was able to decisively shape the theoretical claims we went on to make, although not necessarily in a way that overcame the established international asymmetries of academic knowledge production.

Item Type: Book Section
ISBN: 1-138-31068-9, 978-1-138-31068-1
Project Funding Details:
Funded Project NameProject IDFunding Body
The politics of Chinese engagement with African 'development': Case studies of Angola and GhanaES/E018408/1ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council)
A comparative analysis of Chinese migrant integration in West Africa (XD-08-075-GM)ES/G035318/1ESRC Economic and Social Research Council
China and Africa Research ProgrammeES/M004066/1ESRC Economic and Social Research Council
Keywords: China-Africa relations; South-South relations; cultural brokerage; 'Southern' theory; research methodology; Ghana; Nigeria; Sudan
Academic Unit/School: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) > Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Development, Geography > Development
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) > Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Development, Geography
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)
Research Group: International Development & Inclusive Innovation
Innovation, Knowledge & Development research centre (IKD)
Related URLs:
Item ID: 59562
Depositing User: Ben Lampert
Date Deposited: 08 Mar 2019 16:24
Last Modified: 07 Apr 2019 04:28
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