IN DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH IN 21ST CENTURY AFRICA
Africa's development in the next millennium
must be research driven. Only socio-cultural and economic investigation
can provide the vital data necessary to arrive at sound, well-informed
policies governing development for all facets of society. Given that
most of Africa remains rural and illiterate, the issue of which language
is to be a medium of research is especially crucial. Verbal communication
is often the only option that trained researchers have to obtain information
and attain their research goals. Indeed, this is the only method through
which scientists and administrators may seek to influence social or
collective behaviour and direct it toward development objectives. This
paper contends, therefore, that development research in Africa has failed
to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the majority,
mainly because development theory and practice have failed to exploit
local languages as media for research and development work. Although,
as a result of colonialism, European languages are part and parcel of
Africa's heritage, these languages remain foreign for the majority of
ordinary people, for whom development is intended.
Language is never simply a neutral instrument
to convey meaning, but rather a culturally subjective system reflecting
peoples' worldview. Language symbolizes the common beliefs and psychological
make-up of the community from which it springs (1). For Africa, the
use of language in social research and policy must consider the mobilization
of human resources for development. No meaningful change can occur without
the full participation of the masses. The importance of speaking to
people in their own languages cannot be over-stressed.
DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE
The major purpose of development research
is to provide fundamental and long-term solutions to social problems.
Research of this nature provides a venue for the discussion of major
issues in socio-economic and political-cultural development. Social
science research should ideally aim at discovering and understanding
such problems. Social development remains a complex phenomenon that
brings into play a multiplicity of factors. These variables are often
quite fluid in nature. However, research becomes a complete waste of
resources if the findings do not reflect the true feelings of the target
population. Unless that happens, results and recommendations contribute
little to a collective understanding of the problems or the policies
envisaged. Such failure in Africa has been attributed to (a) the lack
of communication between researchers and potential beneficiaries of
research; and (b) little public awareness of the various findings and
programmes. Overall dissemination of research findings continues to
be very poor (2). The nature and level of the discourse involved is
frequently cast in complex, exclusive jargon understood only by a tiny
minority of technical and academic elites. The absence of free-flowing
communication between investigators and beneficiaries accounts for the
bottle-to-mouth model of development research in Africa. As a result,
social research over the years has become an essentially academic exercise.
CHANGE IN HUMAN BEHAVIOUR AS A PREREQUISITE
FOR SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
As a result of IMF/World Bank assistance,
the 1980s and 1990s saw the adoption of economic liberalization in Africa.
Before entering an era of liberalisation and market-driven economies,
the population must make a psychological leap from traditionalism into
the 21st century. Only then can a society meaningfully address areas
of immediate concern such as the eradication of poverty, ignorance,
disease and hunger. The process of development entails not simply accelerated
economic growth but also changes in traditional structures, values and
Thus, for markets to work, the crucial
issue becomes how to negotiate desired social and behavioural changes.
What role does the development researcher play in facilitating this
process? As many scholars have stressed, unplanned or uncontrolled change
in the name of modern "development" often results in social
behaviours that counter the intended spirit of development. But social
science research in Africa has tended to neglect the cultural and language
issues of local communities. This "top-down" planning approach
denies popular input and participation in the determination of economic
and social policy (6).
The manner of conducting policy without
local development research also contributes to the isolation and alienation
of the masses from the process of development. Exclusive and highly
academic forums such as scholarly journals, dissertations/theses and
technical ministry reports reach only a small group of intellectual
elites, effectively cutting off the majority. Research results must
flow through more informal and accessible channels of communication
such as extension education, grass-roots conferences, workshops, exhibitions
and demonstrative teaching. Such channels should be utilized when generating
knowledge for broad social consumption. If information and data are
to help achieve the desired development goals, they must be presented
to the people in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.
Therefore, the use of local languages/dialects that draw their idioms
from an accepted cultural landscape is essential.
THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE IN SOCIAL SCIENCE
RESEARCH IN AFRICA
The problem of understanding and effectively
communicating with people in a second language represents a problem
most social science researchers recognize but fail to address. In all
stages of research (from problem identification to the reporting of
findings) the researcher must continually bear in mind the linguistic
and communication complexity at hand. Special attention should be paid
to the choice of language and level of discourse because language as
a system of communicative symbols only receives meaning from culture
and society (7).
Social science researchers can use language
to study the attitudes of various African societies toward change. Through
language the researcher may gain insight into aspects of cultural tolerance,
accommodation of divergent views and the mechanisms of coping with change.
Language and culture play a vital part in shaping individual and collective
behaviour and values. A researcher armed only with a casual level of
local language competence will end up with only a partial understanding
of the social phenomenon or problem under scrutiny. If a researcher
cannot understand the meaning and application of various oral forms
(e.g. idioms, proverbs, popular sayings, tongue-twisters, riddles, myths,
legends, songs and poetry) in a given community, he or she may not fully
understand the politics, economic activities, social organization and
cultural values of that locality. The principal claim is not that only
researchers fully fluent in local languages may engage in research.
Rather, the point is to stress the crucial role of understanding local
language and culture as tools of deepening research understanding that
would be the case if a researcher did not use them.
Although multilingual, Africa possesses
regional languages that have long enabled different far-flung communities
to communicate and do business. These languages spread widely, gradually
becoming culturally widespread and sometimes politically neutral. This
historical process has resulted in their acceptability across and beyond
the boundaries of modern states. Examples of these common languages
are Hausa, Wolof, Kiswahili, Arabic, Amharic and Berber. To a lesser
extent, one may also add Zulu, Shona, Lingala, Ndebele, Xhosa, Tswana
and several others.
In East and Central Africa, Kiswahili
is the lingua franca, having a long written tradition that has been
used as a medium of education at different times in history. Since it
is estimated that only 20% of people in this region speak or understand
English (and even fewer know French), the potential of Kiswahili as
a tool for social communication and development cannot be over-emphasized.
Given the high level of lexical borrowing between Kiswahili and the
languages of this region, as well as the large body of literature available
in the language, social research cannot afford to ignore or overlook
Having mentioned the role local languages
may play in research, we may pay our attention to the national versus
local cultural issues. The importance of "local" as opposed
to "national" loyalties in matters of development should never
escape the serious social science researcher. With the possible exception
of material acquisition and embracing new values through formal education
or Christianity, most Africans still owe their ethnic origins considerable
loyalty and obedience. In effect, many Africans still cling to what
they consider values and attitudes while practising a modicum of "modern"
life. In other cases it has been demonstrated that local "traditions"
are invented from new and old experiences. Social science researchers
must acknowledge this in order to avoid offending research subjects
and to better understand the responses they encounter. Some of these
values and practices a researcher faces have a direct bearing on the
community's attitude toward modern development. To an uninitiated scholar,
such values and practices may only appear as remnants of a distant past,
but the communities concerned often find it necessary to incorporate
them in development. Rather than simply dismissing them, the researcher
needs to investigate the social basis of their origins and persistence.
There is no better place to start such an investigation than with the
various forms of creative language such as the oral genres.
LANGUAGE AND OBJECTIVITY IN DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH
One of the major concerns of social science
research has been to understand human life and society as objectively
as possible. However, since the data derives (directly or indirectly)
from individuals with unique personal qualities, recent thinking on
social science methodology has refuted the claim that such inquiry can
ever be purely objective (8). These individual qualities colour data
whether the inquiry is experimental, survey or evaluative in nature.
Individual differences become clear in the language of responses to
various questions and in observable preferences for certain words, phrases,
sentence structures and idioms. Two levels of thought based on language
may be at play here. Individualised language habits or "idiolects"
form part of the social personality and affect the worldviews expressed
to the researcher. The social science researcher should differentiate
these two epistemological types as they occur in the research discourse
by analyzing meanings on both the linguistic and cultural levels. This
ability directly affects the validity and reliability of the final results
as the researcher attempts to distinguish opinion from fact. The effort
to refine the process of communication and language use in social science
is imperative to understanding the sources of authenticity in any society.
In each community there are institutions and personalities regarded
as the custodians of indigenous values or ways of life. These people
wield untold authority within their community, often influencing language
use and social thought. So by studying the expressive behaviour patterns
of a subject community, social scientists gain an understanding of the
meanings attached to various symbols and how these can reflect power
relations. The objectivity and verifiability obtained by the social
researcher in that manner is vital in formulating development policies.
The keystone of social science research
is observation. However, it is impossible to interpret such observations
without the careful employment of language as a medium of communication.
Utmost attention must be paid to the meaning and application of language
to guard against producing distorted accounts. The language used deserves
as much attention as description of the phenomena under study. Only
then can observation in research reduce the chance of unnecessary errors.
There are many sources for error in social research. For instance, a
keen researcher may discover cases of either over-generalization or
selective observation by a respondent. Although the problem can be addressed
by attempts to refine such results, a more profitable alternative would
be paying closer attention to patterns of the language used to respond
to the researcher. Language analysis helps unearth errors emanating
from misinterpretation of data, misinformation, or the mystification
of cause-and-effect. These aspects are central to the success of social
science research and cannot be taken lightly.
This essay has discussed the importance
of language, culture and communication in social research intended to
promote development. Research is a social enterprise that makes use
of linguistic and cultural tools. Meaning-formation or conceptualization
is a culture-bound process. The objectivity, validity and reliability
of findings depend upon the researcher's ability to operate effectively
within the confines of culture and language. A close relationship exists
between habits of language use and thought processes as well as between
socio-cultural mechanisms and the nature of human language. Therefore,
problems in social research cannot be resolved solely through the use
of non-African languages that currently dominate the literature on African
development. Local languages and/or dialects must also be at the core
of research and development discourse. The end results for African development
might be better than what we have now.
1) Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising
the Mind : The Politics of Language in African Literature. Heinemann:
Nairobi, 1988, 15.
2) G. Eshiwani, Background paper to Report
on Educational Research and Development in Kenya . Nairobi: Bureau of
Educational Research, Kenyatta University, 1981, 2.
3) G. Warren et. al., The Planning of
Change. New York: Hort Rinehert, 1969, 58.
4) M.S. Archer, Culture and Agency : The
Place of Culture in Social Theory. New York : CUP, 1994, 38-39.
5) Frank Blackler (ed.), Social Psychology
and Developing Countries. New York : John Wiley, 1983,8 .
6) Penina M. Mlama, Culture and Development.
Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1991, 8.
7) Barrie Walde (ed.), Language Perspective.
London: Heinemann, 1982, 90.
8) Earl Babbie, The Practice of Social
Research. Belmont: Wardsworth Publishing Company, 1992, 311.
(9) F.A. Hanson, Meaning in Culture. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975, 20-21.
(10) S.H. Irvine and J.T. Sanders, Cultural
Adaptation within Modern Africa. New York: Teachers Press College, 1972,
Style: The following is the suggested format for referencing
Kinge'i K. 1999. Language Development Research in 21st Century Africa
3(3): 3. [online] URL: http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v3/v3i3a3.htm