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Research clusters at HUMA

HUMA’s research is organised around four key clusters. These clusters are the basis for thoroughly interdisciplinary research and debate, along with worldly readings of the distinctive and generic aspects of sociality and politics in contemporary Africa. Interrogating these concepts provides the springboard for more philosophical debates about the prospects for a humanist ethic in these times.

HUMA research clusters

The intention is to foreground avowedly ethical questions about the nature of human dignity and 'the good life', its terms of recognition, the genealogy thereof in Africa, and how this resonates with other sites of ethical debates in other parts of the world.

1. Humanity and its limits

International governance, along with all versions of the democratic project, are predicated on the notion of a shared humanity, as the fundamental cornerstone for the pursuit of justice and freedom. The idea of human rights, which likewise presumes a shared humanity as the basis for the ascription of rights, has been integral to modern ethical projects, and most recently, to the wave of constitution-making in developing countries in transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes.

Humanitarian interventions the world over invoke notions of what is appropriately human and humane. Yet the defining qualities of being human have become the subject of increasingly contentious scrutiny, as much in the wake of new scientific advances as in the midst of post-humanist critiques of universalising categories and values. These debates bear very directly on Africa’s political present and future. The concept of a shared humanity is at the very core of most of Africa’s democratic constitutionalism: written into the constitutions, the cornerstone of doctrines of human rights, and the ethical driver of project of reconciliation and nation-building. It is, however, a surprisingly ill-defined concept – as was the idea of the ‘reconciliation’ to which the country aspired.   

2. Human/Non-human

The human/non-human frontier is a critical, even foundational, question for most disciplines, in constituting their object of knowledge and appropriate modes of inquiry. This means too, that debates about interdisciplinarity and borderless engagements should include efforts to revisit disciplinary genealogies of the human and their points of convergence.

Of particular interest here are the prospects for reformulating and revisiting the old ‘nature-nurture’ debate in the light of new genetics and medical technologies and their challenge to socially constructivist epistemologies that have dominated the humanities in recent years. Particular modes of defining and distinguishing the human have been equally formative of varying regimes of law, culture and power, across space and time.

This research theme explores the epistemological, as well as historically contextual and comparative, dimensions and implications of the ways the human has been defined and distinguished from what it is not – be it animal, material or spectral. Such questions have global resonance, both in respect of varying national and transnational histories as well as in the emergence of regimes of international law and regulation. In the Africans case, the concept of a shared humanity is at the very core of most of Africa’s democratic constitutionalism: written into constitutions, the cornerstone of doctrines of human rights, and the ethical driver of project of nation-building and reconciliation. It is, however, a surprisingly ill-defined concept – as was the idea of the reconciliation and national integration to which many post-independence countries aspired.

This research theme brings legal, philosophical and socio-historical scholars into the conversation, about different versions of our humanity, ‘reconciliation’, the much-vaunted notions of ubuntu, Teranga and Ujama (just to name these), and the juridico-legal, ethical and political consequences thereof. Such questions are of local and global interest, and engaging them allows for a comparative reflection on humanity’s experience of democratisation and its imprint in more global experiments in humanistic reconciliation and conviviality.

3. Humane/Inhumane

This conceptual couplet draws attention to historically and geographically varying patterns of violence, cruelty, exploitation, etc. and their limits. We are as interested in the different experiences of the inhumane as in the conditions which produce and sustain the humane, such as care, empathy, love, as well as the pursuit of dignity and virtue. This includes empirical studies of the relationships, institutions and networks associated with the humane/inhumane – including the effects of gender relations, family forms and modes of domesticity, religiosity and modes of faith, communal organisations, support groups etc.

4. Humanist/Anti-humanist

These concepts signal one of the major sites of ethical debate in the contemporary world – with a long history of intellectual and political engagement on the kind of society we want to inhabit. We are interested in a genealogy of humanist thinking and its critiques, with a particular interest in the resonances of these in globally and in Africa at large. Also of interest are concepts of human rights, as well as projects of humanitarianism and the ideological and political interventions associated with them.

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