A review by Carroll Quigley in THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCES,
of a book:
The Human Factor in Changing Africa,
by Melville J. Herskovits.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962
MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS. The Human Factor in Changing Africa. Pp. Iv, 500. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962, $6.95.
The death of Professor Herskovits, after forty years' work as a
pioneer in African studies, makes this book a testament. Sometimes such a work,
culminating a lifetime's devotion to a complex subject, brings its many detailed
problems into focus in terms of a few fundamental principles — not so in this
case. Perhaps Africa is too complex, with fascinations which involved the author
too personally. Certainly complexity and personal involvement have left their
mark on this work, with the consequence that it is vastly informative without
being fully satisfying.
The main value of this volume lies in nine chapters on special
topics, including the land, education, economic change, the intrusive religions,
and the like. These are valuable expositions, although two — on non-African
immigrants and the movement to independence — are rather routine. Each of these
chapters is well fortified with references to the literature and overly
fortified with quotations from other writers.
The real difficulty of the book lies in the first four chapters,
which present a general framework. The problem is obvious: contemporary Africa
reflects the impact on innumerable traditional societies of the terrifying
power, immense wealth, and disruptive ideologies of Western culture. Knowledge
of the traditional societies is basic, because the problem rests on their
response to us. Herskovits saw this clearly, but his immense knowledge of the
subject, with all its complexities and exceptions, did not provide him with a
satisfactory framework for exposition of the problem. Attracted to the
historical approach, he recognized its limitations from our ignorance of
Africa's past. Thus he fell back on an inadequate analytical approach.
Such an approach must reflect the interrelationships between basic
human needs and the ecology of the African environment. Instead, the author's
great knowledge of his specialty — cultural anthropology — hampered his efforts
to organize his subject. He makes a stab at the historical approach, reveals its
inadequacy, and turns to an analytical approach in terms of six "culture areas"
in sub-Saharan Africa. This does little with the African environment and even
less with basic human needs. The "human factor" so prominent in the title is
lost in an almost exclusively institutional approach. Even the minor helps
provided by our present knowledge of African history are generally omitted. For
example, his repeated statement that West Africa is agricultural and East Africa
is pastoral has numerous exceptions such as Kikuyu and Fulani which have
historical explanations, but the general rule is stated unmodified by either the
exception or its possible explanation. Even race and language are largely
omitted because they detract from the institutional approach.
The key to all this appears in Chapter 2 where Herskovits defends
Africa against all the clichés of the last generation: that it was backward,
savage, isolated, lacked initiative. The book as a whole shows that its author
was emotionally involved with a desire to defend African culture and its right
to an independent development even under the powerful impact of alien cultural
intrusions. It is a sensible conclusion to a great career in African studies,
but it is unfortunate that it is not presented in a more convincing framework.
Professor of History
School of Foreign Service
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