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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
Georgetown University


Scan of original review


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