Notes on 'The Internal African Frontier The Making of African Political Culture' in



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Notes on 'The Internal African Frontier - The Making of African Political Culture' in The African Frontier - the Reproduction of Traditional African Societies, edited by Igor Kopytoff

1987 - Bloomington & Indianapolis; Indiana University Press


in this introductory article he says "The aim of this book is to introduce a particular perspective on African societies and African cultural history - the perspective of the 'frontier' from which we may better understand the formation of these societies and the perpetuation of a pan-African political culture" (p.3)
refers to Fredrick Jackson Turner, who says that the 'frontier had a major role in "the shaping of the American political character" - Kopytoff reverses this theory of the frontier as a force for cultural transformation, saying that it may also be "a force for cultural-historical continuity and conservatism" (p.3)
frontier means on the fringes of established societies, it is here that societies are "'constructed' out of the various bits and pieces of existing societies" (p.3)

- thus, societies do not evolve in isolation, but derive characteristics from neighbour "similar and usually more complex societies" (p.3)


Ethnogenesis and the Tribal Model

- discusses 'the tribal model' - the notion of a tribe, which draws its unity from "common descent, common blood and a common formative historical experience" (p.4), and the false notion that the tribe will eventually 'evolve' into a people, then into a nation - criticised as being pejorative and inadequate



- this position fits the "ideological demands much better than historical reality" (p.4)

so, the question remains - "what is the model of ethnic formation - of enthnogenesis - that in fact applies best to Africa" (p.4)


Ethnically Ambiguous Marginal Societies

one which are ambiguous "between tribes and 'normal societies'" often quasi-legitimate, quasi-independent, they are important, yet often receive little academic attention - anthropologists often prefer to study undiluted 'heartlands' over mixed, frontier areas


- notes a process whereby people leaving seettlements and set-up other hamlets, attracting "the ethnic and cultural detritus produced by the routine workings of other societies", these new settlements formed from migrations sometime evolve into new, separate societies

- a fluid model of ethnic identity - "the fformation of most African societies seldom dates back more than a few centuries" (p.7)


The African Frontier Thesis

"Africa has been a "frontier continent" - the stage for many population movements of many kinds and dimensions, ranging from such sub-continental proto-historic dispersions as that of the Bantu or the Nilotes to the local movements preceding the colonial era" (p.7) - more recently, urbanization

- "many, indeed most, African societies were formed around an initial core-group developed under the relatively undramatic conditions of local frontiers" (p.7)
can help to answer the question "why do we find profound similarities among the political cultures of far-flung African societies" (p.8)
The Nature of the African Frontier

"Two features, often absent on other frontiers, characterized this one: (a) the frontier areas were unpoliced by the small metropoles from which the frontiersmen came and (b) in most instances, the frontiersmen were not the advance agents of metropolitan expansion" - i.e. much of Africa remained sparsely populated


note, boundaries and frontiers are not only dynamic and fluid, but they are also subjective
Frontier Dynamics

Turner, in 1893 presented his frontier thesis boldly - "the frontier more or less determined the salient features of the American national character" (p.12) - revised in 1922 to be less deterministic - the basis of an African Frontier Thesis – yet the theory is still criticised for over-generalising


The key concept is “the frontier as an institutional vacuum…where the frontiersmen could literally construct a desirable social order” (p.12)
A clean slate is an opportunity to create institutions closer to the ideal
Several important modifications need to be made to Turner’s theory to make in applicable to an African context: (adapted from p.14)


  1. The frontier factor is permissive rather than determinant; it does not create a type of society and culture but provides instead an institutional vacuum for the unfolding of social processes

  2. Need to consider ‘is the metropole expanding, or does the frontier remain independent?’

  3. Need to consider ‘what is the initial model taken from the metropole?’

  4. The frontier could act as an ideologically conservative force on the metropole, a revitalising influence, if communications continue

- the rest of the article explains in more detail the processes of the frontier- see attached sheet for summaries of these



Conclusion – “small polities arose not out of archaic bands rooted in pre-history but were produced out of the entrails of existing functioning societies” (p.78


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