CfP: The Ordinary and The Madness: Interdisciplinary perspectives on mental disorders in Africa

This CfP for a special issue of Politique africaine may be of interest to H-Madness subscribers. The full version is available to download in PDF format below.

Special issue coordinated by Gina Aït Mehdi (Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des MondesContemporains, Université libre de Bruxelles) and Romain Tiquet (Department of history, University of Geneva).

The starting point of this issue on madness in Africa is based on a first observation. The literature on this topic appears fragmented and dispersed. On one hand, this theme of research remains in many ways untapped and relatively isolated from some contemporary approaches produced outside the continent. On the other hand, the existing literature is very uneven across geographical areas and disciplines. We therefore call on researchers from the human and social sciences to participate in the building of an interdisciplinary dialogue on the issue of mental disorders on the continent.

Epistemological definitions of madness are polymorphic according to the disciplines and theoretical approaches used (Lovell et al., 2013). From then on, the process of labeling (Becker, 1963), of qualifying madness is at the heart of this issue. We base the core of this special issue on a definition that considers madness as a category on which multiple beliefs, representations and knowledge are projected. By considering the definitions and assignments of madness as moving and not fixed, it is possible to explore the diversity of practices, representations and beliefs through which madness is apprehended, supressed, treated, experienced, etc. The question of the labelling of madness also allows to interrogate until which point the madness of an individual is considered tolerable by different authorities (politics, family, etc.), and when – but also where – it becomes too transgressive or even dangerous (from a physical, social, moral or political point of view).

The theme of madness has been approached in a different way regarding periods, disciplines and spaces. During the colonial period, from which the first works on the subject emerged, research on madness was articulated around a differentialist ideology, documented by anthropology and validated in clinical studies, where “the primitive could appear as an exemplary image of mental alienation” (Mouralis, 1993: 47). This corpus of heterogeneous texts, most of which were written by colonial alienists – see Collignon (2006) and Akyeampong (2015) for a detailed bibliography – established itself as one of the many instruments of colonial domination. It has subsequently constituted a “witness knowledge” of the political and scientific processes that contributed to the construction of the identity of the colonized in a monolithic and racialist perspective (Porot, 1926; Carothers, 1953) – of which Frantz Fanon was one of the precursors to criticism (Fanon, 1961). The theme of mental disorder also constituted a fertile field of research after the independences with the publication of numerous works at the crossroads of studies in psychiatry and social sciences.

Influenced by antipsychiatry and ethnopsychiatry, several clinicians – in particular Thomas Lambo (1961), a Nigerian psychiatrist, and Henri Collomb, a French psychiatrist working in the psychiatric ward of the Fann Hospital in Dakar in the late 1950s – paved the way for reflections on “African psychiatry” (Kilroy-Marac, 2019).

The historiography available on madness in Africa has mainly focused on the study of the construction of psychiatric knowledge under colonial rule. As such, English-language literature is a pioneer in this field of research, due to the relatively early emergence of psychiatric assistance in British colonial territories, as soon as the conquest phase was over. Colonial psychiatry in Africa was then studied as one of several tools of social control for the “mise en valeur” of the colonized world (Vaughan, 1983; McCulloch, 1995; Oyebode, 2006). This “constructionist” approach follows a characteristic feature of historiography on health in colonial situations that highlights how medicine has helped to shape the “African” as an object of knowledge and to develop classification systems and practices intrinsic to the functioning of colonial power (Vaughan, 1991; Marks, 1997, Lachenal, 2014).

A number of historical works have been published in recent years on psychiatry in French-speaking Africa, but most often confined to North Africa and more particularly Algeria (Keller, 2007; Studer, 2015). The history of colonial psychiatry in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa is mainly limited to the pioneering work of René Collignon (1983; 1999; 2002) or a few articles in the journal Psychopathologie Africaine (see for instance Collomb, 1975; Osouf, 1980). Research on other African areas is lagging behind, particularly the former territories under Portuguese, Belgian or German domination (Akyeampong, 2015).

More recently, other authors – psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists – have also given a prominent place to research on madness based on the study of “African cultures”, working in particular to (re)design clinical devices and to question the articulation between different types of care (Beneduce and Koumare, 1993; Corin, Uchoa, Bibeau, 1993; Bondaz and Jeannet, 2013). This research gave rise to work on (mental) illness, so-called magical-religious beliefs, local therapeutic care, nosological frameworks of (mental) illness, but remained nevertheless driven by questions and approaches in which the centrality of the “African culture” could sometimes constitute an epistemological limitation.

Finally, a series of studies at the crossroads of sociology, anthropology and psychiatry have also explored the theme of madness in relation to global health issues. Following older clinical studies, the uses of psychiatric medical categories are studied in comparison with the field of contemporary African psychiatry (Read, 2012). Some other authors question patients’ experiences through plural interpretations of mental symptoms (see for example Droney, 2016). Similarly, mental health is questioned through contemporary issues of migration or war (child soldiers, trauma, etc.) (Murphy, 2015) or even wandering (Diagne, 2016).


In this special issue, we consider madness as “a tragedy of the ordinary” (Lovell et al., 2013: 25). We call on contributors to reflect from their field(s) of research and the methodology specific to their discipline(s) on the notions of everyday life, the ordinary or the common. In this respect, we follow Georges Perec’s call, which has underlined the importance of analysing “what happens every day and repeat every day, the banal, the everyday, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the usual” (Pérec, 1989: 11). This look at the ordinary thus makes it possible to interrogate the daily and multiple forms of government and experiences of madness on the African continent.


30 April 2019: deadline for submission of proposals (1 page summary, in French or English) to Gina Ait Mehdi and Romain Tiquet

05 May 2019: notification of acceptance to the author.

10 September 2019: deadline for sending full articles (50,000 characters, spaces and footnotes included) to the editorial committee of the journal (see the information for contributors:

The special issue will be published in Winter 2019/2020

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