Strategies, Survival, and the Social History of Economic Depressions in 20th-Century Africa and the Indian Ocean World

AHA Session 16
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 1
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)
Elisabeth M. McMahon, Tulane University
James L. Giblin, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

Natural disasters. Economic collapse. Systematic exploitation. Human beings as individuals and societies face seasons of trouble and stress all too often. Historians of Africa and the Indian Ocean World have made clear the ways both colonial capitalism and the world economy that emerged through decolonization forced workers, traders and rural producers into precarious situations. At the same time, social historians have demonstrated how these very marginalized populations created strategies and built institutions to mitigate marginality and even in some cases thrive in difficult circumstances. The dynamic interplay between economic exploitation and subaltern strategies of survival and thriving has become a central framework of understanding in Africanist historiography in particular. This panel emerges out of this literature, but seeks to add nuance, texture and to historicize it across a variety of time periods, places and political economies. In particular, we are interested in those moments where normative economic situations are plunged into a rapid decline, and older forms of survival and thriving have to be remade to match new circumstances.

Drawing from a variety of geographic and temporal case studies, we argue as a panel that questions of human flourishing need to attend to creative and informal methods of mobilization as well as more formal systems of aid. From family structures to religious ideologies, we focus our attention on social, cultural, and organizational strategies for maintaining meaningful lives and relationships when the very means of living are under threat. How have particular groups mobilized their unique assets in response to the challenges facing them? How are they empowered or limited, often both, by the particularities of their historical context? Exploring historical case studies spanning Mauritius to Kenya, colonial era governance to post-independence religious communities, this panel is united by our conceptual interests in forms and limits of human resilience. Buzz words like resilience and wellbeing often appear in the media and political rhetoric to paper over declining government support or shrug off exploitative economic practices. In this panel we reclaim these concepts as meaningful articulations of the human condition: complex, multi-faceted, and flexible.

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