Liberal democratisation and ethnic politics in Africa: methodological reflections

Tar, Usman A. (2007) Liberal democratisation and ethnic politics in Africa: methodological reflections. Information, society and justice journal, 1 (1). pp. 49-60. ISSN 1756-1078


This article offers methodological reflections of the relationships between liberal democratisation and ethnic politics in Africa, based on a critique of an ‘empirical’ research work carried out on the subject matter by Smith (2000: 21-39). In this work, Smith uses a sophisticated variety of quantitative techniques to engage the debate on the causal association between three key variables: political liberalisation, democratisation and ethnic conflict in Africa. A seeming innovation of Smith is the use of a less familiar method (regression analysis) amongst scholars of African politics to advance a positivistic argument for an intellectual subject matter that has so far been subjected to constructivist explanations. This article argues that (a) Smith’s quantitative work can and do complement existing qualitative work, particularly amongst African and Africanist scholars. Yet, it argues that (b) Smith’s technique and arguments are so riven with sophisticated statistical formulae and abstract analysis that they do not lend themselves to easy comprehension. The article therefore (c) questions the exclusive utility of a positivist approach in studying African politics – a terrain awash with subjective realities and (d) recommends the importance of mixing methods, as a means of ensuring methodological synergy.


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