Oral History Project – Life Histories in Northwest Africa

Funded by the Henry R. Luce ACLS Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs

IRCPL’s “Life History in Northwest Africa” project is interdisciplinary and draws upon oral history, anthropology and ethnography, religious studies, and journalism. In January of 2017, IRCPL conducted an ethnographic methodology training workshop in Morocco where we had assembled a team of local research scholars. Following the training workshop, researchers began the process of collecting extended, in-depth, and fine-grained life history narratives over the course of numerous conversations and interviews in Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco. In doing so, they focus on how individuals live and experience the movements of history and the forms of socio-religious change that help to frame and give meaning to this experience. Crossing traditional regional boundaries between the Maghreb and West Africa, the project prioritizes ordinary people in the “northwest” region to think about the ways in which personal narratives allow for a different, critical reflection upon history, socio-religious change, and contemporary politics.

By focusing on life histories, the project aims to complicate the ways in which scholars map religious trends, practices, and beliefs onto complicated social and historical phenomena. Life histories provide a context within which the complexities of the religious emerge within the complexity of social life itself. With this in mind, the project seeks to approach indirectly the questions posed about the boundaries of different Islamic traditions to investigate the layered, complex, and opaque ways in which people enact and experience Islam.

Broadly speaking, the project is interested in socio-religious change in the region as a means to better understand the landscapes of contemporary Islam. Given this interest, the project is experimental, and displaces this object of inquiry (Islam) and focuses instead on life history, following anthropologists who have used life history as a research methodology. Methodologically, this opens a flexible and adaptive dialogic space responsive to the contents and context of the two (or more) participants. We pose the possibilities contained within personal history narratives as fertile sites for understanding contemporary Islam and socio-religious change. The play among critical scholarship, journalism, and popular discourse animates the project and helps to articulate its goal to shed light on the complexities of Islam in this region.