A Bleg: Where are the psychologists doing research in Africa?

By | March 28, 2011

Sometime last week I attended a podium discussion at the Berlin Humboldt University. The topic was Africa as the laboratory of globalisation. The idea was to discuss different ways in which Africa serves as a laboratory for ideas that then travel to other parts of the world.

Some of those on the podium are STS people who study medical practices in Africa, so the topic of clinical trials in Africa was discussed. For example, it is sometimes much more difficult to get permission to test new drugs in Europe and North Africa than in many African countries. Plus, in many cases, many people would never have access to the treatment if they did not partake in the tests. Of course, there are discussions on what happens to the test subjects when the test phase is ended. From what I gathered in the discussion, it seems that some steps are being taken, in some cases, to make sure that some of them continue having access to the medication. In this case, it is pretty obvious that the test results form part of the decision to introduce drugs in European and North American markets.

Even the idea of no-consent testing is being introduced in some European countries. This is a case in which your Dr does not have to seek your consent before sending samples off to test for HIV. This was first introduced in certain African countries, and if I understood the speaker correctly, it is currently being practiced in France.

With regards to constitution making, someone from South Africa was part of the committee that ‘made’ the new Kenyan constitution, because the SA constitution is thought to be one of the most progressive in the world. Plus the process of constitution drafting in many African countries is influencing the way people think about the nature of constitution around the world etc., etc.

There was also a discussion of cultural forms that have travelled out of the continent. Nollywood is an example; kente is another one.

I am sure you can think of some economic issues.

After the discussion, my friend asked me a question that totally stumped me: if Africa is a laboratory of globalisation, then some people are the lab scientists. Apart from the obvious medical examples, most of those scientists are social scientists. How come, of all the social science disciplines, one never gets to hear about psychologists working in or doing research in Africa?

I was stumped because I couldn’t think of anyone I know who is a psychologist doing research in Africa; and I haven’t heard of the participation of psychologists qua psychologist in development programmes, not even in post-conflict situations. I am ready to accept that it is possible that I am the one who is totally ignorant, which is why I am throwing this out at readers who are much more experienced in development practice than I am, and who have experiences in parts of Africa where I have never worked.

So, to recapitulate, the bleg is: why do my friend and I never get to hear of psychologists doing research in Africa? Any thoughts are most welcome.

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  • Solange Chatelard

    Hi Olu, its been a while! In Zambia I met a couple of British psychologists who’ve been living, teaching and conducting research there for over 30 years, namely Alan Haworth and Robert Serpell. Moreover I actually shared a house in Lusaka with a retired British psychiatrist who’s now setting up one of the first Masters programme in Lusaka at the University of Zambia.

  • Gil

    Hi, I am the Psychiatrist Solange refers to. I am part of a team which has set up and is running a training course in Psychiatry – it’s not a single person operation.
    There is a considerable amount of Psychological research going on in Africa. For example much of the non-clinical part of HIV research is being carried out by Health Psychologists (although they may title themselves differently) and Neuropsychologists. Much anthropological work has is also strongly influenced by psychology theory.

  • Thanks Solange and Gil for your comments. It is good to hear about these, and I would be interested in learning more about the substance of the research the psychologists are doing – out of sheer intellectual curiosity, which is where the blogpost came from in the first instance. Maybe, as Gil suggested, I should look at health-related research.

    I know that some anthropologists are doing cognitive stuffs, but I am yet to meet or hear of any working in Africa.

  • Thanks for the post, Olu. I, too, have wondered about state of psychiatric research in Africa as well. I have been hard-pressed to find a post-graduate residency program (in the US) that demonstrates an interest in international psychiatry. I was under the impression that the state of psychiatric research in Africa is primarily limited to epidemiological studies and calls for renewed attention to this field in public health discourse (like for example in the Lancet series on global mental health – which I believe was spearheaded by Dr. Vikram Patel who seems to be the go-to person in the field). Anything outside of this, I believed the anthropologists had it covered.