How Do IR Scholars Talk About Africa?

by Henry Crossman

May 10, 2019

In the latest issue of Political Science, Yoonjin Song finds “the uneven distribution of research publications with respect to continents and countries may be a source of several biases that should be of concern to the [comparative politics] field.” The top two comparative politics journals focus on African countries in only 8 percent of published articles from 1990 to 2015. Of that 8 percent, five countries are the focus of three-quarters of the articles (326).

How does the International Relations (IR) sub-field compare? The Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) Project has coded all articles published in the top 12 IR journals from 1980 to 2017. Over the past 37 years, less than 6 percent of 8,743 IR articles were written with Sub-Saharan Africa as a region under study.


Why are studies on African countries published at a lower rate than studies about other regions? Do IR scholars study African politics differently compared with the rest of the IR sub-field?

To begin answering these questions, I analyze the sub-set of 520 articles that study African countries against the 8,743 IR articles in the TRIP database.  

What Regions Do IR Scholars Study Alongside Africa?

From 1980 to 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa – which includes 49 countries – is selected as a region under study for 6 percent of IR articles. Coders can select multiple regions for any given article, so the 520 articles that study Africa may also study other regions. Of these articles, 10 percent also have “global” selected as a region under study. This typically indicates an article with “a large-n study that includes a number of regions” that also contains a case study or focuses on Africa in greater depth.


As Figure 1 shows, when Africa is one of multiple regions under study in an article, it is typically associated with the Middle East and North Africa or other parts of the Global South. This is a similar (if less sophisticated) finding to Song’s analysis of comparative politics journals, which finds that African countries were compared with other African countries in only 6 percent of the share of articles with symmetric dyads (326).  

What Do Scholars Study About Africa? Issue Area and Substantive Focus

Articles studying African countries also differ from the population of IR articles by issue area and substantive focus. TRIP defines issue area as “the primary issue area to which the article contributes,” and it is generally determined by the study’s dependent variable. As such, coders may only select one issue area for an article. Since the dependent variable is not an inclusive means for capturing the contents of an article, coders can also select a number of substantive foci, which offer more insight into an article’s substantive contribution and can cut across issue areas.

Figure 2 shows the top five issue areas for all IR articles and for articles with Africa as a region under study. International Security and Comparative Politics each capture about one-quarter of the articles about African countries. The percentage of comparative politics articles is higher relative to the set of all IR articles and the percentage of international security articles is slightly lower. Human Rights and International Political Economy (IPE) are studied at higher rates when Africa is a region under study relative to the set of all IR articles, while IR theory and U.S. Foreign Policy are studied about at lower rates.


Trends in substantive foci for African countries provide an explanation. Domestic politics and regime type, both national-level variables, are selected as a substantive focus at a higher rate for articles about African countries compared to the full sample of IR articles. Further, over 40 percent of articles about Africa study intra-state conflict. Together, the disproportionate selection of intra-state conflict and the high degree of domestic-level substantive focus explain why comparative politics and international security are the top issue areas for articles about African countries.

The higher percentage of IPE as issue area for studies about African countries can be attributed to the high levels of a substantive focus on  development, north-south relations, and foreign aid for African country studies relative to the full sample of articles.

Nearly 7 percent of articles about African countries are primarily focused on human rights issues. This result is reflected in the higher relative percentages of African country articles focusing on public health, NGOs, humanitarian intervention, gender, ethnicity and religion, and migration. Human rights as a top focus is consistent with the concerns and priorities of citizens in African countries, who more than any other category select health care and education as major concerns.  


How is Africa Studied? Epistemological & Methodological Differences

What scholars study about African countries is different from the general population of IR articles. Does how scholars study Africa differ too? To explore this question, I look at epistemological and methodological differences between articles studying Sub-Saharan Africa and the full set of IR articles.

While Figure 4 shows that studies with a focus on African countries follow similar trends to the full sample, it also suggests that articles about Africa are relatively more positivist and less non-positivist relative to the full IR sub-field. This difference poses interesting questions for future research, as it may suggest less theory-building or less interpretivism for African or Global South countries.


The methodological differences are starker. Articles with African countries as a region under study use higher rates of quantitative and qualitative methods relative to the full sample of IR articles, and appear systematically less likely to use formal modeling, descriptive analysis, experiments or non-formal analysis.

Could these differences be a function of who is writing about Africa? Articles about Sub-Saharan Africa are slightly more likely to be written by women (21.9% vs. 18.5%) and more likely to be written by authors from non-U.S. institutions (36.3 % vs. 28.9%). These are both factors we know make scholars more likely to use qualitative methods. Data from TRIP’s faculty survey show women are more likely to use qualitative methods in their research than men (35.2% vs. 29.9%), and U.S. scholars are “more quantitatively oriented than most other national IR communities.”


Studying Africa Matters

Earlier, I asked why studies on African countries are systematically under-represented among the top IR journals. One factor is the relatively small number of IR scholars that focus on African politics. Just over 5 percent of U.S. scholars surveyed by TRIP in 2017 selected Sub-Saharan Africa as the main region of the world they studied.

Second, the plurality of articles in top IR journals study the United States, and U.S. Foreign Policy is one of the most common issue areas selected. However, among articles studying African countries and at least one other region, the United States accounts for the smallest percentage at only 15 percent. This is reflected in scholarship: very few of the articles about African countries are categorized as U.S. Foreign Policy, relative to the full sample of IR articles. This suggests that U.S. relations with Africa is absent from current research on U.S. foreign policy.

In part, this is because scholars do not perceive Sub-Saharan Africa as an area of strategic importance to the United States. In TRIP’s 2017 Faculty Survey, 0.2 percent of scholars considered Sub-Saharan Africa to be of the greatest importance to the United States today. In fact, the regions that scholars believe to be of the greatest strategic importance are studied at a higher frequency than regions scholars do not believe to be as important.


The persistence of failed states and humanitarian crises, paired with a rising middle class and powerful youth demographic necessitates taking Africa, and its politics, seriously. Yet, a recent report from the Atlantic Council identifies “a persistent misconception prevalent among the American public—and even many foreign policy  professionals—that Africa is largely irrelevant to US national security.” Despite few scholars perceiving Africa as the most strategic region for the U.S. today, looking forward scholars are beginning to recognize the region’s importance.

Sub-Saharan Africa is second behind East Asia in terms of change in IR scholars’ perception of most strategic region today and in 20 years, indicating that scholars believe Africa will become increasingly important for U.S. interests. This suggests IR scholars may study the region more.

This blog post has identified several areas for future research into how Africa is studied and what this might tell us about the IR discipline in general. In many ways, more questions have been posed than answers given: how do scholars talk about Latin America? East Asia? Civil war? Trade? What do these trends mean for the IR discipline and for our understanding of the world?

The bottom line is this: IR academics have an important role to play providing a nuanced, systematic and unbiased research on Africa. The ivory tower’s neglect of the region is cause for concern as concepts, data and findings from academia seep into the journals and op-eds that policymakers and the general public consume.

If you’d like to see more results from the Journal Article Database and surveys cited above, visit the TRIP Survey Data Dashboard.

Henry Crossman is a senior at the College of William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Economics. He worked at TRIP for 4 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include African politics, development, and international security. The TRIP Project thanks Henry for sharing his diligence, intelligence, and sharp wit with us over the past four years.