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Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Chair for Sociology of Africa - Prof. Dr. Jana Hönke

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Crafting the space to govern: Non-state practices of legitimation in Africa

Led by Prof. Dr. Jana Hönke, University of Bayreuth, and Dr. Kathy Dodworth, University of Edinburgh.


African states, after two decades of market liberalization, have witnessed resurgent non-state intervention. Non-state actors (NSAs), typically foreign-financed, increasingly take up service provision and/or public roles that conventionally fell to the state. Such non-state actors (NSAs), whether companies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), must legitimate private forms of authority in the name of the public, creating the political space in which to exercise their own forms of governance. Legitimation is thus a core problem of contemporary socio-political life. This is reflected to some degree in political science but generally it remains only partially represented due to a focus on the actions of state elites and institutions. Non-state actors operate ambiguously in the margins between global and local; national/international; public/private and state/non-state. This project seeks to examine how non-state actors do so, crafting authority to act within contemporary governance.

Specifically, we examine non-state legitimation through the practices of NGOs and corporate actors - typically through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts. We attend to new or shifting rhetorics on African ‘development’ within identified ‘contact zones’ (Pratt 1991), brought into relief through the resurgence of non-Western actors, particularly Chinese actors. The key thrust of our work is that such practices are not unilaterally or instrumentally wielded by external actors but that legitimation is negotiated and contested ‘all the way down’. Conceptually, centring ‘legitimation as political practice’ (Dodworth 2022), we innovate by breaking with state-based rationalities, circumventing divides between nominally state and non-state; public and private; national and international (see also Hönke 2013). Empirically, the project will innovate in our attention to the multiple dynamics of legitimation practice, historicized and empirically grounded within local contexts rather than international boardrooms. Methodologically, our approach is bottom-up, bringing ‘ethnographic sensibility’ to expound the situated, iterative nature of contemporary legitimation.


Dodworth K. (2022): Legitimation as Political Practice: Crafting Everyday Authority in Tanzania. Cambridge University Press

Hönke, J. (2013): Transnational companies and security governance: hybrid practices in a postcolonial world. London: Routledge

Hönke, J., Cezne, E., Yang, Y. (forthcoming): Africa's Global Infrastructures. South-South Transformations in Practice. London: Hurst Publishers

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