Research Profile


MIASA’s research agenda is guided by the question of how historically grounded social sciences and humanities in Africa can address sustainable governance as a theoretical and conceptual challenge likely to yield new answers to problems of (i) democratic governance, (ii) peace-conflict, and (iii) sustainability transformation. In addition to these three central thematic corridors, MIASA addresses five intersectional topics which allow for exploring different issues interconnected with MIASA’s main themes: (i) landownership and acquisition, (ii) migration and mobility, (iii) restitution of colonially acquired objects, (iv) African cities, (v) Human rights.

MIASA is committed to a critical reflection on these topics by resisting to take the meanings of concepts for granted. While MIASA’s research agenda acknowledges its practice- and policy relevance, it doesn’t pursue a practitioners’ understanding of measuring success and failures of governance reforms, but rather pursues an academic approach which critically debates some of the conceptual “black boxes” (Latour 1999) which fall under the thematic umbrella of “sustainable governance”. Macamo (2019: 343) highlights the “difficulty of rendering Africa intelligible through the use of the vocabulary of the social sciences […] intimately linked to the process of black-boxing” when uncritically applied to Africa.

MIASA offers an intellectual space for questioning concepts and for contributing to innovative theory-building. Its research programme draws from the intellectual agenda to inquire into sustainable governance and into its sub-themes. However, by doing so it aims at contributing towards making African thinking much more relevant both to the global world of academia and the world of policy-making. MIASA is devoted to overcome the distorting practices of ‘northern” research agendas, theory-building and publication outlets. It thrives for lowering asymmetries of global knowledge production and dissemination. Cutting-edge ideas and ground-breaking thinking in the social sciences and humanities should be the result.

Researchers at MIASA come from different disciplinary backgrounds. While governance has often been related to political sciences and sustainability to social, economic and ecological studies, MIASA also embraces anthropology, history, literature, linguistics, philosophy, cultural studies, gender studies, and environmental humanities along with sociology, political science, social geography and economics. Other disciplines are included when the topic calls for it, for instance archaeology in relation to the topic of restitution. Connecting to this broad range of disciplines shapes the way of how sustainable governance is considered and allows for developing new research questions on MIASA’s main and sub-themes.


Overview of MIASA’s main topics within the field of Sustainable Governance

Thematic corridors

  • conflict management and sustainable peace

  • sustainable democracy

  • sustainability transformation

Intersectional topics

  • landownership and acquisition

  • migration and mobility

  • restitution of colonially acquired cultural objects

  • African cities

  • Human rights

Cross-cutting issues

  • knowledge production

  • female scholarship

  • bridging cultural divides


Sustainable governance

The landmark decision within the UN system to pursue global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has put the concept of sustainability firmly on the agenda. The SDGs cover a wide range of thematic issues translated into political objectives for social, economic and economic transformation in the world. While most African governments have rhetorically taken on board the new goal system, such policy-driven agendas, however, often appear imposed from Northern-dominated institutions based in New York or Brussels, and are often met with scepticism in Africa. As yet, there has scarcely been a broader debate on a viable process of sustainability transformation and its deeper meanings.

Aiming at a profoundly interdisciplinary and critical approach on “sustainability”, MIASA’s research agenda focuses on “governance”. According to Hyden at al. (2004: 16), “governance refers to the foundation and stewardship of the formal and informal rules that regulate the public realm, the arenas in which states as well as economic and social actors interact to make decisions”. The concept of governance acknowledges different historical trajectories of state formation in a longue durée perspective, but it is also embedded in social, material and cultural practices of everyday life and therefore heavily relies on the particular regional context.

Today’s formal institutions were often built on institutions created by colonial regimes (e.g. borders, bureaucracies, security bodies), and they took over a colonial project, called ‘development’, which by the 1970s had become “either tragedy or farce” (Cooper 2002: 156). Research at MIASA embraces an academic understanding of governance that inspects the rules of the game and how they have transformed over time, the processes of decision-making and the interplay of actors. It considers the dynamics of how actors’ constellations have changed and how technological innovations have impacted the way actors are related to each other.

Critically examining sustainability need to be grounded in concrete contexts and historical experiences, both on the local level as well as by considering Africa’s global connections. Bottom-up processes from seemingly isolated places to supra-state configurations of actors and two-down processes, i.e. the local effect of decisions taken elsewhere, are examined. All this requires thematic focus, which MIASA’s research agenda translates into three thematic corridors: (i) democracy, (ii) conflict and peace, and (iii) sustainability transformation, and five intersectional topics: (i) landownership and acquisition, (ii) migration and mobility, (iii) restitution of colonially acquired objects, (iv) African cities, (v) Human rights.


Democratic governance

Democratic governance is the first of MIASA’s three main thematic corridors. Understanding governance as “formal and informal rules that regulate the public realm” (Hyden at al. 2004: 16), this research axis raises a wide range of questions that concern different forms of building and transforming institutions in past and present, not only on the level of the state and international organizations, but also of associations, grassroots movements, NGOs, religious organizations or “traditional” institutions which all play a role in regulating social relations, in producing formal and practical norms, and in providing public goods. Democratic governance is entrenched in social, material and cultural practices of everyday life.

According to theories of democracy, democratic institutions channel peoples’ expectations and are instrumental in legitimizing an inclusive political system. In particular, democracy should allow for regular and peaceful changes in core positions of power by means of elections. Such principles are hardly contested in Africa, including in public opinion that mostly prefers democratic governance over forms of autocratic rule (Bratton et al. 2005). Asking why democracy has not become more sustainable over the long-term in many African countries, therefore rather needs to be embedded in a broader approach on how states “work” and how legitimacy is produced through a pluralism of institutions and norms (Bierschenk et al. 2014).


Conflict and peace

Conflict management and sustainable peace is the second of MIASA’s three main thematic corridors. The issue is intrinsically connected with the first research axis on democratic governance. It raises questions about the historical roots of the postcolonial state. Moreover, it addresses challenges of how different groups of people feel included and represented by political systems and how these achieve in covering often territorially large countries with a very diverse populations (frequently including large pastoralists groups). Conflicts may find a breeding ground when resources are scarce and (young) people do not find sufficient social and economic opportunities to thrive. However, more often than not, they are associated with fierce battles between elite factions over political power.

Conflicts can have multiple political, social, cultural, historical or ecological reasons. The use of violence was crucial in colonizing Africa. Though the trajectories from one state to the other differ, violence mostly continued being employed as a tool of imposing power, and in many African countries it was part of the decolonisation process. Since independence, the continent has experienced many disastrous wars, mostly of an internal nature, but always implicating an international dimension and affecting African borderlands. Preserving non-violence is a core task of political institutions on different levels of a polity (Aning 2013, Kurtenbach/Mehler 2013), but it is complex and tricky and cannot be reduced to considering constitutional reform. Moreover, understanding conflicts to carefully distinguish between “high-” and “low-intensity” conflicts and to analyse also the many cases where (potential) conflicts have silently been solved through different modes of coexistence.


Sustainability transformation

Sustainability has often been used as a normative concept, deeply rooted in a development framework (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). A series of United Nations conferences, however, has shifted the focus from technical and ecological issues to a broader understanding of sustainability as the development of societies in general. Whereas previously, sustainable development was seen as a necessity in and for the countries in the South, the Agenda 21 action plan (Rio de Janeiro 1992) extended the need for adaption and reform to all countries world-wide, and paved the ways towards including a wide range of actors in society. According to Swilling (2020), the introduction of the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) marked “the start of the sustainability age”.

In this broader context, the field of sustainability transitions research has emerged. Sustainability transitions are long-term, multi-dimensional, and fundamental transformation processes in which large socio-technical systems such as economic sectors (e.g. water, food, energy) or regions make changes towards adopting more sustainable modes of production and consumption, including aspects of technology, economy, institutions, behaviour, culture, ecology and belief systems (Markard et al. 2012; Rauschmayer et al. 2015). It considers complex societal changes and “just transitions”, which require African interpretation and theory-building (Swilling 2020). Sustainability transformation studies are transdisciplinary and need historical perspective. History can expose roots of poverty and environmental challenges in Africa, but also demonstrate of how African societies have faced, dealt with and overcome such challenges in the past (Akyeampong et al. 2014).


Landownership and acquisition

Landownership and acquisition is one of MIASA’s five intersectional topics. It covers a wide range of issues in rural and urban environments. It is clearly interlinked with the issue of governance as it inquires the politics and livelihood effects of land tenure reforms, but also asks which formal regulations and practical norms frame the way of who owns land and how, what does it mean to acquire land, and how this has changed over time. In recent years, millions of hectares of land have been transformed from smallholder production and community use into large-scale commercial farms, with many sub-Saharan African countries as hotspots and with foreign investors as important actors (Anseeuw et al. 2012; Hall et al. 2015; Nolte et al. 2016). Some stakeholders stand to lose out in this process of agricultural commercialization (e.g. women with their limited access to land titles). In other cases, environmental pollution has turned land unusable or even unsafe for living or agricultural exploitation. The scarcity of arable land or land suitable for building has often been a source of conflict, and at times, of war. Landownership and acquisition are a challenge for sustainability transformation and “just” transitions.


Migration and mobility

Among MIASA’s five intersectional topics, the issue of migration and mobility is central. Displacement often results from conflicts or environmental degradation. Migration is frequently motivated by political oppression, but also serves economic purposes, education or professional careers. Remittances are important for African economic transformations, while African diasporas have also served as driving forces for political change and democratic governance. The governance of migration involves both state and non-state actors, on local, national, regional and transnational levels. No continent hosts as many internally displaced people and refugees as Africa. In addition to movements across borders, mobility, migration and displacement within countries need be considered. Mobility and migration are historically, politically, economically, socially and sometimes also culturally deeply embedded in African societies (Adepoju 2011; Kane & Leedy 2013). A prominent example for the long history of mobility and displacement is the 18th century philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo: Captured as a child in what is today Ghana, he eventually became university lecturer in Halle and Jena, before he decided to return back to West Africa.


Restitution of colonially acquired objects

After an initial conference in 2018, MIASA introduced the topic of restitution of colonially acquired objects as one of its five intersectional themes for the main phase of the BMBF funding. Governance aspects such as legitimacy, participation, and institutionalisation are important for understanding and facilitating restitution. In addition, the issue of restitution involves more actors than bilateral relations between institutions and thus reflects the complexity of governance as embracing formal and informal rules. Different actors and stake-holders are involved; chiefs, museums, researchers, advisors, regional and national governments. The role of local communities is key, but they are themselves not homogenous and come with their own internal power dynamics. The long history of restitution claims also raises the question of who sets the norms. The issue goes far beyond asking if objects in the past were “looted”, “bought” or “offered” as diplomatic “presents”. It needs to consider the symbolic, cultural, social and political meaning and context of objects in the past and in the present as well as a history of power relations, inequality and loss. In addition, many objects were looted in the context of colonial violence and war, and some local communities make clear today that they need back specific objects for achieving sustainable peace.


African cities

Within the next ten years, more than fifty percent of Africa’s population will live in cities. African cities are among the fasted growing in the world. Understanding urban dynamics in Africa can make an important contribution to MIASA’s research themes, and it is clearly an intersectional topic in regard to governance, conflicts, migration, landownership and sustainability transformation. African cities have been sites for political protest and change. Democratically elected governments have been implemented in African capitals and, at times, overthrown. Cities are important places for building governance both in formal and informal rules and in social, material and cultural practices of everyday life.African cities have often been destinations for mobility and migration as well as departure points. Some people move to towns because of ecological degradation or conflicts, while cities themselves can turn into locations where (violent) conflicts raise or are negotiated and accommodated. The environmental challenges for African cities are huge, reaching from floods and the decrease of green spaces, to the amount of energy consumption to waste management. Analysing conflicts and peace in Africa from an urban contexts’ perspective, however, has been identified as a research gap (Büscher 2018). Contested land tenure is one recurrent source of conflict.