Proposal preview

Comparative Historical Analysis of Occupational Structure and Urbanization Across Sub-Saharan Africa

Until now there has been no systematic investigation of the history of occupational structures in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is a problem for the study of African economic history and political economy, for example with regard to the question of the impact of different types of colonial rule (settler, concessionaire, ‘peasant’), and different types of export production (agricultural or mineral) on the structure of the economy. In a Kuznetian sense, African economic growth in the twentieth century was generally more extensive than intensive: on the whole, the expansion of GDP per head more than kept up with the multiplication of population – by perhaps six times – without, in most countries, achieving spectacular per capita growth in most of the century. Again, occupational structure can provide crucial evidence on the contentious issue of whether the economic growth experienced in much of Africa over the last twenty years is more of the same (reproducing the patterns of earlier cycles of export-led growth based on primary commodities), or whether it has been translated into the kind of structural diversification that may stimulate further growth in future.
The fundamental constraint is that in most countries south of the Sahara censuses began relatively late, have a history of major – but decreasing – inaccuracies, and were particularly late to record detailed information such as on occupations. Whereas the social organization of labour in Africa has received much scholarly attention, quantifying what the workers actually did has been much more neglected. However, following the highly successful INCHOS (the International Network for the Comparative Historical Study of Occupational Structure )project, led by Osamu Saito and Leigh Shaw-Taylor, which assembled and analysed occupational data from Asia, Europe and North America, the AFCHOS project aims to do likewise for Africa, going as far back in time as we can realistically go, and using census data supplemented, where possible, by occupational surveys. Ultimately, the project is intended to deliver a fully commensurable, quantitative and comparative study of the subject for a range of countries from western, eastern, central and southern Africa, for as far back as it is possible to obtain reasonably reliable data, and thereby to construct plausible estimates. In addition, urbanization will be tracked, as a better-recorded variable quite closely related to shifting occupational structures.
The AFCHOS project has recently got under way with the presentation of a mixture of position papers and first drafts at the European Social Science History conference at the end of April 2016. It is intended that the WEHC congress in Boston in July-August 2018 will be the setting for the culminating presentation and discussion of the papers and of the project as a whole. Nine papers are currently proposed for Boston. Though they have a good geographical spread within Sub-Saharan Africa, we hope there will be at least one more, on Nigeria, and that discussion at the WEHC will focus in large part on the developmental implications of the more interesting national trajectories revealed by the available data.
The purpose of this double session is to present the preliminary findings and reflections of the first attempt to fill this gap.
In general, the papers ask a) how far back can we go in obtaining usable data for each country concerned; b) what specific problems have been encountered in using the censuses and other sources, and in organising the findings within one or other variant of the standard classification system for occupations; (d) what patterns emerge from the data, including in relation to the debates about the colonial and contemporary periods mentioned above, and in the context of global comparisons. Papers will be read in advance by members of the Group, and made available for prior reading by all other members.
The provisional titles of the proposed papers, with at least one to be added, are as follows:
Johan Fourie and Omphile Rampela, “A Skill Divergence? Occupational Structures and South Africa’s Mineral Revolution”
Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, “The Occupational Structure of Mozambique, 1900-2000: Changes and Continuities”
Jutta Bolt and Ellen Hillbom, “Occupational structures in Botswana and Mauritius”
Erik Green, Wapulumuka Mulwafu, and Rory Pilosoff, “Changes in Occupational Structures in Malawi and Zimbabwe, 1920 – 1980”
Mihael de Haas, Eric Frankema and Dàcil Juif, “Occupational Structures in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi”
Marlous van Waijenburg, “Occupational Structures in French West Africa since 1900”
Karin Pallaver, “Counting Huts, Heads and Labourers: Sources on Size and Structure of the Labour Force in Kenya and Tanzania (1921-2012)”
Stefania Galli, “The Occupational Structure of a Peculiar Colony: Sierra Leone in 1831”
Gareth Austin, “Occupational Structure and Urbanization in Modern Ghanaian History: a Preliminary Exploration”


  • Gareth Austin, Cambridge University,,

Session members

  • Jutta Bolt, Groningen University,
  • Ellen Hillbom, Lund University,
  • Johan Fourie, Stellenbosch University,
  • Ewout Frankema, Wageningen University,
  • Stefania Galli, Gothenburg University,
  • Erik Green, Lund University,
  • Michiel de Haas, Wageningen University,
  • Dácil Juif, Wageningen University,
  • Wapulumuka Mulwafu, Chancellor College, University of Malawi,
  • Karin Pallaver, Bologna University,
  • Rory Pilosoff, Free State University,
  • Omphile Ramela, Stellenbosch University,
  • Filipa Ribeiro da Silva , International Institute of Social History, the Netherlands,
  • Marlous van Waijenburg, Northwestern University (moving to Michigan University,
  • Damilola Adebayo, Cambridge University,
  • Duncan Money, Free State University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Leigh Shaw-Taylor, Cambridge University,