Block I Illinois Library Illinois Open Publishing Network

6 Sub-Disciplinary Specializations and Disciplinary Maturation

Relationships Among Afro-American Studies, Critical Race Studies, Diaspora Studies, African Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, and Africana Women's Studies

James B. Stewart, Penn State University


As disciplines evolve, sub-disciplines develop enabling re­search­ers to pursue specialized inquiries. However, sub-disciplines sub­scribe to a set of shared values and interests that provide a coh­erent macro-level disciplinary identity. Distinctive schools of thought typ­ic­al­ly develop within disciplines as a result of differing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of some aspects of the discipline’s mandate, for ex­am­ple, dis­agree­ments regarding the relative merits of quanti­tative and qual­ita­­tive research. Different schools of thought can also ex­ist within in­dividual sub-disciplines. In several disci­plines there are dis­agree­ments within sub-disciplines regarding the relative impor­tance of race and class in perpetuating dis­parities.

Africana Studies can be appropriately characterized as an “aca­dem­­ic discipline” with distinctive intellectual assumptions and val­ues. Afro-American Studies, Critical Race Studies, Diaspora Stud­ies, Af­ri­can Studies, Afro-Latino/a Studies, and Africana Women’s Stud­ies can be treated as sub-disciplines within the dis­ci­pline of Af­ri­ca­na Studies and rational judgments can be made about whe­ther a school of thought within each sub-discipline is best iden­ti­fied with Africana Studies, per se, or some other in­tel­lectual tra­di­tion.[1] I focus on Africana Women’s Stud­ies and Af­ri­can Diaspora Studies to illustrate these distinc­tions.

The Nature of Disciplines — Africana Studies as an Academic Discipline

At least five characteristics can be used to differentiate Af­ri­ca­na Studies analyses from other types of inquiries: (a) re­jec­tion of “vic­timology” orientations in favor of approaches fo­cusing on ef­forts by African Americans to shape their own destiny (Afri­ca­na agency), (b) interpretation of contemporary develop­ments through a frame­work of analysis that explores the effects of his­tor­i­cal for­ces in shaping current conditions (continuing histori­cal in­flu­en­ces), (c) use of multiple analytical methods and modes of pres­en­tation to understand and articulate the complexities of the ex­per­iences of peo­ples of African descent (wholism/multi­di­men­sion­al­ity), (d) ex­plor­ation of policy implications (simultane­ous pur­suit of aca­dem­ic excellence and social responsibility), and (e) explora­tion of histori­cal and continuing cultural and political link­ages between Africans in Africa and Africans in the Diaspora (pan-Africanism).[2]

Obviously no individual investigation can be expected to in­cor­porate all of these elements. However, the absence of charac­teristics (a) and (b) generally suggests that a particular research study is more appropriately identified with a field of inquiry other than Af­ri­ca­na Studies, per se.

Africana Women’s Studies

Africana Studies faces a continuing challenge of combating the invisibility of Africana women in the public sphere and the mar­gi­nal­ization of their historical and contemporary voices. This chal­lenge is not unique to Africana Studies, rather it is one that derives from the patriarchal nature of most societies and is re­flect­ed in all fields and modes of inquiry. As Omolade argues:

The historical oppression of Black women and men should have created social equality between them, but even after the end of slavery when the white patriarch re­ced­ed, maleness and femaleness continued to be de­fined by patriarchal structures, with Black men declar­ing ward­ship over Black women.[3]

An Africana Studies approach to analysis would be expected to reflect the emphases on agency and the importance of historical for­ces in shaping current conditions and also be self-critical about the ways in which research studies have marginalized Africana wo­m­en. Black Feminists[4] are generally more closely aligned with fem­inism and Women’s Studies than with Africana Studies, per se. Ideo­logically, this feminist approach, while clearly recog­niz­ing the deva­station associated with oppression based on race, of­ten pri­or­i­tiz­es the issue of oppression based on gender and em­pha­sizes the study of patterns of gender oppression among people of Af­ri­can de­scent. Africana Womanist scholars[5] also recognize the importance of gen­der-based oppres­sion, but emphasize its intersection and overlap with racial oppres­sion as in­ter­twined forces diminishing the well-being of Africana women.

Although Africana Womanists and Black Feminists still inter­pret the historical and contemporary record through different lenses, there are indications that the variance in interpretations is narrowing. Additional progress in resolving tensions can be facili­tated through additional social science-based research that makes cre­a­tive use of both quantitative and qualitative methods. Non-con­ventional approaches are absolutely essential to overcome ex­ist­ing bi­a­ses that constrain the under­standing of the gender di­men­sions of identity development, especially as it relates to wo­men of African de­scent outside metro­politan capitalist coun­tries. As Vaz[6] opines, “alterna­tive methods of car­rying out re­search [are need­ed] that are not heavily dependent on tech­nol­o­gy, [so that] our in­for­ma­tion about women in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries [does not] be­come [simply] the study of women’s be­havior in the developed world.” Vaz’s com­ments emphasize the need to ex­tend the scope of inquiry beyond the experiences of peo­ple of Af­rican descent in the United States.

African Diaspora Studies

Expanded study of populations of people of African descent living in parts of the African Diaspora other than the United States is an important recent development in the continuing evo­lu­tion of Africana Studies. One of the most important contri­bu­tions of this collective body of research has been to in­tro­duce a comparative perspective into discourses about race, iden­tity, pat­terns of oppres­sion and exploitation, liberation struggles, and oth­er issues. Com­par­ative perspectives are imperative for re­fining constructs and perspectives in Africana Studies developed from studies focusing ex­clusively on descendants of Africans directly transported into what is now the United States through the Atlantic slave trade.

As is the case for Africana Women’s Studies, there are different schools of thought informing research agendas. The school of thought least aligned with Africana Studies has been advanced by “Black Atlantic” proponents.[7] This school of thought is informed by the European postmodernist “Cultural Stud­­ies” movement. Black Atlantic scholars challenge the use­ful­ness of traditional racial classifications and emphasize hybridity as a con­struct for interpreting the experiences of people of African de­scent (outside of Africa). Interest in this approach within the US has been fueled, in part, by the increasing contemporary im­mi­gra­tion of people of African descent into the US whose per­so­nal iden­ti­ties and reference group orientation differ from those of do­mes­t­ic Af­ri­can Americans and by the emerging domestic biracial move­­ment.

The cultural studies-influenced approach to African Diaspora Studies can be usefully contrasted to one championed by Walker.[8] Walker’s volume is the product of an international confer­ence on the African Diaspora and the Modern World held in 1996. Contributors to the volume include historians, linguists, cre­a­tive writ­ers, and literary scholars; social, cultural, and physical an­thro­pol­o­gists; journalists, filmmakers; music and dance scholars; and po­lit­i­cal and cultural activists, reflecting the multidisciplinary em­pha­­sis of Africana Studies. Walker describes the overall thrust of the volume as “the beginning of a comparative analysis of Af­ri­can Diasporan societies and phenomena from an Afrogenic per­spective that focuses on African and African Dias­poran agency, participation, and contributions.”[9] For Walker, “Afrogenic sim­ply means growing out of the histories, ways of knowing, and in­ter­pre­tations and interpretive styles of African and African Di­as­po­ran people.”[10] Note that Walker’s approach to the study of the Af­ri­can Diaspora prioritizes the original invol­un­ta­ry formation of the Di­aspora rather than the late twentieth-cen­tu­ry vol­un­ta­ry migration that cul­tural studies approaches foreground. Col­lec­tive­­ly, Walker insists “the com­pa­rative study of Af­rican Di­­as­poran so­ci­e­ties and their roles in their nations, in ad­dition to dem­on­strating sim­i­lar patterns of mis­rep­re­sen­tation, also high­lights significant com­mon­al­i­ties in both so­ci­o­cul­tural forms and in the underlying prin­ci­ples that give them meaning.”[11]

There is obvious greater alignment between Walker’s ap­proach to African Diaspora Studies and the specification of Africa­na Stud­ies presented previously. Whereas Walker’s approach em­phasizes cul­tural similarities and historical continuities origi­nat­ing in Africa, the Black Atlantic model is an example of what Walker charac­ter­izes as the imposition of Eurogenic meanings rather than recogniz­ing “the deep structural Afrogenic meanings of the same phenom­ena”.[12]


Space does not permit a comparable discussion of the sub-disci­plines of African Studies and Afro-Latino/a Studies. However, a sim­i­­lar type of analysis can be used to identify those schools of thought and approaches within each sub-discipline most closely align­ed with the Africana Studies disciplinary matrix. As Africana Stud­ies continues to evolve, new sub-disciplines will emerge, and as this expansion proceeds, the pursuit of disciplinary coherence should continue to be one of the overarching objectives if Afri­ca­na Stud­ies is to achieve first-class status as a distinctive and valued in­tel­lect­ual enterprise.


Aldridge, Delores, ed. 1989. Black women in the American econo­my. Special issue of the Journal of Black Studies 20(2).

______________. 1991. Focusing, Black male-female relationships. Chi­cago: Third World Press.

______________. 1992. Womanist issues in Black Studies: towards in­te­grat­­ing Africana women into Africana studies. The Afro­cen­tric Schol­ar, 1(1), 167–182.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: modernity and double con­scious­ness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Vivian. 1987. Black women, feminism, Black liberation: which way? Revised edition. Chicago: Third World Press.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. 1995. Introduction. In B. Guy-Sheftall (Ed.) Words of fire, an anthology of African-American feminist thought (1–22). New York: The New Press.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 1991. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, con­scious­­ness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Hudson‑Weems, Clenora. 1989. Cultural and agenda conflicts in aca­demia: Critical issues for Africana womens studies. Western Journal of Black Studies, 13(4), 181–189.

____________________. 1993. Africana womanism: Reclaiming our­selves. Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers.

____________________. 1997. Africana womanism and the crit­i­cal need for Africana theory and thought. The Western Journal of Black Studies 21(2), 70–84.

Hull, Gloria, Scott, Patricia, and Smith, Barbara. 1982. All the wo­men are white, all the Blacks are men, but some of us are brave: Black wo­men’s studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd edi­tion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Omolade, Barbara. 1994. The rising song of African American women. New York: Routledge.

Stewart, James. 1992. Reaching for higher ground: Toward an un­der­standing of Black/Africana Studies. The Afrocentric scholar 1(1), 1–63.

____________. 2004. Foundations of a “Jazz” Theory of Africana Stud­ies. In James Stewart (Ed.) Flight in Search of Vision, 191–202. Tren­ton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Vaz, Kim. 1993. Making room for emancipatory research in psy­chol­ogy: A multicultural feminist perspective. In Joy James and Ruth Farmer (Eds.) Spirit, space & survival, African American wo­men in (white) academe,  83–98. New York: Routledge.

Walker, Sheila. 2001. Are you hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Right­ing the Pan-American discourse. In her collection, African Roots/Amer­ican cul­tures, Africa in the creation of the Americas. Lan­ham, MD: Row­man & Lit­tle­field Publishers.

  1. See James Stewart, “Reaching for Higher Ground: Toward an Understanding of Black/Africana Studies,” The Afrocentric Scholar 1, no. 1 (1992): 1–63; James Stewart, “Foundations of a ‘Jazz’ Theory of Africana Studies,” in Flight in Search of Vision, ed. James Stewart (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2004).
  2. See Stewart, “Reaching for Higher Ground.”
  3. Barbara Omolade, The Rising Song of African American Women (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15.
  4. See, for example, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “Introduction,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New York: The New Press, 1995); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991); Gloria Hull, Patricia Scott, and Barbara Smith, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982).
  5. See, for example, Delores Aldridge, ed., “Black Women in the American Economy,” special issue of the Journal of Black Studies 20, no. 2 (1989); Delores Aldridge, Focusing: Black Male-Female Relationships (Chicago: Third World Press, 1991); Delores Aldridge, “Womanist Issues in Black Studies: Towards Integrating Africana Women into Africana Studies,” The Afrocentric Scholar 1, no. 1 (1992): 167–182; Vivian Gordon, Black Women, Feminism, Black Liberation: Which Way? rev. ed. (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987); Clenora Hudson‑Weems, “Cultural and Agenda Conflicts in Academia: Critical Issues for Africana Women’s Studies,” Western Journal of Black Studies 13, no. 4 (1989): 181–189; Clenora Hudson‑Weems, Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves (Troy, MI: Bedford Publishers, 1993); Clenora Hudson‑Weems, “Africana Womanism and the Critical Need for Africana Theory and Thought,” Western Journal of Black Studies 21, no. 2 (1997): 70–84.
  6. Kim Vaz, “Making Room for Emancipatory Research in Psychology: A Multicultural Feminist Perspective,” in Spirit, Space & Survival: African American Women in (White) Academe, ed. Joy James and Ruth Farmer (New York: Routledge, 1993), 96.
  7. E.g., Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  8. Sheila Walker, “Are You Hip to the Jive? (Re)Writing/Righting the Pan-American Discourse,” in African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
  9. Walker, “Are You Hip,” 38.
  10. Walker, “Are You Hip,” 8.
  11. Walker, “Are You Hip,” 41.
  12. Walker, “Are You Hip,” 29.


Sub-Disciplinary Specializations and Disciplinary Maturation Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book