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Introduction. Traces of Madness: African Sources and Terrains (20th–21st Century)

Gina Aïtmehdi, Camille Evrard, Raphaël Gallien and Paul Marquis
Translated by Cadenza Academic Translations
This article is a translation of:
Introduction. Sur les traces de la folie : sources et terrains africains (xxe-xxie siècle) [fr]

Author’s notes

The research carried out for the writing of this introduction received financial support from the European Commission project ERC Stg 852448, “A History of Madness in West Africa: Governing Mental Disorder during Decolonisation (Senegal, Burkina Faso and Ghana - 1940s – 1970s).”

Full text

1The illustration on the cover of this issue comes from a patient file archived in the psychiatric clinic of Fann, in Dakar, Senegal. In addition to clinical observations and one-on-one interviews between psychiatrists, the patient and his entourage, the file held a dozen or so personal drawings and texts made by the patient during his hospitalisation in the 1960s. This particular drawing represents a face, drawn in profile, its outline worked over multiple times in different colours. Decomposed in this manner, the face gives the impression of a juxtaposition of numerous facets. This example, which allows us to apprehend a fragment of life within a psychiatric service, echoes the starting point of this special issue, which is based on a questioning of the sources, and more broadly the methodological, epistemological, and ethical issues, that confront social sciences researchers working on “madness”—a notion we set out to explore in its more everyday dimension. The vulnerable condition of the “madperson” involves the most diverse situations, inviting the researchers to focus above all on the everyday reality of subjects and the ways in which they perceive that reality (Olivier de Sardan 1998). Locating oneself as close as possible to individuals and their subjective productions is one of the main ambitions of this special issue.

  • 1 For a more complete overview of the construction of this category, see the introduction to the spe (...)

2In line with the pioneering work carried out during the 1960s by the American sociologists Erving Goffman and Howard Becker (Goffman 1961; Becker 1963), here we envisage madness as a socially constructed category. Each institution (asylums and hospitals, religious communities, government authorities, families, etc.) and, more widely, each society that comes to grips with madness circumscribes it according to its own values, norms, and presiding preoccupations. The term “madness”—and “madperson” with it—are therefore understood to be plastic, encompassing various configurations depending upon which protagonists within the African continent are speaking.1 Where psychiatrists prefer designations such as “alienated” or “ill,” and the religious speak more readily of “possession,” all recognise—at least provisionally—the generic status of the term “madness.” The choice to stick voluntarily to a loose vocabulary presents the advantage of not adding further—or at least adding as little as possible—to existing categories. Similarly, when we are not referring directly to the representations and discourses of the actors involved, we use the term “disorder(s).” One advantage of this term is that it designates forms of perturbation that leave their mark upon individuals’ speech, bodies, and interactions, without immediately assigning them to any particular field of expertise.

3The contributions to this special issue illustrate the current dynamism of studies in human and social sciences on madness (Von Bueltzingsloewen 2015; Guillemain 2020; Aït Mehdi and Tiquet 2020; Hunt and Büschel 2024). They bring historians and anthropologists into dialogue over a variety of sources and methodologies. In understanding madness both upstream and downstream of the realities of colonialism, this issue helps “put the colonial in its place,” constituting one parameter among others (Lefebvre and Oualdi 2017). While it might be regretted that none of the contributions goes back earlier than the 20th century, in fact madness was a “problem” before the arrival of the colonisers (Burguet 2014; Gallien 2023; Pettigrew 2023). Similarly, the end of the colonial period did not put an end to the issues raised by madness, but on the contrary marked a complexification of treatment routes both symbolically and materially. The articles in this special issue illustrate the entanglements, continuities, and breaks in the logics and systems of the representation of madness between different periods, and thereby oppose any deterministic or reifying reading.

4On the basis of transcripts of various types of exchanges (both informal and recorded), the anthropologist Yannis Boudina presents the results of an ethnographic study carried out within the Salafist community of Tizi-Ouzou (Algeria). This study reveals the lived experience of Abdel, a Muslim man suffering from obsessional thoughts and paranoia which he himself described as waswās (satanic whispers). The researcher shows how he managed to enter into proximity with the lived experience of Abdel thanks to the friendship they had cemented. Also in Algeria, Paul Marquis examines the internal journal of the Blida-Joinville psychiatric hospital, entitled Notre Journal (“Our Journal”) and published between 1953 and 1959. In choosing the weekly publication as object and source, the historian sheds light from an unprecedented angle upon the therapeutic reforms initiated by the famous psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, and concomitantly upon an aspect of everyday life in an asylum. In Ghana, the anthropologist Cecilia Draicchio was initially turned away by Fadhila, diagnosed by a psychiatrist as “psychotic,” but went on to build a relationship with the young girl. Using her field notes, Draicchio shows that her respect for the girl’s refusal, far from putting an end to the research, was the opposite, the condition for its progress, and ultimately allowed the researcher to escape bureaucratic and psychiatric limitations. The anthropologist Verdia Babongui-Mba confronted intense fear during her ethnographic research in her country of origin, Gabon, even though its realities are familiar to her. Indeed, “madness” seemed so menacing precisely because it took her back to her childhood and the discourse of her family. And yet this very fear propels her inquiry, which she retraces here from ethnographic notes and interviews, as she confronted a negativity which progressively transformed itself into heuristic potential. In France, the historian Romain Tiquet meets the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jean-Louis Renauld who, within the framework of postcolonial cooperation, practised in Burkina Faso from 1972 to 1974. Although Tiquet initially sets out to explore the experiences of the psychiatrist through a combination of private sources and informal exchanges, another kind of intimacy soon comes into focus via photos taken by the psychiatrist himself. The sympathy born from this encounter allows Tiquet to explore the psychiatrist’s career in a different way, yielding a reading that is sensitive to the diverse social backgrounds that feature in the narratives we encounter. The historian Silvia Falconieri has assembled a digital library containing a large collection of documents on madness in the 19th and 20th centuries from French archives. This cataloguing project provides unprecedented access to some extremely rich sources, while raising fundamental questions about the risk of homogenisation of materials and the duplication of categories ripe for deconstruction.

5The original contribution of this special issue can then be stated by way of three principal points. First, the plurality of systems studied (medical, legal, religious, and ritual) sets out a more everyday, less psychiatric picture of the treatment of madness. Taking into consideration the sufferer’s entourage (families, friends, communities), along with the ways in which they might view the emergence of the symptom, the “illness,” and the treatment, allows us to better grasp the ways in which the reading of disorders circulates between different spaces. Second, this diversity of contexts allows us to insist upon the complementarity and/or concurrency of different modes of treatment and of medical and nonmedical representations of madness—a crucial question for a holistic understanding of the disorder (Fassin 1992). The integration of these insights calls for different kinds of research paths, which oblige researchers to operate a methodological and epistemological decentring while remaining as close as possible to the actors concerned (Pfeiffer and Nichter 2008). This special issue explores at length the entanglement of research practices which seek to do justice to the complexity of life courses that cannot be reduced to psychiatry or to siloed categories wholly independent of one another. A third point: the question of the bond with the respondents, whether encountered directly or via the archive, is also central here. The play of affect(s) that flows from it plays a part in determining the researcher’s subsequent reading of their work. Many authors here explore the imprint left by these affective contexts upon the construction of the materialities and itineraries of their research.

6In the first part of this Introduction we insist upon the fact that, without turning one’s back on medical sources (patient files, medical archives, printed sources, etc.), new sources (administrative and legal reports, legislative documents, personal archives) make it possible to envisage another history of psychiatry that would potentially be more social, more political. This documentary and methodological richness also enables us to produce new knowledge concerning the ordinary life of these disorders and of those who experience them. In parallel, the division between history and anthropology becomes more nuanced: a number of problems are common to researchers from both camps, in particular when it comes to ethical questions. One must be alert to these different representations and treatments of madness in order to produce a more precise, less univocal reading of a disorder that responds to multiple textualities and corporealities. The second part of this Introduction bears specifically upon this question, present throughout the special issue. The specificities of access to sources are thus downstream from epistemological positionings which oblige the researcher to identify and interrogate the ethical and affective issues in relation to which a working method will ultimately be constituted.

Which sources for a history and an anthropology of madness?

7The objective of this special issue is to examine the sources that can be employed in writing a history and an anthropology of the ordinary life of madness, and to cross-pollinate different approaches and lines of enquiry in order to represent the true richness of phenomena that are all too often envisaged in one single register. Rather than opt for a categorisation by type of source (archival, printed, ethnographic), here we have used a more thematic typology which better reflects the different approaches to madness. The articles in the special issue are not however limited by this typology—each author broaches one or more of these themes depending on his or her own research interests.

Psychiatry as entry point: Printed sources, medical archives, and patient files

8When it comes to the study of madness, what we often expect to see first and foremost are traces left by psychiatry and, more broadly, by medical institutions. The sources produced by psychiatrists tend to inscribe madness within a systematic rational framework intelligible to the medical gaze, in an attempt to make sense of a disorder which is always dependent upon the context in which it occurs (Guillemain 2018). In fact, psychiatric archives, whether patient files, medical writings, or administrative papers, provide a very rich entryway into the subject: far from being constrained to medical categorisations alone, they bring together different registers (social and administrative inquiries, inventories of goods, legal expertise, etc.) that make it possible to study the social, political, religious, and economic worlds that construct madness. Beyond their primary role of recording medical data, medical archives participate in the shaping of the disorder as much as they are fashioned by the characteristic gaze cast by the society in question upon this disorder (Klein et al. 2016; Schwartz 2018). A number of critical studies in anthropology show how written production relative to diagnostic processes within the medical and psychiatric worlds participates in the construction of a normative knowhow around the disorder, mental illness, and the person concerned (Estroff 1998; Rhodes 1991; Barrett 1998; Doll 2020). Widespread use has been made of medical publications in historiography, in particular the historiography of colonial psychiatry (Mahone and Vaughan 2007; Keller 2007; Akyeampong et al. 2015; Studer 2016; Edington 2019; Scarfone 2021; Quarshie 2022). For such printed documents make it possible to situate the discipline with regard not only to its clinical, but also to its political and moral implications. Although it occupied a relatively peripheral place within the colonial machinery, psychiatry did indeed contribute to the generating of racial representations and segregations, as embodied at its worst by the Algiers School (Bégué 1989; Berthelier 1994; Bennani 1996; Coffin 2009) and the works of J. C. Carothers (McCulloch 1995). Recently, historians have demonstrated convincingly how psychiatry participated in this wide-scale enterprise of pathologising “the African” (Vaughan 1991; Mouralis 1993; Michel 2022). With an inverse logic, but sometimes concurrently, these medical sources also constitute a space in which we can observe the questioning of structural inequalities of the colonial regime (Gallien 2022; Lopes dos Santos 2022), while from the 1950s onwards there emerged a resolutely anticolonial psychiatry (Fanon 2018 Kilroy-Marac 2019; Robcis 2020).

9At the heart of this medical machinery are patient files. Since the early 2000s, both Francophone and Anglophone historiography have progressively tapped into these as sources (Porter 1985; Majerus 2013; Guignard et al. 2013; Bacapoulos-Viau and Fauvel 2016; Guillemain 2017; Foote 2018; Klein et al. 2018). Although always mediated by psychiatric discourse, these files sometimes allow access to firsthand experiences, discourses, and representations of madness (letters, drawings, poems, etc.). In certain cases, patient files even shift the “frontier that separates the sayable from the unsayable” by conserving for medical purposes a speech that is inaudible elsewhere (Le Bonhomme 2022). In terms of the African continent, it was the American historian Jonathan Sadowsky (1999) who was the first to inquire into the experience of madness on the basis of individual life trajectories. No longer focusing uniquely on the institutional or medical schema, Sadowsky uses medical writings to try to hear the voices of patients. In recent years Paul Marquis (2021) has used patient files to add some nuance to the division between metropolitan psychiatry and colonial psychiatry, reinscribing the latter within a wider medical and political economy. Even more recently, a collective of authors, under the auspices of the American historian Nancy R. Hunt and the German historian Hubertus Büschel, have sought to analyse colonised subjectivities on the basis of individual patient files (Hunt and Büschel 2024). Meanwhile, similar approaches have emerged in relation to other spaces, for example France in the 19th century (Le Bras 2024) and during the First World War (Derrien 2015), or former East Germany (Le Bonhomme 2016). And today, new research is also following this path, using madness as a way to discover the full complexity of social trajectories whether individual or collective, and in doing so proposing a new angle on the history of everyday life in colonial (Gallien, forthcoming) or postcolonial (Tiquet 2023) settings.

10For anthropologists, patient files form part of a set of documentary sources most often used as a backup for other archival or ethnographic sources, particularly when working from a critical perspective on healthcare institutions and towards a more general analysis of medical discourse (Kuipers 1989; Béliard and Biland 2008). This observation is particularly pertinent upon African terrain, where the analysis of medical files remains largely underexploited in works of medical anthropology (Hamani 2017). And for good reason: on one hand, the production, management, and conservation of “paperwork,” as central as it is in medical and hospital institutions, is subject to major structural constraints (Jaffré and Olivier de Sardan 2003; Aïtmehdi and Evrard, forthcoming) which can make access to files difficult for researchers. On the other hand, medical files in Africa are not sufficient in themselves for the study of the life trajectories of those with disorders, since the formation of the latter extends beyond a psychiatry represented by marginal and marginalised institutions (Diagne 2016; Diagne and Lovell 2019; Petit 2020).

11However, the writing of a history and an anthropology of madness is not dependent upon patient files, as demonstrated by the articles in this issue, which make only marginal use of them. Draicchio uses the diagnosis in the individual case file as one of the starting points for her encounter with Fadhila, but she swiftly moves beyond it. Marquis, meanwhile, emphasises how Notre Journal allows us to hear a type of speech that is not limited to a pathological mode of enunciation, unlike the medical file, which he mentions only as a counterpoint. Although one may see it as another form of psychiatric control, the journal also contains the traces of carers and those for whom they cared, telling of their everyday experience of psychiatry.

Approaching madness, beyond medical sources

12Other types of texts contribute to the study of mental disorders on the African continent. Sources from other institutions contain discourses upon madness, whether or not they are in direct contact with the latter: colonial administrations (Collier 2022), legal institutions (Falconieri 2022), carceral institutions (Collignon 1984; Marquis 2019), the police (Tiquet 2022), and religious institutions (Legrip-Randriambelo 2020). All of them speak of madness in their own singular way, making it possible to move between scales, spaces, and analytical approaches. What emerges are nonmedical discourses and vocabularies that must be situated within the space from which they materialise. Such documentation forms a part of the “colonial library,” and is part of the knowledge used by the empire (Mudimbe 1984, Sibeud 2002).

  • 2 See Parfait Dtematio Akana’s research project in progress, “The Theme of Madness in Televisual Cre (...)

13The traces of madness can also be read in cinematographic, sonorous, and photographic productions, whether private or institutional (Tinguely 2023). Work using sound or visual recordings, for example, opens up new avenues for approaching these realities.2 Although those with disorders are rarely represented in institutional photographs, which are more likely to show buildings or the tools of treatment, patient files do sometimes include photographs of the patient. A simple photograph may thus offer precious traces on the basis of which we can approach resistance and the interaction of bodies within the asylum (du Plessis 2015). Beyond institutional archives, those with such disorders also appear regularly in photographs or films held in private archives (Coudray 2008). Such documents allow us to inquire into the marks of madness, the imprint which the disorder leaves upon the body, along with the gaze that conditions them. In this special issue, Tiquet’s article uses photography as an original entry point from which to begin to envisage the organisation of a psychiatric service and its architecture from a different angle, and ultimately to reinterrogate the historian’s modes of access to the quotidian realities of the treatment of madness in Haute-Volta (now Burkina Faso) during the 1970s. In a different way, Draicchio uses photography, at the instigation of the interviewee once the spirit has left her, in the aftermath of possession. While preserving the privacy of the possessed, it is the objects used by the latter that allow Draicchio to give an account of a psychic experience now shared and apprehended—not without a certain ambivalence, a mixture of curiosity and (im)modesty. Although posing important methodological and ethical questions, photography, as a tool that lies at the interface of the relation between researcher and respondent, can also help empower the latter in terms of the process and ultimate content of the research, something which Tiquet and Draicchio set out to facilitate, each in their own way, in their contributions. More widely, the question of corporeality and the public expression of madness, which emerges from the photographs chosen by Babongui-Mba to illustrate her article, is a space of investigation which remains largely unexplored (Diagne 2016).

The materialities of madness: From distortion to the reconstruction of meaning

14Within these pages, materiality designates what is collected during ethnographic or archivistic research: field notebooks, recordings, email extracts, interviews, etc. (Moutaud 2022). It is the product of an interaction with actors contending with madness (or who have done so in the past). Ethnographic sources relating to madness therefore play a part in shaping new epistemologies sensitive to the worlds of those being studied. This may take place either through the study of local etiological or nosographic categories of the illness—for example in medical anthropology, in the works produced by the Fann School in Dakar (Zempleni 1968; Coppo 1988) and in more contemporary work (Beneduce 2022)—or in the spirit of those phenomenological stances which strive to examine the experience of madness as closely as possible through the prism of various sociocultural or political environments, for example by way of the narratives of the unwell and/or their entourage (Droney 2016; Aït Mehdi 2018).

15In this special issue, the field notebook is and remains a precious instrument for the researcher, allowing them to record, develop, and sustain the (in)accessibility of the encounter. It is a place for the discreet collection of the voices, acts, and vicissitudes of research. The notebook extracts we can read in this issue and the reflections that flow from them also present an invaluable look behind the scenes of research work, in particular at how difficult it can be for the researcher to find their “proper” place in relation to their subjects. In his contribution, Yannis Boudina describes how a multiplicity of exchanges with the respondent (email extracts, recordings, informal discussions, production of a field notebook, etc.) construct a discourse on subjectivity and madness in the contemporary Salafist milieu in Kabylia. In line with the epistemological shift that this author proposes, this special issue pays particular attention to the relation with the respondent and the materials it produces. Thus, the contributions presented here move between friendliness (Boudina, Draicchio, Tiquet), apprehension, and even fear when faced with the violence of the world of madness (Babongui-Mba), and the reflexive positioning of the researcher.

16The epistemological stakes here are no less important in the face of a madness that, intrinsically signals a break in the bond with the other and, in this sense, figures this identity as “senseless” (Foucault 1976). Within this context, the finely-woven relation with persons suffering disorders and their entourage constitutes a central vector for knowledge. This special issue also aims to share their traces, here understood as sources in themselves. If madness refers to broken bonds (with family and friends, with norms, etc.), when placed within its social and historical context, it reveals itself as the space where, beyond the unsayable, there emerge new bonds, among which the researcher also features (Das 2015). This then raises the question of how to preserve a bond that is often difficult to sustain, but which may serve as a guiding thread in research work, which is dependent upon constant reorientations, often imposed from without, based upon what is possible or impossible, what is visible or hidden, what is spoken or silenced. This constrains the researcher to ceaselessly rethink their methodological arsenal and their ethical stance: How far can you go? Does a refusal mean the end of the research project? Draicchio’s contribution is particularly striking in this regard: in order to retain a bond and to continue to pursue her research with a particular respondent, she must deal with their refusal to have their voice recorded. The obstacles the researcher comes up against in accessing and making use of data thus mirror the subjective landscape of madness within those afflicted by it.

In contact with madness: Methodological and ethical issues

17The plurality of sources available when conducting research on madness confronts us with a variety of ethical problems posed by their access, handling, and use. Despite the image of exceptionality with which the African terrain can sometimes still be burdened, the issues that emerge are common to all research on madness and its treatments. The need to break taboos, to say what is unsaid, and to prioritise freedom of research can conflict with questions of respect for medical secrecy, protection of private lives, and the possibility (or otherwise) of bringing to light intimate details often hidden from the gaze of the other—or, on the contrary, exposed without any compunction. But such freedom is possible only on condition of a reflexivity taking into consideration the subjective, familial, and more broadly social ramifications implied by the research. This is what we see in the articles in this special issue which, each in their own way, ask the meaning and effects of the researchers’ approach, its scope, and its limitations.

Conservation and access to African sources

18As a direct consequence of colonial history, certain archives of madness relating to the African continent are still held in former colonial metropolises. In recent years, important progress has been made in identifying these documents, in particular thanks to the work of the historian Silvia Falconieri. Her article here details her project to digitise, classify, and make available online a body of largely administrative and medical documents dating from the French colonial empire. Through her work they have become accessible to all, without the need to request access from archive centres. Such democratisation does however raise important methodological and ethical questions—we shall come back to this.

19Against the grain of the cliché of Africa as primarily oral, dependent upon either former metropolitan archives or ethnographic investigation, the continent in fact also offers equally rich archival situations—as shown by the research in progress being carried out by the editorial team of this special issue. In many locales, archives on madness are numerous, sometimes spanning the entire life of an institution. Certainly, access can be poorly regulated and therefore not particularly systematic, unlike in certain European countries, for example, where researchers can rely on the mediation and supervision of archivists (Majerus 2013; Laloux 2021; Kreplak and Potin 2022). While some of this documentation may be conserved within the national archive of some countries, psychiatric institutions are very often the other site for their conservation. The conditions for consulting them are therefore numerous and depend largely upon local contingencies.

20Access to psychiatric files may for example be obtained via an official approach at the national level when appropriate legal frameworks are in place (for example, a national ethics committee for medical research, or administrative authorisation for archival research, as in Niger) (Aïtmehdi and Evrard, forthcoming), or sometimes at the local level, that is, within a hospital institution that keeps its own archives, as in Madagascar (Gallien 2020). In the latter case, the possibility of consulting these files hinges largely upon the judgement of the institution’s management or a figure of authority therein. If the researcher then benefits from greater freedom in the consultation of an archive, in a situation that, in practice, rarely reflects an established archival policy or regulatory framework, this raises the twofold question of the legitimacy of their presence on the one hand, and the problems of the conservation of the archives in question on the other. Moreover, just because the documentation is not subject to any institutionalised archival approach or classification system does not mean that its use is any less sensitive or politically-charged (Guillemain and Hanafi 2022). While the question arises of knowing where medical archives are kept and who keeps them, that of their “neglect,” or on the contrary their exploitation as heritage artefacts, must in reality be rethought in light of the issues relating to institutions and their representatives, beginning with doctors (Gallien, forthcoming; Aïtmehdi and Evrard, forthcoming). It is important to take into account all these factors when one receives the authorisation of a local representative to work upon documentation that is officially subject to derogation in the national legislation.

21Ethnographic work within psychiatric or care institutions also poses the central question of authorisation to access the terrain, along with that of the positioning of the researcher within a foreign institutional environment which excludes them from some of its activities and from its symbolic order. How can social scientists make a place for themselves within a medical milieu? What legitimacy can they claim for themselves? How will others view them? The medical institution imposes normative and ethical constraints upon researchers, certain aspects of which have become the object of general reflection (Fassin 2008; Jaffré and Olivier de Sardan 2003). For the historian and the anthropologist alike, the question arises about what permits one to enter this terrain, or prevents one from doing so: in many situations—and this is the case for the editors of this issue—we are dealing with researchers from the global north studying populations of the global south. Such researchers are further continuations of a presence which in most cases goes back to the era of colonisation. While sometimes facilitating access to archives or to certain local elites, coming from the north also means embodying a particular epistemological regime which, even today, still bears the imprint of a structuring coloniality producing asymmetry and invisibilisation (Althabe 2002; Mignolo 2010; Saïd 2015; Dufoix 2023). In addition, a detour via postcolonialism and the ethical issues related to it leads to the question of the socially and historically situated character of tools, methods, and categories of research, even when one is within one’s own society. Being a “local” (Diawara 1985) does not make the work of research any easier. This special issue demonstrates precisely that the asymmetry between researcher and respondents does not necessarily lie where one might expect. Although Gabon is a “familiar space” to Babongui-Mba, she pursues her research “with fear in her belly.” And it is precisely a certain familiarity with persons, or at least representations of persons considered mad, who were perceived throughout her childhood as frightening figures, that makes for the singularity of her work. Her research collides with collective conventions and familial beliefs, transforming them into heuristic potential. Boudina also offers an in-depth reflection upon his twofold belonging, at once French and Algerian, showing how it obliges him to “evaluate the biases that emerge from these two socializations.” Tiquet—a French researcher within an institution (the CNRS) that enjoys great symbolic capital—examines the discomfort that is part and parcel of his exchanges with the psychiatrist-psychoanalyst he is interviewing, who “because of his profession, maintains a very close relation to speech and to control of his own speech.” The research here is complicated by a play of “transference,” to use the psychoanalytical term, but also of elements linked to age group and professional capital, and this precisely because both protagonists rely upon common social and symbolic values.

22In this issue, then, researchers confront what already makes them up, working on the categories that constitute them and determine their entry into the archives or onto the terrain (Jaffré 2006). Sticking with a “banal” view of madness therefore does not mean staying silent on the specificities of research being conducted mostly in former colonies. These issues yield an affective condition that shapes and is shaped by the research.

Facing suffering: Positioning and the affective life of the researcher

23The question of the position of the researcher is a recurrent one when confronting the object “madness.” Historians and anthropologists alike must face particularly acute ethical questions here. This is the case when they are confronted by individual case files (Tiquet 2023; Manetti 2023), but also when they encounter persons who are or have been interned, and their families (Fassin 2008; Henckes and Marquis 2020). The encounter with the researcher and the investigation that follows harbours the potential for subjective regression and reconnection with the state of distress that was at the root of the former disorder. So how far should we go with the respondent? How can we manage the fear of returning them to their illness and causing suffering or triggering a crisis?

24The problem of respect for private life is omnipresent here. “Must we accept that our medical history will be exposed?,” the American historians Jonathan Sadowsky and Kylie Smith ask (Sadowsky and Smith 2024). And if so, under what conditions? Medical writings are certainly not made expressly to serve the curiosity of the historian or anthropologist. One possible response is to anonymise files: the reader must not be able to attach a name to the life trajectories described within them. And yet strict anonymisation amounts to effacing all biographical traces, and in so doing considerably diminishes the richness of a document which is so personal and particular. This practice also implies the negation of the person and thus their humanity. In the wake of medical objectivation and the gesture of dispossession that it usually implies, here the historian effaces the few remaining traces of personal identity (Parle 2007). Pseudonymisation can present an intermediate solution, although it is not completely satisfactory given the risk of no longer effacing the person, but of disguising their history via the fabrication of a fictive identity.

25Another possible scenario illustrated in this special issue is that of free access to such documentation. As mentioned above, Falconieri’s article describes the advantages of a project that facilitates the work of research, crossing certain persistent boundaries between north and south. The online presence of archives is by no means a straightforward matter, though. It runs the risk of exposing vulnerable lives, subjecting them to discourses which could originally count on the discretion of medical personnel or, more recently, on the conditions of consultation stipulated by archive centres. Moreover, although the use of tags and categories may help one orient oneself within this inventory, it can also end up reproducing the descriptions used by the administration and the doctors themselves. In this case, the tool can potentially crystallise a certain representation of the disorder even as it seeks to help deconstruct it. Working on madness using 20th-century archives thus makes it necessary to confront psychiatric categories and the effects of distancing and uniformisation that they imply. For medical personnel operate a certain triage of the information retained about patients and their illnesses, and the construction of medical literature responds above all to a nosographical concern from which it is never easy to separate oneself. The document never traces out a real continuity with a person or situation encountered, but on the contrary is the fruit of an almost immediate reconstruction on the part of a discourse situated at the intersection of medical and administrative exigencies. The researcher must divest themselves as far as possible of their own relation to an object that always escapes them and regularly runs up against the limits of their own representations (Olivier de Sardan 1995).

26All research concerning ostracised or marginalised persons who are not able to participate consciously or to consent explicitly to the production of documentation concerning them raises the risk of intrusion. One way to deal with this is to open up the fabric of the research itself, its pitfalls, and the methodological paths taken. In this special issue, Babongui-Mba’s article operates an epistemic tour de force in so far as the situations she confronted in her work frightened her, unlike the anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada, who mastered the logics of witchcraft encountered in her research (Favret-Saada 1977). In fact, researchers are witnesses of difficult situations in which the intimate details, flaws, and weaknesses of an individual and those close to them fall under the gaze of a stranger.

27In short, it is only through introspection, which is never total, that the historian or anthropologist can claim to shift the gaze and grasp the density of the dialectic between the external world and intimate life. In a certain sense, faced with their object, the researcher must make the effort not only to think against themselves, but to reduce themselves to a minority (Beaubatie 2023; Larcher 2023) so as to be able to pay sufficient attention to the singularity of the life trajectories encountered and thus to confront the obstacles of class, gender, and race. It is only on condition of this positionality, that is to say on condition of attending to the subjective fabrications intrinsic to any archivistic or ethnographic encounter, that the historian or the anthropologist can deconstruct the kinds of overlapping that their reading involves. Only then can one hope, faced with a normative system, to achieve a more proper distance from which always-singular trajectories may arise, and which in particular would allow one to accept the element of outside-of-sense that the disorder implies.

The heuristic of intimacy and the incommensurability of madness

28As will be appreciated, in societies in which the disorder exists beyond the epistemic thresholds of the West, the existence of madness greatly overflows the psychiatric framework alone. For the anthropologist and the historian alike, moving beyond psychiatry involves dealing with the affective impact of the multiplicity of interpretative registers employed by those affected by madness. Far from being set in stone, for the actors involved, these categories become real tools, (re)assembled and fashioned during the course of their affliction. As this takes place, the researcher involved must deal with epistemological issues concerning the narrative and subjective suffering of the other, but also concerning their own positioning. In particular, the historian or anthropologist becomes a person who “encourages” the narrative (Meyers 2017), or at least assists in its process of symbolic formation (Tasia 2018), and must therefore deal both theoretically and subjectively with the “relational network of affects” (Das 2013, 140) in which these trajectories are entangled. The challenge for the researcher is then to identify and make explicit the relations of power that flow from these encounters, without always being able to control them (Bernault 2019). This leads to what we might describe as a heuristic of intimacy. For it is on the basis of the encounter of two intimate realms that there emerges methodology, practices, and ultimately the very constitution of the object “madness.” If the affects of the researcher are interrogated, they make it possible to shed light not only on the visible world, but also on the invisible world that surrounds madness, bordering it and inscribing it in a particular social context (Jaffré and Olivier de Sardan 1999). This question runs through Boudina’s article where the documenting of an encounter with a person suffering a mental disorder ends up convoking a whole social world along with its hierarchies, its invisible dimension, and the symbolic violence that flows from it—beginning with that which results from the author’s own position as researcher. The sentiments involved are not necessarily always negative, of course. Tiquet readily reveals his “sympathy” for the French psychiatric doctor working in Bobo-Dioulasso during the 1970s, “with whom he communicated for more than seven years.” Here the figure of the doctor, often conflated with the medical objectivation which underlies the role, is rendered more complex, much to the benefit of the research. For this sympathy makes it possible to come closer to the lived experience of an actor involved in postcolonial cooperation and its everyday (affective) implications.

29This issue thus reveals the materials and the approach surrounding the understanding of madness, the ensuing developments, and the path of discovery via which it comes into contact with the researcher. The microhistorical approach employed in some of the articles here makes it possible to highlight, beyond the singular trajectories of the lives concerned, the play of affects that flows from any encounter with madness. Each situation reveals a background that makes it possible to approach intimate details that overflow the contours of the illness. Notre Journal, as studied by Marquis, for example, reveals different subjectivities to those consigned to medical files or described in the writings of Frantz Fanon. Central to Draicchio’s analysis is refusal, a problem that is rarely talked about. While the researcher may free themselves of the constraints produced by the disorder, the respondent continues to struggle with them long after it has receded (Blatgé 2014). Of course, then, it is possible that one of the first responses of the respondent will be refusal. But the request formulated by the researcher, whether or not it meets with a response, confronts the respondents with prohibitions, anxieties, fears, and the unsaid which the researcher, precisely, is trying to bring to light. In some cases the researcher can then become somewhat complicit in “evil” acts, sometimes of great violence, by belonging for example to the register of sorcery (Fancello 2018).

30While it does not seek to definitively fix the meaning of madness, this special issue unveils the multiple tensions that arise in works that attempt to situate it within social and historical coordinates, some of which are impossible to fully grasp, particularly for the person concerned. This incommensurability may in part be countered by illusory images of the archive or of ethnographic observation, which aspire to be places of meaning-making and therefore of the ordering of disorders. But this is the profoundly distressing and specific character of the object “madness”: it is always overflowing and can only be located in its effects, without it being really possible to fully determine its ontological sense. This gives rise to a feeling of discomfort, since the plurality of situations encountered often do not allow us to extract from them any kind of univocity. Draicchio confronts this throughout her investigation: “What Fadhila was going through was not an ‘illness’ to be healed from, but a complex experience,” an experience that was connected to many situations other than just psychiatric internment. This incommensurability of an always-plural madness that is never a pure repetition must be confronted. The question of the positionality of the researcher is therefore central: to explicate the position that they occupy is to begin to dissolve the myth of omniscience, and to understand how their own perspectives and prejudices can influence not only methodological choices but the very conclusions of their research. Although the appropriate response is not always obvious, it is our collective duty to reflect upon what underlies our questions and our analytical frameworks. The contributions to this issue participate in such a reflection, in which the forms of intimacy woven between researcher and respondents make a significant contribution to the development of an epistemological basis for the study of madness in Africa.

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1 For a more complete overview of the construction of this category, see the introduction to the special issue of Politique africaine “L’ordinaire de la folie” (Aït Mehdi and Tiquet 2020).

2 See Parfait Dtematio Akana’s research project in progress, “The Theme of Madness in Televisual Creation in Cameroon: An Essay in Visual Anthropology.” Video on the YouTube channel of the Institut d’études avancées de Nantes, June 19, 2018,

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Electronic reference

Gina Aïtmehdi, Camille Evrard, Raphaël Gallien and Paul Marquis, “Introduction. Traces of Madness: African Sources and Terrains (20th–21st Century)”Sources: Materials & Fieldwork in African Studies [Online], 8 | 2024, Online since 05 July 2024, connection on 12 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Gina Aïtmehdi

Institut des mondes africains (IMAF), CNRS; Laboratoire d’anthropologie des mondes contemporains (LAMC), Université libre de Bruxelles.

Camille Evrard

Institut des mondes africains (IMAF), CNRS.

Raphaël Gallien

Institut des mondes africains (IMAF), CNRS; Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains et asiatiques (CESSMA), Université Paris Cité.

Paul Marquis

Institut des mondes africains (IMAF), CNRS ; Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po (CHSP).

By this author

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