Cohen, David William 1943-
Cohen, David William 1943-
The Historical Tradition of Busoga, Mukama and Kintu, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1972.
(Editor and author of introduction, with Jack P. Greene) Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedman of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1972.
Womunafu's Bunafu: A Study of Authority in a Nineteenth-Century African Community, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1977.
(Editor, with E.S. Atieno Odhiambo) Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1989.
(With E.S. Atieno Odhiambo) Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1992.
The Combing of History, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.
(Editor, with Luise White and Stephan F. Miescher) African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 2001.
(With E.S. Atieno Odhiambo) The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 2004.
(With Michael D. Kennedy) Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics, Scholarly Publishing Office (Ann Arbor, MI), 2005.
David William Cohen is an academic and serves as the Lemuel A. Johnson Collegiate Professor of African Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. His research interests include the difference between the concepts of scholarly, public, private, and official; the authoritative grounds and fates of different forms of expertise; and precolonial Uganda.
Cohen published his first book, The Historical Tradition of Busoga, Mukama and Kintu, in 1972. That same year, he also edited Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedman of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World with Jack P. Greene. He went on to publish Womunafu's Bunafu: A Study of Authority in a Nineteenth-Century African Community in 1977. He then edited Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape with E.S. Atieno Odhiambo in 1989.
In 1992, Cohen published Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, again working with Odhiambo. The book discusses the burial of the Luo-Kenyan S.M. Otieno, which was extensively publicized since his widow sued to prevent his family from performing traditional burial rights on his body. Gail Gerhart, writing in Foreign Affairs, stated that "the authors of this intriguing account offer a chorus of conflicting voices and invite readers to draw their own conclusions." Margaret Jean Hay, reviewing the book in the Journal of African History, noted that Cohen and Atieno Odhiambo, who both possess "exceptional talent have here shown us how it is possible to peel away the many layers of the Otieno story. Unfortunately, they have left us with the onion peel rather than a satisfying stew. Their emphasis on posing questions rather than suggesting answers ultimately gives the impression that all texts are equally valid. Surely the essence of our work as historians is to weigh different evidence, different testimonies, and then to use our training, our experience, and our best judgment to attempt historical reconstruction."
Cohen next published The Combing of History in 1994. The essay collection presents a study on the social construction of memory. Philippe Carrard, reviewing the book in Clio, pointed out that "Cohen's attempt to account for processes of remembering, researching, and writing raises several issues." Nevertheless, Carrard concluded that the book "will appeal to various types of readers. Cultural critics like Bruno Latour and Dominick LaCapra have taken on the human sciences for lacking self-reflexivity, especially for presenting results without accounting for the way(s) such results were obtained. One of Cohen's merits is to do in practice what those critics advocate in theory, and his book should entice those of us who follow attempts to question and renew forms of historical writing. Yet The Combing of History will also interest readers whose concerns are more for the ‘stuff’ of history properly speaking. Specialists in African and American histories, in particular, will find detailed analyses of cases which Cohen may present as marginal, but which point to issues of class, gender, and race that are in fact central on both continents." In an article in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, T.H. Breen commented that "Cohen's style is provisional, as if he intended to invite readers to a workshop or conference to discuss questions about the construction of memory. Although the open-ended quality of his presentation is refreshing, Cohen could have explored some issues with greater rigor. He does not provide much guidance to historians attempting to create coherent narratives out of contesting perspectives."
David Henige, writing in the Journal of African History, commented that "like the works by authors Cohen praises (Natalie Z. Davis, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, Carlo Ginzburg) The Combing of History is microhistory, designed to explicate an approach to the past through a series of vignettes. There the resemblance ends, for no discussion in The Combing of History takes the reader very far, and they are consociated only because Cohen happened to take a perfunctory interest in the subject matter. Even the fifty pages devoted to the Johnson County war only nibble at the edges of a possibly interesting study if looked at considerably more closely and widely, and with greater discipline." Henige thought that "some might feel that the approach exemplified in The Combing of History affords decided advantages. It licenses a rhetoric of self-display calculated to celebrate the values of the community or show the writer's virtuosity. It does not regard abiding repetition as cloying. It promotes the use of trigger words in place of reasoned analysis. Best of all, by venturing no judgments, by confronting new sources, and by refusing to judge among them, it inoculates historians against imputations of error." Henige mentioned that "when this was written, bookshops were displaying a series of books featuring Magic Eye[R] pictures—‘three-dimensional’ amorphous collages that purport to include hidden images, if only viewers would let themselves descry them. The pictures seem to have found an enthusiastic audience—it is not unusual to observe small groups of people gathered around them, trading visions with one another." That said, Henige noted that "it is not hard to imagine either why reading The Combing of History brought these bookshop crowds to mind. In the end, reading it tells us something about the tenets of postmodernism, rather less about the cases at hand, and virtually nothing about how to grapple productively with the detritus of the past, whether artefact or human memory. We learn most about the author. David Cohen inadvertently makes his case by hopelessly confusing the pursuit of self with the pursuit of the past, and in this sense Combing History serves as a useful tocsin, reminding us how profoundly the writing of history can degenerate into little more than indulgent and diffuse authorial musings projected onto, but hardly into, the historical record."
In 2001, Cohen edited African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History with Luise White and Stephan F. Miescher. Based on papers presented at two international conferences in 1997, the book mixes viewpoints on African oral history from African historians and other social scientists with those of non-African scholars of the continent. Christopher J. Lee, writing in the Oral History Review, found that although "often conceptual in focus, it is still important to recognize the origins of these essays in well-grounded research. The best of them are, in a sense, stories of failure. Megan Vaughan, Giles-Vernick, and others fruitfully incorporate personal memoir into their chapters to convey the ongoing lessons of try-and-try-again that are learned in the field. Such essays combined with the introduction's overview make this a recommended volume for teaching students the basics of fieldwork methodology. This collection should also be of interest to practitioners of oral history outside of Africa seeking a summary of recent innovation, though the inclusion of maps would have been helpful in this regard. Overall, this is an important collection, sure to advance discussion in new directions."
Richard Roberts, writing in Biography, remarked that the book "adds considerably to the important and dense body of interpretation and analysis of oral historical sources. Most of the oral evidence examined in this collection … deals with historical phenomena from the middle of the twentieth century or later. One of the unexamined aspects of the critical use of oral historical sources in this volume is the status of precolonial and early twentieth century oral history." Roberts warned that "historians of Africa will be facing a major crisis if our use of African voices is limited to the study of contemporary history." Roberts had a small criticism, however, suggesting that "a map would have been useful."
With E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Cohen published The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990 in 2004. The account covers the successful career of Kenyan foreign minister John Robert Ouko before turning to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his murder. David M. Anderson, writing in the Journal of African History, remarked that "it is fourteen years now since Ouko was murdered, and no one has yet been prosecuted for the crime. Meanwhile, Nicolas Biwott remains an important figure in Kenya's domestic politics. A book such as this reminds us that there is still much work to be done in restoring democratic, accountable government to Kenya, and that history may yet have a role to play in that process."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Africa, spring, 1993, David M. Anderson, review of Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, p. 284.
African Studies Review, April, 1995, Edward I. Steinhart, review of Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, p. 171.
American Anthropologist, December, 1990, Ben G. Blount, review of Siaya, p. 1053.
American Historical Review, October, 1993, Bruce J. Berman, review of Burying SM, p. 1202; April, 2003, Elizabeth Tonkin, review of African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History, p. 614.
Biography, summer, 2003, Richard Roberts, review of African Words, African Voices, p. 504.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, September, 2005, T. Natsoulas, review of The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, p. 162.
Clio, summer, 1995, Philippe Carrard, review of The Combing of History, p. 437.
Foreign Affairs, November 1, 1993, Gail Gerhart, review of Burying SM, p. 184.
International Journal of African Historical Studies, fall, 1990, Nancy Schwartz, review of Siaya, p. 738; winter, 1995, Parker Shipton, review of Burying SM, p. 169; winter, 2002, review of African Words, African Voices, p. 153; spring, 2005, Susanne Mueller, review of The Risks of Knowledge, p. 343.
Journal of African History, August, 1991, Richard Waller, review of Siaya, p. 530; May, 1993, Margaret Jean Hay, review of Burying SM, p. 335; May, 1995, David Henige, review of The Combing of History, p. 311; March, 2007, David M. Anderson, review of The Risks of Knowledge, p. 165.
Journal of American History, September, 1995, David W. Noble, review of The Combing of History, p. 672.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, fall, 1996, T.H. Breen, review of The Combing of History, p. 278; spring, 2003, David Henige, review of African Words, African Voices, p. 577.
Journal of Modern African Studies, December, 1993, April Gordon, review of Burying SM, p. 704.
Journal of the History of Ideas, October, 1994, review of The Combing of History, p. 699.
Oral History Review, December 22, 2004, Christopher J. Lee, review of African Words, African Voices, p. 83.
Reference & Research Book News, May, 2005, review of The Risks of Knowledge, p. 59.
University of Michigan Web site,http://www.umich.edu/ (March 28, 2008), author profile.