Nancy J. Jacobs Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies

I received an MA in African Studies from UCLA and a PhD in History from Indiana University. South African historiography had a strong tradition of social history, but looking at rural areas, I felt that a stronger consideration of environmental factors was necessary to understand the decline of agriculture and increase in dependence on wage labor among black South Africans. This was the subject of my dissertation research and of my subsequent monograph, Environment, Power, and Injustice: A South African History (Cambridge 2003). The common theme between my first book and my current research on people and birds is that both probe the nexus between environment, social division, and power.

Brown Affiliations

Research Areas

research overview

My book "Birders of Africa: History of a Network" is forthcoming with Yale University Press in 2016. Drawing on Actor Network Theory and employing the approach of micro-history, I examine intersections between African and European birders. I explore how local African, scientific, and colonial forces structured these relationships. Through close examination of individual lives, I identify the aspirations and affective ties that drew birders to seek expertise and status through their collaborations.

research statement

My book manuscript, "Birders of Africa: History of a Network," examines the interplay between local knowledge and science at the micro and macro levels. At the macro-level I consider the nature of agrarian bird knowledge and the history of ornithology in colonial Africa. I have found Actor Network Theory useful for reframing some debates about imperial science and its relation with local expertise. At the micro-level I work with the biographies of birders engaged in collaboration. These show that the structuring forces of race and empire left room for individual variation. Birders from all traditions sought status as experts, but the rewards of expertise differed greatly.

In addition to this monograph project, I have completed the first of two planned volumes of a sourcebook developed through my own teaching. African History through Sources: Colonial Contexts and Everyday Experiences appeared in early 2014 with Cambridge University Press. This volume arranges over 120 primary sources in a narrative of the history of colonial sub-Saharan Africa. Entries include government documents, memoirs by "ordinary" people and politicians, interviews with illiterate people whose perspectives might otherwise be forgotten, commentary by intellectuals, song lyrics, and photographs. A second volume, on Africa from 1945 through 2015, is under contract.

funded research