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African Ethnology

Tips for Finding Articles

Articles about this subject can be found in publications from a wide variety of disciplines. Use the databases on this page to get access to thousands of articles examining the subject from different perspectives or browse the key publications shown.

If the full text of an article is not available in a database, click on the sfxfind icon to find other options for getting the article.

A Note on Terminology...

As you begin, keep in mind that:

Words like "tribe" and "dialect" can be disparaging if used incorrectly. People in Africa cannot be described as being members of "tribes" or speaking "dialects" any more than a European could be described as belonging to the French "tribe",   or speaking the German "dialect".

"Ethnic conflict" in the former Yugoslavia, "religious strife" in Northern Ireland and "tribal warfare" in Rwanda all mean the same thing:

People of different ethnicities, languages, religions or beliefs killing each other for reasons no outsider can understand.

Names of Ethnic Groups

Determining the correct name is the essential first step in research.

 For instance, Fula, Fulani, Fulbe, Peul, and Pullo are all terms used to refer to the same ethnic group in West Africa.

The people call themselves Fula.
Their Hausa neighbors call them Fulani.

The phonemes "p" and "f" are interchangeable in Fula speech, so outsiders may hear and transcribe words differently, for example, Fula and Pullo.

The Fula people were colonized by both the French and the English, and this led to orthographic variations such as Peul. Just to make things interesting, there are subgroups of the Fula, such as Bororo or Wodaabe which are also used as subject headings.

This is not just an interesting bit of academic trivia.

Nomenclature affects the search terms you choose for research in the library catalog, on the Web, and even in printed indexes and bibliographies.

If you go to any library catalog -- at BU, elsewhere or on World Cat -- and put in a subject search for Peul, you will be directed to the established subject heading Fula (African People) or Fula (African Language), and thus to the works in the collection. Libraries take great care to determine the most accurate term and establish that as the subject heading, with cross references from other terms. Most indexes and Web search engines only match your search term with words used in the text.

If you use Peul as a word search in the catalog, you may only get works in French, and will only find other works by looking at the subject headings and following up Fula (African People). In an index, you will not be as likely to find cross references, and might zero out, even though there are citations that could be of great interest to you. They are just hidden because you haven't matched the term used in the title, abstract or text of the article.

Arm yourself with a list of all the possible variations on the name of the ethnic group and its language before you start searching in indexes. Being prepared is half the battle when it comes to research.

Locations of Ethnic Groups

Keep in mind that ethnic groups in Africa often overlap political boundaries.

Sometimes the countries they straddle have very different histories and that has influenced the culture and language of the ethnic group. 

For example, the Shangaan - Tsonga people straddle the border of South Africa and Mozambique. While they essentially speak the same language and customs for the most part remain the same, the orthographies and borrowed words vary greatly between the two countries. 


Head, African Studies Library

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Beth Restrick
African Studies Library
6th floor, Mugar Memorial Library

Mon-Fri, 9am- 5pm
Subjects: African Studies