Professor Karin Barber

Professor Karin Barber

Visiting Professor

Department of Anthropology

Room No
OLD 6.07
Office Hours
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Key Expertise
Yoruba, Western Nigeria

About me

Karin Barber is an Africanist anthropologist whose work has focused on the anthropology of texts, oral performance, popular culture and religion. Her core regional specialism is Yoruba (Western Nigeria).

She did undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Cambridge and UCL before undertaking a PhD at the University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University), Nigeria. Her early research was on the social significance of praise poetry, based on three years of field work in a small Yoruba town. She went on to perform and travel with a Yoruba popular theatre troupe, while working as a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at Ifẹ.  Her most recent research is an archival project on early Yoruba print culture, exploring experimentation with genre and the emergence of new publics in Lagos. Out of this research, which is still ongoing, has come Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012). In each of these studies, she sees creative forms as emerging from particular socio-historical conditions and existing through specific shared conventions which audiences as well as producers actively engage with and continually reshape. 

She has also done comparative work that extends well beyond the Yoruba area. Her book The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (2007) proposes an integrated approach to textual production in social context and draws on examples from across the world. Her most recent book, A History of African Popular Culture (2018) offers a comparative interdisciplinary exploration of the emergence of popular genres over 400 years across the continent, and reflects on the theoretical and methodological challenges of using oral sources and pre-colonial written records to retrieve a history of often ephemeral and disregarded cultural forms.

After studying and teaching in Nigeria for eleven years, Barber joined the Centre of West African Studies (now the Department of African Studies and Anthropology) at Birmingham, where she taught for over 30 years on topics including African religion and ritual; Africa, ethnography and film; African media and popular culture; and Yoruba language and culture.

Beyond the university, she served as editor (2006-2009) and co-editor with David Pratten (2009-14) of the International African Institute’s journal Africa; she has continued to edit the “local intellectuals” strand of this journal, which she initiated in order to retrieve and bring to a new audience the writing of African thinkers operating outside the mainstream academic sphere. She has also contributed actively to the British Academy, to which she was elected as a Fellow in 2003. She is a member of the Anthropology and Geography section as well as the Africa, Asia and the Middle East section. She served as a Vice-President of the British Academy (2008-10) and is currently a member of the Publications Committee.

Expertise Details

Texts; Performance; Popular culture; Yoruba language; Print culture; Oral genres; Religion

Selected publications

2018       A History of African Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press.

2018       “In praise of history; history as praise”, in Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual

                Projects of the West African Past, ed. Toby Green and Benedetta Rossi.

                Leiden: Brill (312-331).

2016 “Experiments with genre in Yoruba newspapers of the 1920s”, in African Print Cultures, ed. Derek R. Peterson, Stephanie Newell & Emma Hunter, Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press.