Professor Dame Karin Barber CBE, FBA

Professor Dame Karin Barber

Department of African Studies and Anthropology
Emeritus Professor of African Cultural Anthropology

Contact details

Department of African Studies and Anthropology
School of History and Cultures
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I am an anthropologist with a particular interest in popular culture, religion, and the verbal arts, both oral and written. Most of my research has been in the Yoruba-speaking area of Nigeria, and I am currently working on early Yoruba print culture. 


  • BA Cantab
  • Dip.Soc.Anth.London
  • PhD Ife


Karin Barber did her first degree in English at Cambridge. She then went on to study social anthropology at University College London before doing a PhD at the University of Ifẹ, Nigeria (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Her doctoral research was based on 37 months’ field work in Okuku, a Yoruba town, where she studied the role of oral poetic performance in everyday life. She then became a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ifẹ, where Yoruba was used as the teaching medium. 

While working at Ife, she did research on Yoruba popular theatre, joining the Oyin Adejọbi Theatre Company, travelling extensively with them and performing in their improvised Yoruba-language plays, both on stage and on television. After eleven years in Nigeria, Karin returned to the UK and was appointed to a lectureship at the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, where she went on to become Professor, and now Emeritus Professor,  of African Cultural Anthropology. She has also had visiting appointments at Northwestern University, first as Preceptor of the Institute of Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities (1993-4) and then as Melville Herskovits Distinguished Visiting Professor (1999). More recently, she was appointed a Mellon Foundation Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (2014).

In 2018 she took up a three-year position as Centennial Professor in the Anthropology Department, LSE.

Several of her books have won prestigious prizes. Her first monograph,  I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town (1991) won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology, awarded by the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre (2000) won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association of the USA. The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (2007) won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association. Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012) won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association of the USA and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources. 

In 2019 Karin received the President’s Life-time Achievement Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In 2018 she received the Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the UK. She  was appointed a CBE for services to African Studies in 2012. In the same year she received a University Award for Excellence in Doctoral Researcher Supervision. She served as the British Academy's Vice-President (Humanities) 2008-10, and Council Member 2007-10, having been elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003. From 2006 to 2014 she was editor and then co-editor of Africa, the journal of the International African Institute. She still plays a minor editorial role on the journal as well as serving as a Trustee of the International African Institute. She was President of the African Studies Association of the UK (2000-2002).  In 2001-3 she was awarded a 2-year British Academy Research Readership. She has been given a Yoruba chieftaincy title, and is the Iyamoye of Okuku.


Throughout her career at the University of Birmingham, Karin created and delivered courses on aspects of African popular culture and religion. She pioneered a Yoruba language course for beginners which took language learning as a point of entry into the culture of the Yoruba, and was built around her own course text, later revised in collaboration with Dr Akin Oyetade and re-published as Yoruba Wuyi (1999). A memorable feature of this course was the annual play in Yoruba, created and performed by the students. On several occasions they were invited to perform their play for schools, for African cultural and social organisations, and for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  

At postgraduate level she taught a Masters level module on media and popular culture in Africa as well as contributing to the team-taught core module Research Skills and Methods for African Studies.


Karin’s main interest is African everyday culture, with a central focus on verbal texts, both oral and written, in African languages. Most of her research has been concentrated on the Yoruba speaking area of southwestern Nigeria, but she has also done broader comparative work on popular culture across sub-Saharan Africa (see overview “Popular Arts in Africa”, Readings in African Popular Culture, and her new book A History of African Popular Culture (2018)) and on approaches to texts in Africa and beyond (see The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics). She led a collaborative project on everyday uses of literacy in colonial Africa, looking at letters, diaries, locally-published fiction and other texts; this resulted in the edited volume Africa’s Hidden Histories (2006). She is a co-founder and one of the leaders of an international research network on the African press, out of which has come the edited volume African Print Cultures (2016), ed. Derek Peterson, Emma Hunter and Stephanie Newell.  Her current research, initially supported by an AHRC Research Leave award, focuses on the Yoruba-language print culture of early 20th century Lagos: one strand of this research has been published as Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel (2012). 

Other activities

Karin is editor of a themed strand on African local intellectuals within the journal Africa, and has been appointed a Trustee of the International African Institute.  She has played several roles in the British Academy, having served on the BASIS Committee (responsible for 15 British Academy-sponsored Institutes and Schools), the Africa Area Panel, and the Publications Committee (2013-19). She was Vice-President (Humanities) 2008-10.

She is the principal External Examiner for M.A. programmes in African Studies at UCL and SOAS.


Authored books 

  • 2018, A History of African Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press.
  • 2012, Yorù Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel: I.B.Thomas’s ‘Life Story of Me, Sẹgilọla’ and Other Texts. African Sources for African History series. Leiden: Brill. Winner of Paul Hair Prize 2013.
  • 2007, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics: Oral and Written Culture in Africa and Beyond. Cambridge University Press.  Winner of the Susanne K. Langer Award (2009).
  • 2000, The Generation of Plays: Yorùbá Popular Life in Theater. Indiana University Press. Winner of Herskovits Award (2001) and shortlisted for George Freedley Memorial Award.
  • 2000, Yorùbá Dùn ún So: A Beginners' Course in Yorùbá (Part 2). Ibadan: New Horn Press. ISBN 978 2266 32 9. 119 pages.
  • 1999, Yoruba Wuyi (with Akin Oyetade). A revised and substantially expanded version of Yoruba Dun un So, Part I. London:  Hakuna Matata Press (reprinted 2000, 2001).
  • 1997, West African Popular Theatre (with John Collins and Alain Ricard). Indiana University Press.
  • 1994, Yorùbá Popular Theatre: Three Plays By The Oyin Adéjobí Company (with Báyo Ògúndíjo). African Historical Sources Series no 9: Atlanta: ASA Press. 
  • 1997, West African Popular Theatre (with John Collins and Alain Ricard). Indiana University Press. 
  • 1991, I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, women and the past in a Yoruba town. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Winner of the Amaury Talbot Prize.

Edited books

  • 2006, Africa’s Hidden Histories: everyday literacy and making the self. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Includes Barber, “Introduction: hidden innovators in Africa” (pp. 1-24) and “Writing, genre and a schoolmaster’s inventions in the Yoruba provinces” (pp. 385-415).
  • 1997, Readings in African Popular Culture. James Currey and Indiana University Press for the International African Institute. 
  • 1990, Self-assertion and Brokerage: Early Cultural Nationalism in West Africa (with P.F. de Moraes Farias). Birmingham University African Studies Series 2: Birmingham. 
  • 1989, Discourse and its Disguises: the Interpretation of African Oral Texts (with P.F. de Moraes Farias). Birmingham University African Studies Series 1: Birmingham. 

Special (edited) issues of journals

  • 2006, with Graham Furniss. Research in African Literatures vol. 37, no. 3: special issue on “Writing in African Languages”. Includes introductory essay “African-language writing”, with Graham Furniss (1-14) and “Oladejo Okediji on his writing life”, with Oladejo Okediji (28-44). 
  • 1997, Africa vol. 67, no. 3: Special Issue on "Audiences in Africa".

Selected recent articles in scholarly journals 

  • 2014, "A new text and a new public"Anthropology of this Century, issue 10, May 2014.
  • 2013, “Yorùbá nílé àti ní ìlú òkèèrè” (with translation, “Yoruba at home and abroad”), Journal of African Cultural Studies 25 (2).
  • 2012, “Foreword” to special issue of Research in African Literatures, “Measuring Time: Karin Barber and the Study of Everyday Africa”, ed. Onookome Okome and Stephanie Newell.  Research in African Literatures 43 (4): v-vi.  
  • 2007, “When people cross thresholds”, African Studies Review 50, 2 (111-123)(special issue on Jane Guyer’s book Marginal Gains). 
  • 2006, with P.F. de Moraes Farias. “Archive as work-in-progress”, Current Writing —Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 18, 2 (14-32).  
  • 2003, “Text and performance in Africa”, Bulletin of SOAS, 66, 3 (324-333). Revised and republished in Oral Tradition 20, 2, 2005.
  • 2001, “Audiences and the book”, Current Writing 13, 2.

Selected recent chapters in edited books

  • 2018, “In praise of history; history as praise”, in Landscapes, Sources and Intellectual Projects: Politics, History and the West African Past, ed. Benedetta Rossi and Toby Green. Leiden: Brill.

  • 2017, “Experiments with text: Fagunwa and his precursors, E.A.Akintan and I.B.Thomas”, in Celebrating D. O. Fagunwa: Aspects of African and World Literary History, ed. Adeleke Adeeko and Akin Adesokan. Ibadan: Bookcraft.

  • 2016, “Authorship, copyright and quotation in oral and print spheres in early colonial Yorubaland”, in Copyright Africa: how intellectual property, media and markets transform immaterial cultural goods, ed. Ute Röschenthaler and Mamadou Diawara. Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing.

  • 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.

  • 2015, “Speaking out: dissent and creativity in the colonial era and beyond”, in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, ed. Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. London: British Library. With Stephanie Newell.

  • 2014, “Foreword”, in African Popular Culture: the episteme of the everyday, ed. Stephanie Newell and Onookome Okome. London: Routledge (xv-xxii). 

  • 2014, “Yoruba language and literature”, Oxford Bibliographies in African Studies, ed. Thomas Spear (

  • 2013, “Ecriture privée et publique en Afrique de l’Ouest à l’époque coloniale”, in Les Usages des Ecrits du For Privé: Afrique, Amérique, Asie, Europe, ed. François-Joseph Ruggiu. Collection Comparatisme et Société no. 25, Brussels: P.I.E.Peter Lang.

  • 2012, “Interpreting texts and performances”, in ASA Handbook of Social Anthropology, ed. Richard Fardon et al. London: Sage.

  • 2009, “I.B.Akinyele and early Yoruba print culture”, in Recasting the past: history writing and political work in twentieth century Africa, ed. Derek Peterson and Giacomo Macola. Ohio University Press. 
  • 2009, “Orality, the media, and new popular cultures in Africa”, in Media in Africa and the Construction of Identity, ed. John Middleton and Kimani Njogu, International African Seminars series. London: International African Institute.
  • 2007, “Improvisation and the art of making things stick”, in Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, ed. Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold. ASA Monographs 44. Oxford and New York: Berg (25-41). 
  • 2006, “African histories of textuality”, in Studying transcultural literary history, ed. Gunilla Lindberg-Wada. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter (66-75).
  • 2005  “Translation, publics and the vernacular press in 1920s Lagos”, in Christianity and social change in Africa: essays in honour of J.D.Y.Peel, ed. Toyin Falola. Carolina Academic Press (187-208).
  • 2004, “Literacy, improvisation and the virtual script in Yoruba popular theatre”, in African Drama and Performance, ed. John Conteh-Morgan and Tejumola Olaniyan, Indiana University Press. 
  • 2004, "Literature in Yorùbá: poetry and prose; traveling theatre and modern drama", in The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, vol. 1, ed. F.Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi, Cambridge University Press (357-78).
  • 2002, “An archive of Yorùbá religious ephemera”, Africa Bibliography 2000, ed. T.A. Barringer. Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute (vii-xix). With Moraes Farias.
  • 2000, "Introduction: cultural negotiations", in Contesting Forestry in West Africa, ed. R. Cline-Cole and C.Madge. Aldershot & Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate (99-103).
  • 2000, "The use of English in Yorùbá popular plays", in Kiss and Quarrel, ed. Stewart Brown. Birmingham University African Studies Series no. 6.