Bruce Hall's research is focused on the intellectual and social history of a region of West Africa called the Sahel, which straddles the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It encompasses the modern countries of Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Most of the research that he has carried out has been based in and around the northern Malian town of Timbuktu, in a sub-region of the Sahel called the Niger Bend. He has worked in Timbuktu because it is the site of remarkable collections of written sources in Arabic from across the Sahel and further a field in the Muslim world.
His work is located at the intersection between West Africa's Muslim high intellectual culture and social and economic issues which that intellectual culture sought to address. His first book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. It is an intellectual history of arguments made about race and slavery in the West African Sahel. It reveals the long history of racial ideas in this region, and the different work that racial ideas were made to do over a period of more than three hundred years.
He is currently working on a second book project that focuses on the history of enslaved commercial agents in a nineteenth-century Saharan commercial network that connected Ghadames (Libya) and Timbuktu (Mali). Using more than a thousand Arabic letters found today in Timbuktu from the same extended family firm, he has identified a number of literate slaves who acted as commercial representatives for their masters in different markets of the Niger Bend region between 1850 and 1900. These slaves wrote and received letters to/from their masters. The book is tentatively called Bonds of Trade: Slavery and Commerce in the 19th-century circum-Saharan World.
For many years he has also been involved with a bibliographic database of Arabic manuscript materials from across West Africa developed by Charles Stewart, called the West African Arabic Manuscript Database (WAAMD), which can be viewed online at https://waamd.lib.berkeley.edu.