Reflections from the African Studies Association (ASA) 2017

I was very excited to attend the African Studies Association (ASA) in Chicago from Nov. 16 – 18 in part because I recently attended the African Studies Association in Africa (ASAA) in Accra in October 2017. I was keen to observe the differences and possible similarities. Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed was the range of ages; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference that had such a wide spectrum of generations. I wish we had taken a group photo to illustrate the point! I came across a huge range of white-haired elderly men and women (largely white) (65+), “middle aged” black and white men and women (40s – 60), and young scholars of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds in their late 20s to late 30s.

I noted that while the conversations at ASAA were quite radical in their calls for decolonizing knowledge and bringing about a more African centered-ness in research and praxis, I did not feel the same sort of fervor and calls for radical disruption of the academy at the ASA. (Though it is hard to also be able to speak about ASA as a whole, because there were so many more people in attendance, approximately 1,300? and so hard to attend many of the sessions and even to get a sense of the hallway conversations simply given the scale of conversations.)

Another notable difference was that in contrast to rhetoric revolving about binaries of “African” / “non-African” at the ASAA, at the ASA, I felt much more of the disciplinary divides. While, my identity as an anthropologist is newly formed given that I only took my first class in anthropology two years ago (when I first entered UCI Anthropology department), the disciplinary differences, even within just the social sciences, appeared very stark. For example, during the last panel sessions on the last day of the conference, I listened to a roundtable that unbeknownst to me at the time, was entirely comprised of political scientists from one American university. I was particularly intrigued in the panel given the title: “The Forest and the Trees: Reflexivity on the African Research Industry.” However, instead of a discussion about the structural powers of development funding, institutions, historical legacy of colonialism, and the types of knowledges produced and favored (topics widely discussed at ASAA), the conversation focused much more on whether or not “insider” or “outsider” research work was insightful.

While I appreciated the intentions behind the questions (“the rationale for putting this panel together was to discuss how we are trying to navigate the constraints of the research environment”), given their supposed interest in the stated topic, I was floored by the seeming lack of awareness or acknowledgement about the long-standing nuanced discussions within feminist literature and anthropological work on similar questions of positionality, intersectionality, and implications for epistemology and methodology.

A white American man on the panel who works within a development institution in Nairobi stated:

“When you are living there [Kenya?] for a time, you learn to see things through a different lens. This moves you into a weird sort of zone… I flew in to Nebraska last week and was sitting across from my parents and asked – How did this happen? I don’t even know who you are… that doesn’t mean that I’ve become African…But I just felt that I don’t know this place [Nebraska]… I get annoyed in this country [USA]. But when I can work closely with Africans… work closely with Kenyans and wrestle with deep things. Empower them. When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together.”

This quote seemed to reveal someone grappling with their own identity (as we all do/are!) through a cultural experience abroad, but the problematic aspect of it was the idealizing of the working relationships “with Africans” that I heard. “When we are working together doing a project, there is a synthesis of working together” sounds like exactly what a researcher promoting a participatory approach would advocate for… but especially given that this man was the supervisor for the Kenyan students that he saw as “collaborators” with the power to pass or fail them, how did they view their relationship with him? “Empowering”? I think we have an incomplete picture until we can hear their take on it and unfortunately, given that the conference was in Chicago and not Nairobi, his take on their relationship was the only one we heard…

After listening for over 30 minutes, I interjected that it sounded like panelists were collapsing citizenship and race to be the main frames for “insider” and “outsider.” To me, it appeared that they assumed that a Black African was the ultimate “insider” and a White American, the ultimate “outsider.” I brought up that subjectivity is relational and also performative (which they laughed because they took to mean conscious performance – a gap in understandings of the concept was revealed here). Flattening one’s identity into one aspect – whether it be gender, race, occupation, age, citizenship, etc. misses on the whole range of subjectivities and positions. To assume that shared “race” and citizenship for example means that someone understands (or can speak for) the country seems simplistic. For example, simply hiring a Kenyan to work with you does not mean that they have the “truth” that you [Westerner] do not… But they will likely have a different and helpful insight into the research work. Moving away from idealizing or romanticizing towards open discussions what each person brings to the table (and doesn’t!) fosters a research relationship that I think can lay the foundation for collaborative generative ideas across diverse backgrounds. Acknowledging the power asymmetries and structures in place that constraining, restrict and limit contributions is also important to think about and discuss. While historical privilege and asymmetries of power do not cease to exist simply through discussion (if they did, all the academic discussion about them would have solved them by now!! :), recognizing and grappling with them may in time lead to better ideas about how to begin to imagine, shift, reshape a more liberatory future.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, it was obvious that the ASA has come far from its original founding as an outside, Western center of knowledge on Africa. Members and leaders have incorporated critiques about Western production of knowledge about Africa and have attempted to broaden the range of perspectives in its decision making and power. I was very pleased to see the wide range of representation from many different parts of the continent. However, the lingua franca of the conference was still solely English (one of my suggestions for future iterations of the ASAA to improve on as well) and at the end of the day, the ASA is still a US-based event and organization. In this way, simply by the fact of being sited on the continent, the ASAA is a conference that both the ASA and scholars of Africa should support. @halimahima notes: “Delocalising an African Studies conference back to the continent is in itself a revolutionary act.” I look forward to attending both the ASAA and ASA in future years and observing changes over time in organizational goals and dynamics.

Shifting Norms of Professionalization in a Nairobi Technology Start-Up Community

I’ve been a bit behind in updating the blog with some observations from the African Studies Association (ASA) conference that I just attended earlier this month (Nov. 16 – 18). I’m working on a separate post on the conference and will upload shortly… But in the time being, I’d like to share the paper that I presented and the ppt slides. I plan to base my final paper for HIST 290 off of these topics so I welcome any feedback, comments, additional suggested citations, etc.! Thanks!

ASA 2017 presentation_Okune

DRAFT_OKUNE_ASA Paper_Nov15_v2 (updated to include corrected name of “XL-Africa” and a works cited section).


Shifting Norms of Professionalization in a Nairobi Technology Start-Up Community

Angela Okune

November 16, 2017 – v2 (updated to include corrected name of “XL-Africa” and a works cited section).

African Studies Association (ASA) Conference Paper (with slight edits)

Tech entrepreneurship would seem to be the “anti-assembly line.” Instead of being grounded in principles of standardization and repetition, in-built in imaginaries of entrepreneurship are notions of novelty and flexibility. In contrast to the office worker, who appears to simply be a 9-5 cog in the business machine, the tech entrepreneur is viewed as a diamond in the rough… a creative genius who, if only given the right opportunities and support, has the potential to remake the world as we know it. Hard-working, (usually male and do I need to mention Black?)—the African tech entrepreneur is seen as an even more rare species and the ideal development subject because not only is he keen to develop a sustainable business (read, make money), but he also wants to help “his people” to “have a better life.” Thus, an investment in an African techie avoids the now widely accepted critiques of top-down Western development because, in supporting the growth of these African techpreneurs, not only is the individual furthered, but it is imagined that his success will also benefit all of society… well, at least that is what is imagined…

But my observations of investments into the Nairobi technology scene over the last seven years have raised questions about these fundamental ideas about tech entrepreneurship on the continent. Instead of bringing about a complete reimagining of the African development paradigm, is the development of tech entrepreneurship talent in Nairobi in fact a refashioning of the logic of an “assembly line” where instead of standardized products, we now have a particular global standard of both technological and entrepreneurial talent? Could we go so far as to even say that Kenyan youth are now the new “product” being groomed and “skilled up” for global markets?

In my brief presentation today, I hope to reveal how programs fostering tech entrepreneurship in Nairobi rely on assumptions of a particular, global legibility and Western standards that align with an ever-present desire for greater scale and replication in both product and method. And of course, this raises key questions I think the tech industry in Africa should take into account regarding the standards used to determine who is “high potential” and who is setting these standards.

For those who might be less familiar with this topic, I’ll open by briefly touching on three types of “capacity building” training programs that have emerged in the Kenyan tech space—Demo Day pitching competitions, coding bootcamps, and private companies working on “talent”. I will then discuss historical and contemporary perceptions of the Kenyan “skills gap” by drawing upon critiques of development and STS literatures that I think are helpful for framing and thinking about these training programs. I close with further questions and areas of inquiry that I think can be generative for global tech industries and those who study them.

I’ll start by situating myself just a bit. I worked for 5 years helping to start and grow the research arm of one of Nairobi’s first tech hubs, the iHub. I am now in my third year of the PhD program in Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine. My broader dissertation project focuses on questions of expertise, research infrastructures and knowledge production through the study of tech for development research in heavily saturated research sites such as Kibera. This presentation is grounded on insights I’ve gained both from living and working in Nairobi as well as a co-authored paper published earlier this year in a collective volume entitled “Digital Kenya” (Ndemo and Weiss 2017).

Developing a Tech Talent “Pipeline” (Quickly)

Since mobile money first sparked international interest in African innovation around ten years ago, hundreds of tech hubs have sprung up across the continent and global multinationals like GE, Philips and IBM have also rushed in to build their own innovation centers. The venture capital industry has also grown, especially over the last few years. In particular, the World Bank has played a key role over the years in the spread of these tech incubation hubs. A World Bank affiliate group, infoDev launched mLabs in Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa in 2011 which aimed to incubate ideas into mature and sustainable companies. Most recently, the World Bank has stated that more needs to be done to improve the marketability of these companies to global and local investors. This was the rationale for the World Bank’s latest training and pitching event, XL-Africa whose selection of 20 “star performing digital start-ups” was announced just 2 weeks ago. The program provides those selected with advice, information, branding and potential access to capital, the standard package now associated with pitching competitions.

The processes for developing and selecting what is considered mobile innovation in Africa comes in fairly “standard” forms, such as hackathons; Demo Day pitch competitions; and incubation programs. These processes for fostering innovation have been largely institutionalized within hubs through partnerships with organizations like the World Bank and private corporations like Microsoft and Google. For example, the first large-scale hackathon at the iHub in 2011 was sponsored and managed by the World Bank as part of a Water Hackathon initiative across 10 different cities in the Global South.[1] The fact that these have become seen to be the standard methods by which innovation production happens is notable for a sector that prides itself on “out of the box” thinking.

Another new World Bank initiative, Decoding Bootcamps, is looking at how coding bootcamps will improve youth employability in emerging markets.  According to their website: “Coding bootcamps are intensive full-time programs designed to train participants in certain technical skills to subsequently make them employable in quality, entry-level roles in fields such as computer programming or data science. … Coding bootcamps offer one of the fastest options to close the gap between employers’ requirements and potential employees’ skills, as well as to improve young people’s earning potential.”[2] These standardized “innovation development” methods for skilling up African youth in fact seem to be more about filling a labor gap for large tech companies…

Increasing privatization of tech education

In addition to the championing of tech entrepreneurship by Bretton Woods institutions, Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are also increasingly jumping into the fray, often as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. This is in line with what anthropologist Dinah Rajak has noted as “empowerment through enterprise” where corporate capitalism catalyzes grass-roots capitalism with promises to uplift and empower the marginalized (Rajak 2011, 185). The elevated status of corporations as vehicles of social improvement is based on their supposed ability to transcend local politics of national government and leverage the efficiency of business to offer goods and services to all people including those impoverished and excluded in the margins (Rajak 2011).

Founded in 2014, Andela is an example of an explicitly “for profit” model of training African techies. Their homepage states, “Andela invests in Africa’s most talented developers and integrates them into the world’s best tech companies.” After a rigorous selection process, those who pass sign four-year contracts during which time they work on consulting projects (largely for US tech companies) for 40 hours a week with Andela taking a cut of the income. Andela developers are young (average age is under 25) and 70 percent have computer science or engineering degrees. But a New York Times article highlighted the high need for Andela’s training is because “university curriculums in Africa tend to emphasize theory rather than modern programming tools and the techniques of fast-paced software development in teams,” (Lohr 2017).

This echoes statements that have been made by some key figures in the Kenyan tech scene. For example, Erik Hersman, co-founder of several companies viewed as business successes including Ushahidi, iHub, and BRCK and a leading voice in African tech, has raised his disenchantment with Kenyan universities: “I do not think universities will be the answer; at least, I have not seen them work for technology education. Graduates fresh out of university are, in general, not prepared to work in a technology company. They are not coming out of these institutions with the necessary skills” (Ndemo and Weiss 2017, 52).

Interviews conducted with tech venture investors (mostly foreign) in Nairobi again also echoed this sentiment. In an interview that my co-author conducted in 2015 in Nairobi, one investor mentioned: “you ask yourself, how does [this person] have a Master’s in finance…or in management…but [they] can’t present [their] idea! And you know, that’s all you have. When we make our investment decisions, we don’t have…the time to look at the company for a long time…you see them and you have to make your decision…quickly. So if they…cannot communicate their idea…if they cannot…sell it to us, then we can’t give them the money,” (original interviews by de la Chaux 2015).

Historical perspectives on the African skills gap

Though we conceive of this rhetoric as directly related to the advent of mobile tech on the continent within the last 10 years, in fact we hear this African “skills gap” rhetoric going back at least 40 years. In the World Bank’s 1974 Education Sector Policy Paper for example, it was argued that educational content in developing countries was “dysfunctional” because it was “more theoretical and abstract and less practical,” (World Bank 1974). This rhetoric paved the way for the Bank to restrict government borrowing for secondary education investments solely towards physical infrastructure such as metal and woodshops for boys, and materials for domestic science for girls as these subjects were thought to be more ‘practical’ (Heyneman 2003).

There’s much more that can and should be further investigated with regards to historical and contemporary analyses of the World Bank’s approaches to lending for education. But a key point to raise here is that while today’s tech entrepreneurship trainings may seem to be new practices to meet new demands of the African tech labor market, such training may in fact be a re-sedimenting of earlier forms of control by Bretton Woods and other Western institutions in the face of anti-development critiques.

Whose standards? Whose curriculum?

The control of tech education and “high quality” standards is a central aspect of the globalization of the Nairobi tech industry and a key aspect of its increasing “professionalization” that I argue should be looked at more carefully. How are particular standards that govern technical and business codes and procedures in the US being replicated and taught through programs such as XL-Africa or Andela? For example, according to their website, Andela applicants undergo dozens of online drills to assess everything from technical ability to personality type. About 3 percent of the applicants are invited to a two-week boot camp, and a final cut takes the acceptance rate below 1 percent, which the company boasts “makes Andela by far the most competitive technical program on the continent (Harvard, for context, has an acceptance rate of 6%),” (Andela 2017).

A closer look at the methods, content, and processes governing the skilling-up of the tech sector is necessary to understand which standards are used to measure high-quality innovation. For example, the bread and butter of most trainings include some form of Alexander Osterwald’s “business model canvas” which you can see a template of on this slide. Completing this template document is a requirement for many acceleration programs as well as a core aspect of their curriculum including mlab and Stanford’s Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) Program. But what values, principles, and ideas are being promoted and replicated if we assess all Kenyan tech and entrepreneurship within Osterwald’s framing of business and innovation? What ideas and whose ideas are being privileged as “innovative” when we adopt such Western frames and models as the standards by which to judge Kenyan tech entrepreneurship?

Scaling the “high potential”

Critical development scholar Uma Kothari (2005) has highlighted that the rise of the technical development expert illustrates a devaluing of in-depth geographic knowledge, overly abstracted analyses of local contexts and the globalization of homogenizing development processes and techniques. Following the question of which standards are used to train African techies is the question of who is considered an expert in these methods and processes. It appears increasingly that interests outside of the African continent including the World Bank, development aid, and increasingly multinationals, Western universities and venture capitalists, have appointed themselves to fill the perceived “talent gap” left by Kenyan universities.

More research is needed to look at the increasing role of international universities and Silicon Valley tech companies forming a core of authoritative experts on tech in Africa. For example, the website of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) program which runs in Kenya, Ghana, Botswana and India asks: “How can you bring Silicon Valley innovation and entrepreneurship to your company? What management skills are required to grow and scale? How can the success of your business help to lead your region to prosperity?” Their answer: enroll in their one-year 5,000 USD program taught by “world-renowned Stanford faculty” and “take advantage of a world-class curriculum from Stanford GSB and the innovative thinking that has shaped some of the most successful companies in Silicon Valley,” (Stanford Business School 2017). Thus we see that in spite of widespread praise for the proliferation and growth of tech hubs as new centers of knowledge “from the periphery,” the uncritical drive to quickly train the next generation of African techies via techphilanthropy appears to be ironically confirming the power and authority of the “outsider” and exclusive professional knowledge and skill and furthering assumptions surrounding tech entrepreneurs as an unequivocal good.

For example, looking quickly at the managing team bios of the World Bank’s latest pitching and acceleration project, XL-Africa, further illustrates this point. The team leader from IMC Worldwide has “managed programs in 50+ countries helping startups to succeed” while the Curriculum Lead from Koltai and Co. “has created a massive open online course (MOOC) called Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies, which has attracted over 120,000 students from 190 countries and has been translated into 16 different languages.” This “scaling up” rhetoric exemplifies Kothari’s point that local contexts have been overly abstracted in the need to scale up global tech innovation and in the homogenizing of the processes and techniques considered most important for developing technology enterprises. What is gained and lost when the business model canvas becomes the blueprint standard for “innovative” technology development around the world?

Kothari (2005) looking specifically at the increasing technical nature of participatory development, finds the emergence of a new form of professionalism that is universalizing through its global transmission of ideas about process, yet fails to acknowledge its cultural specificity or location. I believe her point continues to hold true when looking at the homogenizing discourses of technology and development based on seemingly ubiquitous ideas of what high-quality “talent” and “potential” are. These terms masquerade as universal but are in fact, particularly Western.

Additional areas of investigation:

I’ve only just touched briefly on aspects of what I see to be an increasing “professionalization” of the Nairobi tech scene. There is a whole range of additional work to be done unpacking different aspects and normative concepts being used within the techphilanthropy sector. Borrowing from Ferguson (1994) who argued for understanding what aid programmes do besides fail to help poor people, I think the same should be asked of tech entrepreneurship training programs being run for Kenyan youth. Beyond the expected or stated “impacts,” what is set in motion and what is justified as a result of these programs?

In this presentation, I hope to have provided a snapshot of a contemporary moment in Nairobi where multinational technology companies, Western Venture Capitalists and the World Bank are demonstrating their philanthropic spirit by training up Africans to join the global arena of tech. I have argued that the methods (bootcamps, pitch days) and content (template models) reveal a homogenized standard that is derived from and based on Silicon Valley both explicitly and implicitly. As a result, a privileging of foreign expertise is further strengthened. There are significant implications for the types of technologies, workers, skill sets, and collective futures built that I think need to be further studied. Thank you for your time!

Works Cited:

Andela. 2017. “FAQ – FAQ – Andela Press Kit – Andela Brand Guide.” 2017. http://press.andela.com/d/zcY9f3OJeDAG/andela-press-kit#/company/faq.

Ferguson, James. 1994. “The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development’ and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (with Larry Lohmann).” The Ecologist 24 (5):176–81.

Heyneman, S. P. 2003. “The History and Problems in the Making of Education Policy at the World Bank 1960–2000.” International Journal of Educational Development 23 (3):315–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0738-0593(02)00053-6.

Kothari, Uma. 2005. “Authority and Expertise: The Professionalisation of International Development and the Ordering of Dissent.” Antipode 37 (3):425–446.

Lohr, Steve. 2017. “Start-Up Bets on Tech Talent Pipeline From Africa.” The New York Times, October 10, 2017, sec. Business Day. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/business/andela-start-up-coding-africa.html.

Ndemo, Bitange, and Tim Weiss, eds. 2017. Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making. Palgrave Studies of Entrepreneurship in Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rajak, Dinah. 2011. In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Stanford University Press.

Stanford Business School. 2017. “Seed Transformation Program — Curriculum.” Stanford Graduate School of Business. 2017. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/seed/transformation-program/east-africa/curriculum.

World Bank. 1974. “Education Sector Policy.” 561. The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/596991468313796894/Education-sector-policy.

 

[1] https://ihub.co.ke/blogs/5040/the-nairobi-water-hackathon-journey

[2] http://www.decodingbootcamps.org/blog/2016/5/16/how-coding-bootcamps-are-helping-to-tackle-youth-unemployment

Revised HIST290 Reading [more focused!]

While I have been reading quite broadly (as is quite common I think for the orals literatures development process) and generally following this list (though definitely not as closely as I had hoped!), for purposes of completing this quarter with a tangible output, I’ve decided to narrow in on a particular topic that will enable me to read a bit more strategically for the remaining 3 weeks of the quarter (GULP!! WHERE DID TIME FLY TO!?).

The following list of sources has emerged as I’ve begun conceptualizing the presentation I will give this week at the upcoming African Studies Association (ASA) Conference. I plan to explore how conceptualizations of labor and expertise in the Kenyan technology sector are shifting in light of recent technology skills-building programs such as the Africa XL program (supported by the World Bank Group with financial assistance from the Governments of Finland, Norway and Sweden, and managed by implementing partners IMC Worldwide, VC4Africa and Koltai&Co). Borrowing from Ferguson (1994) who argued for understanding what aid programmes do besides fail to help poor people, I ask the same of tech entrepreneurship training programs being run for youth in Nairobi. Beyond the expected or stated “impacts,” what is set in motion and what is justified as a result of these programs? To explore this question, I am particularly interested in investigating the state of the university and public education, especially in light of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s. How does the World Bank leverage notions of expertise and technical knowledge to justify working with private multinational tech companies like IBM and Facebook to inject private capital and skills training into Nairobi’s tech scene? What is the perceived and actualized role of local and international higher education within this system?

Tech entrepreneurship, based on an individual’s own personal characteristics and capacities, would appear to be the “anti-assembly line.” But could we view tech capacity development programs as in fact the new “assembly line” where PEOPLE are now the “products” being groomed and “skilled up” for global markets? How is tech entrepreneurship being standardized and institutionalized through programs like Africa XL?

In exploring these relationships, I plan to draw heavily on critiques of development (e.g. Kothari 2005; Cornwall 2007), particularly critiques of the Bank (e.g. Goldman 2001, 2007, 2006; Mazrui 1997). I plan to also draw upon some of the postcolonial technoscience literature (e.g. Irani 2015; Philip 2016) and discussions of the impacts of SAPs on higher education in Africa (e.g. Heyneman 2003; Carnoy 1995; Reimers 1994; Ochwa-Echel 2013; Taylor-Leech and Benson 2017). I am also interested in diving into how different members of the Kenyan tech scene also view these relationships with local government and universities; and international universities and multinationals. For example, a leader in the Nairobi tech scene, Erik Hersman has noted: “I do not think universities will be the answer; at least, I have not seen them work for technology education. Graduates fresh out of university are, in general, not prepared to work in a technology company. They are not coming out of these institutions with the necessary skills,” (Ndemo and Weiss 2017, 52). There is some rich data in the recently published “Digital Kenya” book (Ndemo and Weiss 2017) that includes first-hand interviews with other leaders in the Nairobi tech scene.

Revised Reading List:

Alvarez, Sonia E. 1999. “Advocating Feminism: The Latin American Feminist NGO ‘Boom.’” International Feminist Journal of Politics 1 (2):181–209. https://doi.org/10.1080/146167499359880.

Alvarez, Sonia E., Evelina Dagnino, and Arturo Escobar, eds. 1998. Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello. 2005. “The New Spirit of Capitalism.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 18 (3–4):161–88. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-006-9006-9.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 2000. “Invisible Mediators of Action: Classification and the Ubiquity of Standards.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 7 (1–2):147–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/10749039.2000.9677652.

Carnoy, Martin. 1995. “Structural Adjustment and the Changing Face of Education.” International Labour Review 134:653–74.

Chatterjee, Partha, Kalyan Sanyal, and Partha Chatterjee. 2016. “Rethinking Postcolonial Capitalist Development: A Conversation between Kalyan Sanyal and Partha Chatterjee.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 36 (1):102–11.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Deborah Eade, eds. 2010. Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Rugby, Warwickshire, UK : Oxford: Practical Action Pub. ; Oxfam.

Goldman, Michael. 2001a. “The Birth of a Discipline: Producing Authoritative Green Knowledge, World Bank-Style.” Ethnography 2 (2):191–217. https://doi.org/10.1177/14661380122230894.

———. 2001b. “Constructing an Environmental State: Eco-Governmentality and Other Transnational Practices of a ‘Green’ World Bank.” Social Problems 48 (4):499–523. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2001.48.4.499.

———. 2006. Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization. Yale University Press.

———. 2007. “How ‘Water for All!’ Policy Became Hegemonic: The Power of the World Bank and Its Transnational Policy Networks.” Geoforum, Pro-Poor Water? The Privatisation and Global Poverty Debate, 38 (5):786–800. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2005.10.008.

Hart, Keith. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11 (1):61–89. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022278X00008089.

Hart, Keith, and Horacio Ortiz. 2014. “The Anthropology of Money and Finance: Between Ethnography and World History.” Annual Review of Anthropology 43 (1):465–82. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102313-025814.

Heyneman, S. P. 2003. “The History and Problems in the Making of Education Policy at the World Bank 1960–2000.” International Journal of Educational Development 23 (3):315–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0738-0593(02)00053-6.

Irani, Lilly. 2015. “Hackathons and the Making of Entrepreneurial Citizenship.” Science, Technology & Human Values 40 (5):799–824. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243915578486.

Kothari, Uma. 2005. “Authority and Expertise: The Professionalisation of International Development and the Ordering of Dissent.” Antipode 37 (3):425–446.

Mazrui, Alamin. 1997. “The World Bank, the Language Question and the Future of African Education.” Race & Class 38 (3):35–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/030639689703800303.

Ndemo, Bitange, and Tim Weiss, eds. 2017. Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making. Palgrave Studies of Entrepreneurship in Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ochwa-Echel, James R. 2013. “Neoliberalism and University Education in Sub-Saharan Africa.” SAGE Open 3 (3):2158244013504933. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244013504933.

Philip, Kavita. 2016. “Telling Histories of the Future: The Imaginaries of Indian Technoscience.” Identities 23 (3):276–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2015.1034129.

Reimers, Fernando. 1994. “Education and Structural Adjustment in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.” International Journal of Educational Development 14 (2):119–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/0738-0593(94)90017-5.

Sorlin, Sverker, and Hebe Vessuri. 2007. Knowledge Society vs. Knowledge Economy Knowledge, Power, and Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10171516.

Taylor-Leech, Kerry, and Carol Benson. 2017. “Language Planning and Development Aid: The (In)visibility of Language in Development Aid Discourse.” Current Issues in Language Planning 18 (4):339–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/14664208.2017.1360690.

White, Sarah C. 1999. “NGOs, Civil Society, and the State in Bangladesh: The Politics of Representing the Poor.” Development and Change 30 (2):307–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-7660.00119.

Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany. 2015. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Refusing to Research: An Alternative Lens on Ethics

Willoughby-Herard (2015) writes about why she decided not to write about and research black South African women (despite attempts by South African archivists to redirect her to write about them). She states: “We do not get to claim space in each other’s histories simply because we want to or because we have been in political solidarity,” (xvii). Given that black South African women intellectuals had already made decisive and lasting scholarly interventions in critical theory and history at incredible personal cost and knowing that as an “American,” her findings were likely be regarded as more insightful and powerful than those of women from black South Africa, she opted not to be seen as the leading flag bearer on the topic and chose a different research object (poor Whites in South Africa).

I find Tiffany’s reflection fascinating in relation to my project (on the phenomenon of heavily researched populations) for two reasons. First, this move appears to be a similar flavor to growing feminist literature theorizing research participants’ refusal (McGranahan 2016; Simpson 2007; Ortner 1995), but from the standpoint of the researcher rather than the research subject. What are the implications or effects of refusing to study something/someone (esp. that is articulated by other scholars/audience as the obvious or natural object that “needs” to be studied)? I find this particularly relevant for my project because I am interested in the narratives used by researchers as to why they landed on their particular projects… most decisions about research objects seem to be for a combination of pragmatic (ease of access, language, contacts, etc.), academic (field of study, affiliations, etc.), historical (what literature/data already exists?; existing research infrastructure) and serendipitous (“it just happened…”<– although I think this rhetoric needs to be further distilled) reasons. But Willoughby-Herard’s rationale highlights one more angle that I have not yet read or heard articulated: the researcher’s decision NOT to study something as an intentional, ethical move.

Willoughby-Herard acknowledges that in spite of any sense of political solidarity, by the fact of her “Americanness,” her work would travel in a different way from that of Black South African scholars. So as not to overshadow or diminish the existing work that they have done, she therefore opted to venture elsewhere (in the moment (1990s?) that she found herself in). She reflects how today (20 years after apartheid), she feels more comfortable to do original research on black South African women because the black South African women have published their work and there are many highly theoretical texts now about Black South African women. These further details are also interesting because they highlight the contextualized, temporal aspects of ethics about research. What in Willougby-Herard’s view didn’t sit ethically well with her at one particular moment in time became acceptable at another moment.

I find this contextualized understanding of research ethics in stark contrast to what is traditionally thought of as “research ethics,” i.e. universal standards that designate the ethical bar that should be met when conducting research anywhere around the globe. Institutional practices such as the institutional review board (IRB) have been designed to delineate such clear and universal ethical boundaries for research. However, work by medical anthropologists across Africa has more recently revealed the complexity of putting such processes into practice when working with context-specific vulnerable populations (Abadie 2010; Geissler 2011; Brada 2016). Looking at decisions about when/where/why to do research in/on/with any given community brings to the forefront a rethinking of what is “ethical” in research. How can implementation and enforcement of “research ethics” move beyond project-based parameters and take into consideration local histories and political economies in which projects and ethics are situated (Biruk 2017)?

 

Works Cited

Abadie, Roberto. 2010. The Professional Guinea Pig: Big Pharma and the Risky World of Human Subjects. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Biruk, Crystal. 2017. “Ethical Gifts?: An Analysis of Soap-for-Data Transactions in Malawian Survey Research Worlds: Ethical Gifts?” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31 (3):365–84. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12374.

Brada, Betsey Behr. 2016. “The Contingency of Humanitarianism: Moral Authority in an African HIV Clinic.” American Anthropologist, 1–17.

Geissler, P. W. 2011. “Studying Trial Communities: Anthropological and Historical Inquiries into Ethos, Politics and Economy of Medical Research in Africa.” In Evidence,Ethos and Experiment The Anthropology and History of Medical Research in Africa, edited by P. W. Geissler and C. Molyneux, 1–28. Oxford: Berghahn. http://researchonline.lshtm.ac.uk/20889/.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3):319–25. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.3.01.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1995. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (1):173–93.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue 0 (9). http://junctures.org/index.php/junctures/article/view/66.

Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany. 2015. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

 

Genre: Grant writing

I’ve been deep in grant writing for the past two weeks (a big anthropological fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation was due today) so while I have been furiously reading, it’s of a different sort of reading than it would/will be for development of my orals documents. Nonetheless, while part of me detests the genre of grant writing for its wholeness and attempt to lay out exactly what the researcher will do (hmmm, interesting to think about the genre as a particular mode of “futurism” where you are basically writing yourself into the future field…; how does that affect what you actually think of/see in the “field”?), I have found it a useful exercise in helping me to simply grasp a better sense of the boundaries/borders of literatures within which I am playing (for the time being). I am copy-pasting below the latest version of my grant application in response to the questions: “How does your research build on existing scholarship in anthropology and closely related disciplines? Give specific examples of this scholarship and its findings.” You can see that I ended up drawing largely on anthropology of development, critical humanitarianism, and STS (social study of knowledge). I had an entire section on feminist scholarship around embodied knowledge (also copy-pasted below for anyone interested – please cite if you use any of this for something…), but given space constraints, upon advice of my advisor, she suggested that my discussion of “embodied knowledge” was more my underlying premise than an argument I was advancing. I’m not entirely convinced that I am solely using the concept as a core premise… in fact, I think I am actually questioning the potentially problematic uptake of the concept by those who take the body as a natural category.  As I’ve noted earlier, something that I am observing is how the feminist concept of “embodied knowledge” is being taken up in conjunction with postcolonial concepts of decolonizing knowledge to call for claims to knowing based on different aspects of solidarity (shared historical oppression based on social category of race, etc.) but since these are based on, as we know, very unstable social categories, how do concepts of the body intersect with claims for knowledge. As I am writing this, I am thinking I need to read more on mutuality and intersectionality and find out if there is more out there on explicitly thinking through these concepts in light of epistemological/ontological frameworks.  I am still muddling through this all and obviously can’t fully articulate it yet, but this is why I could not include it in my grant proposal (because the grant proposal genre is not where you figure things out that you don’t know how to do yet!). I am appreciating how this class is allowing me to muddle through it though… any suggestions for more readings on this would be appreciated!

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My initial grant material on embodied knowledge:

“My work traces the mutual imbrication between the body and knowledge. While the performance of “disembodied researcher” in some disciplines still continues to function as a set of naturalized norms that privilege a masculine mode of being, feminist theory has long established that bodies are both discursively and materially shaped, configured, and constructed according to social, historical, and geographically specific times and spaces (Beauvoir 1949; Butler 1990; Haraway 1988). In more contemporary feminist work, such socio-material approaches have been applied to study laboratory studies (Fujimura 2006, 1996; Rapp 1999). Such studies have found that scientists’ socio-historically located normative assumptions influence experimental designs and analytic frames, often setting the stage for reproducing their own taken-for-granted categories (Fujimura 2006). Yet, even under such conditions, the material world can produce novel data leading to new insights. Applying such a socio-material approach towards the practice of social sciences in “the field” will broaden my understanding of not only discursive and performative aspects of the sociality of development research, but also of the materiality of society writ large (Latour 2005). Particularly important for my research is Barad’s (2007) work which offers “agential realism” as both an epistemological and ontological theory that emphasizes that practices of knowing are in themselves specific material engagements that reconfigure the world. My work puts this feminist literature into sustained conversation with critical approaches to digital development research that have looked at the rise of digital technology in development through the lens of moral claims of cooperation (Rottenburg 2009) and “for good” (Pal 2017), idioms for national politics (Poggiali 2017), and postcolonial computing (Irani et al. 2010). My project will contribute to this growing body of critical scholarship with an empirically grounded study of not only ideological discourse of digital development, but also the genuine performative efficacy of ideology (Mazzarella 2010). Such work will broaden the possibilities for forms of claim-making about expertise, technological and otherwise, and enable the capture of a range of other desires, including economic mobility and political recognition (Poggiali 2016) to understand how researchers and those they work with use and also subvert hegemonic discourse (Cooper and Stoler 1997).”

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Eventual Q2 for my Wenner-Gren application (2017)[Please cite if you use this material in any way, thank you!]

“My research draws upon development anthropology, science and technology studies and critical humanitarianism in postcolonial Africa to contribute to scholarship on ethnographic research ethics, relevance and relationships “in the field”.

Since its inception, the discipline of Anthropology has had a complicated relationship with the question of for whom and for what purposes anthropological knowledge is in service. As both a beneficiary and critic of the project of colonialism (Stocking 1991; Malinowski 1961), anthropology continues to be enmeshed in this paradox—at once inextricably wedded to Western historical and epistemological dominance and to a radical principle of critique of the same. This paradox has been long discussed, first as part of debates about “decolonizing anthropology” (Harrison 1991) and more recently under “engaged anthropology” (Sillitoe 2015). It is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the field of development where the debate over a theory of practice versus a practice of theory rages on (Escobar 1997; Mosse 2013); some critical scholars even suggest researchers may be perpetuating the colonial project through exploitation of indigenous knowledge (Janes and Corbett 2009; Farmer 1999), fueled by the growth of academic capitalism and demand for new data, insights, and expanding knowledge frontiers (Cantwell and Kauppinen 2014). The unease set up by this tension—working for the alleviation of poverty and inequality, to the benefit of one’s career—is particularly acute around three anthropological themes:

RELATIONSHIPS: Ethnographic relationships between individual researchers and interlocutors have highlighted potentials for collaboration (Marcus and Mascarenhas 2005), solidarity (Mohanty 2003), betrayal (Visweswaran 1994), deception (Bleek 1987), and intimacy (Blackwood 1995). Ethnographies of the social life of development workers have focused on tracing aspects of development knowledge to their sociality, especially looking at motivations and moral meaning making (Malkki 2015; Lewis et al. 2008), hyper-mobility (Redfield 2012), and racialized relations with locals (Benton 2016). Especially relevant for my project is recent work looking at post-colonial power dynamics of overseas clinical trials and the politics of international collaboration between African research scientists and Western partners (Farmer 2002; Fairhead et al. 2006) which may include lack of access to data (Crane 2013), little opportunity for recognition through co-authorship on research publications, and institutional inequalities (Peterson and Folayan 2017).

RELEVANCE: While digital development social scientists derive much of their authority from the power of understanding the “end-user” through ethnographic approaches, critiques of explicitly bottom-up participatory approaches have highlighted how these approaches continue to be structured by, rather than changing, relations of power (Cooke and Kothari 2001; Hickey and Mohan 2004). Feminist ethnographers have also raised concerns about “whether the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation” (Stacey 1988, 22), suggesting that new relational forms are still needed. Given the unique relationship of anthropological theory to “the field”—with concepts and theories built from those of its subjects and found partners in fieldwork—contemporary anthropology has the unique opportunity and challenge to explore the possibilities for such forms in our construction of “the field of fieldwork” (Marcus 2015). Building on experimental approaches to reformulate the research encounter advanced over the last few decades by anthropologists (Marcus 1997, 2006; Holmes and Marcus 2008), feminist ethnographers (Lather 2001; Visweswaran 1994), and indigenous studies (Cervone 2015; Sillitoe 2015; Smith 1999), this project will engage head-on with these long-standing debates and interventions around the ethnographic approach and its relationship to fieldwork and subjects.

RESEARCH ETHICS: In spite of particular commitments to moral responsibility and well-aware of critiques of the aid industry (De Waal 1997; Ferguson 1990), anthropologists working in critical humanitarianism are nonetheless also often implicated in similar social and material conditions as overseas aid workers (Mosse 2011, 2013). This has raised questions about the moral responsibility for developmental outcomes of ethnographic engagement as well as tensions over what is expected of the anthropologist both materially and socially. While institutional practices such as the institutional review board (IRB) have been designed to delineate clear and universal ethical boundaries for research, work by medical anthropologists across Africa has revealed the complexity of putting such processes into practice when working with context-specific vulnerable populations (Abadie 2010; Geissler 2011; Brada 2016). Additional frameworks are needed for rethinking research ethics beyond simply project-based parameters that take into consideration local histories and political economies in which projects (and ethics) are situated (Biruk 2017).

Finally, my work is deeply informed by the analytics and insights of STS. The social study of knowledge has particularly influenced me with its emphasis on the inter-subjectivity of observation, interpretation, and consensus (Bloor 1991; Barnes and Bloor 1996), and documented cultural specificities of supposedly universal sciences captured through attention to “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina 1999). In my research, these insights will contribute to understanding the everyday negotiations enacted in translation, performance, and material exchanges between digital development researchers and those they study. I am committed to bringing an analytical lens informed by STS literature into a postcolonial African setting and asking what these contexts reveal about the received literature.

Building on these studies, my work insists that holding development researchers and their research participants in the same analytical frame can broaden the scope of knowledge work to also understand informants’ self-conscious engagement in research. Such a symmetrical approach of studying the meaning making and material realities of “doing research” for both groups in tandem can do more than critique dominant analytic dichotomies; it can broaden and denaturalize our inherited ways of knowing and talking about others and ourselves (Nader 1972) through attention to the rhythms, pragmatics, and horizons of the array of knowledge production actors in Africa.”

Fanon and Du Bois on the “color line”

We ended last week’s joint class with Professor Chandler musing about whether as scholars we should be attempting to move beyond using race as a core categorical/analytical concept, or if we continue to use it while recognizing the potential danger of (further) reifying it as a useful category of significant human (socio/cultural/biological) difference. I’ve got Frantz Fanon fresh on my mind after having read it as part of another class (ANTH289A “Theorizing Africa”). Fanon argued against “petrification”, a term he used in his “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) to describe psycho-biopolitical effects of colonialism on bodies and the cultures of the colonized. Fanon pushed back against racialization that fortifies concepts of our identity, culture and lived experiences, bluntly stating: “My black skin is not the wrapping of specific values,” (1952 [2008], 177) which I find in stark contrast to calls for racial solidarity and shared “African values” discussed by many at the ASAA conference that I wrote about in my post last week.

Juxtaposing the assigned text by Du Bois this week with Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth” raises several interesting points for discussion. (Fully recognizing that Du Bois was writing 60 years ahead of Fanon, I will do my best to avoid committing the error of presentism). While I do not believe Du Bois and Fanon ever met, it is possible that Fanon read Du Bois. Du Bois was in close contact with a contemporary of Fanon, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in the 1950s. At the end of his life (1963), Du Bois became a Ghanaian citizen and lived in Accra with his wife.

When Du Bois made this speech at the third annual meeting of the American Negro Academy, he was in his mid-30s and early in his career. In the speech, Du Bois proposed that the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of the color-line (a topic we see him return to severally in future work as well). He discussed this “color line” issue not as one which is unique to the United States but rather as global in scale: “…a glance over the world at the dawn of the new century will convince us that this [the US] is but the beginning of the problem— that the color line belts the world and that the social problem of the twentieth century is to be the relation of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind.”

In marked contrast, Fanon highlighted wide heterogeneity under what at first glance appears to be a shared global “color line” (to borrow Du Bois’ term):

“We have seen that the whites were used to putting all Negroes in the same bag. During the first congress of the African Cultural Society which was held in Paris in 1956, the American Negroes of their own accord considered their problems from the same standpoint as those of their African brothers. Cultured Africans, speaking of African civilizations, decreed that there should be a reasonable status within the state for those who had formerly been slaves. But little by little the American Negroes realized that the essential problems confronting them were not the same as those that confronted the African Negroes. The Negroes of Chicago only resemble the Nigerians or the Tanganyikans in so far as they were all defined in relation to the whites. But once the first comparisons had been made and subjective feelings were assuaged, the American Negroes realized that the objective problems were fundamentally heterogeneous. The test cases of civil liberty whereby both whites and blacks in America try to drive back racial discrimination have very little in common in their principles and objectives with the heroic fight of the Angolan people against the detestable Portuguese colonialism. Thus, during the second congress of the African Cultural Society the American Negroes decided to create an American society for people of black cultures. Negritude therefore finds its first limitation in the phenomena which take account of the formation of the historical character of men,” (1963, 215).

I extensively quote here in order to give proper context for Fanon’s statements. Here we see that to Fanon, the only thing that united across any type of global color line was the fact that Whites treated Others in the same way (“We have seen that the whites were used to putting all Negroes in the same bag”). Fanon wrote that “the whites of America did not mete out to them [the Negroes who live in the United States and in Central or Latin America] any different treatment from that of the whites who ruled over the Africans.” In other words, the core basis for a type of solidarity with others of color is the fact that all received similar treatment at the hands of the white man. But Fanon seemed to suggest that the answer to this colonial racism (and its legacy), is not necessarily to continue to perpetuate the binary color-line. Instead, Fanon argued that “the problem is to get to know the place that these men [leaders of negritude movement calling for black self-consciousness] mean to give their people, the kind of social relations that they decide to set up, and the conception that they have of the future of humanity. It is this that counts; everything else is mystification, signifying nothing” (1963, 223, emphasis my own). In other words, the actions are more important than the uniting rhetoric. Fanon gives the example of Senghor, Senegal’s first president and a key leader in the negritude movement who would still, Fanon critiques, side with the colonial power (France) on the issue of the Algerian independence, which he sees as completely contradictory. “Adherence to African-Negro culture and to the cultural unity of Africa is arrived at in the first place by upholding unconditionally the peoples’ struggle for freedom,” (1963, 234).

In other words, it is not enough to simply call for shared blackness as the rationale for working together. Rather than building up a specter of Europe, Fanon calls on the continent to reimagine what moving beyond race might look like: “if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries,” (314).

Beyond their ideas about global race politics, I also see the two differing radically in their belief on how history (should) inform the future. Where Du Bois asked: “What in the light of historical experience is the meaning of such— of world problem— and how can it best be solved?” (119), Fanon wrote: “I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny,” (1952, 178). He called instead for an imagining of a new history of Man (that moves beyond White vs Black but simultaneously does not also forget the crimes of the past): “It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his functions and the crumbling away of his unity,” (314).

There’s more that can be written about what Du Bois and Fanon understand to be culture and its use in building solidarity across the “color line” but I’ll reserve that for a future post perhaps. I’ll close with laying out that nonetheless, despite their seemingly wildly different takes, their imagined future may not be so different. Du Bois’ imagined/desired future also moves beyond color/race …“if the third millennium of Jesus Christ dawns as we devoutly believe it will upon a brown and yellow world out of whose advancing civilization the color line has faded as mists before the sun— if this be the goal toward which every free born American Negro looks, then mind you,” he goes on, “its consummation depends on you,” (1900, 118, emphasis my own).

Works Cited:

Du Bois, W. E. B., and Nahum Dimitri Chandler. 2015. “Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind.” In The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays, 111–37. American Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 2008 [1952]. Black Skin White Masks. Sidmouth: Pluto Press.
Fanon, Frantz, and Richard Philcox. 2004 [1961]. The Wretched of the Earth /: Frantz Fanon ; Translated from the French by Richard Philcox ; Introductions by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K. Bhabha. New York: Grove Press.

The Nation-State, Pan-Africanism and Biosocial Claims to Knowledge

This past week, I participated in the second biennial conference of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA) on “African Studies and Global Politics.” The ASAA seeks to promote the study of Africa from an Africanist perspective, and as such, much of the discourse at the conference was related to pan-Africanism, decolonizing the mind/knowledge, and promoting an African-centered epistemologies and education.

One of the key things I realized from the conference is a continued underlying question about what it means to be African. Is it a blood-based / phenotypical notion or is it based on culture/nationality/level of understanding of a place/history? Or something else entirely? How does the question of identity intersect with claims for authoritative knowledge?

The ASAA conference made this question particularly apparent because those in attendance did not just easily fit into normative categories of Black Africans and White Americans. Conference participants included Black African Americans from the US, Black African Americans who have immigrated to Ghana (some who have become Ghanaian citizens); White Africans; White Americans; Asians who live in America; White Europeans, White Brazilians, White Ghanaian residents, Black Africans who reside in African countries that they do not call “home”, etc. etc. I’m obviously tacking here between different scales of nationality and flattening identity into race, but I use this to simply point out the very obvious diverse racial positionalities embodied at the conference (not to even mention the other subject positions). Walking around you couldn’t “place” someone – Black Ghanaian citizen with American accent; white women with South African accent; Ugandan living in South Africa; Swedish woman married to Ghanaian; Kenyan studying in UK; the list goes on. The rich diversity of backgrounds, colors, histories, situations, made it very hard to say who was “local” and who was not – complicated further by a question of which categories are to determine that. If you have lived in a place for a long (define long?) time, does that make you “African”? If you know the histories and key historical figures, does that make you “African”? If you have citizenship, does that make you “African”? If you are Black, does that make you “African”? Given that several members of the diaspora Africans have recently been granted citizenship in Ghana, what appears to be a clear-cut question of who is African, is in fact more complicated than face-value.

In one ASAA panel I attended, a question was raised about the growing mantra of “Africans [are the only ones who should] produce solutions to Africa problems.” You can see this mantra similarly echoed in a picture I took during my fieldwork this summer of the entrance to a Kenyan technology enterprise:

IMG_6721

What is the significance of scaling from “African” to “Kenyan”? What is the significance of moving from “Black Lives Matter” to “Afrikan Lives Matter” to “Luo Lives Matter (a recent hashtag used by Kenyan on Twitter to denounce state violence against a particular ethnic group in Kenya)”?

In response, a panelist asserted that the perspective that it is only “Africans” who can solve “African problems” was a naïve one since African problems are in fact global:

“We are not buying into the nativist perspective. There is no one who is ‘true blooded’ African, whatever that means. What we must be concerned with is an issue of democratization. Will it be fine if everyone else in the world could put their view-point on the table and Africans are absent? No! So, it has nothing to do with us being the most innovative people or us knowing something more than others because we are ‘pure blooded’ or anything. Rather, it is a question of equality and democratization.”

This question of the intersection between global politics of race and knowledge is extremely important as more and more decolonizing movements across the continent gain momentum and simultaneously, countries like the US increasingly take an isolationist stance. How do our biosocial bodies and socially constructed ideas of racial belonging (mis/)align/clash with nation states and boundaries? How do these claims align with idea of epistemology and claims to authoritative knowledge?

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More info on ASAA:

The conference (held at the University of Ghana, Legon from October 12th – 14th) included keynote presentations by Elizabeth Ohene, Ghanaian; Nana Kobina Nketsia V; Professor Jacob Gordon; Professor Seth Asumah; Professor Takyiwaa Manuh; Professor Jean Allman; Dr. Yao Graham; and Dr. Wangui wa Goro. For those interested in learning more about the conference, you can find a summary that I wrote here. You can also find the final program here and more about the ASAA here.

HIST 290 : Draft Reading List

I’ve compiled a first draft of my reading list for the quarter. I’m copy-pasting it below, but also adding a link to a google doc here so that you can comment on it. Otherwise, for those that are so inclined, feel free to alternatively use hypothesis (which is pretty cool) to annotate the list directly on this page.

Continue reading “HIST 290 : Draft Reading List”

Update from the classroom

After my first class meetings for HIST 290 and ANTH 289 this week, I am looking forward to the opportunity that I think both classes will allow for – namely to further develop my own lines of research inquiry but with some facilitation, guidance, feedback and support from the faculty and peers in a class structure. Both Kris and Kavita appear to be approaching their classes more like reading groups which suits my purposes perfectly since in the Anthro department, this year (Year 3) is supposed to be largely dedicated towards developing one’s own project and orals documents (more on that in future posts).

As part of Kavita’s HIST 290 course, we are expected to post weekly on what we are reading (related to science, race, gender, and empire) and to share annotated bibliographies and thoughts pertaining to these topics. As such, I’m roping off a corner of this blog for these regular posts and I invite both my classmates and also those who are not in the class to review and offer feedback and any suggested additional readings!

Next steps: I’m working on a first draft of my proposed reading list for the rest of this quarter and will post that shortly. I will also post the annotated bibliography at the end of the 10-week quarter together with a short document that hopefully has some synthesis on the literature and its relation to my project (i.e. a basis for one of my orals docs!)

I hope to do the same for the ANTH 289 class (although that is not an explicit requirement of the course). I’ve therefore also roped off a section of the blog for that, although, time pertaining, I may not post as regularly there…

And just like that, we are off: the start of a 10 week quarter begins! (for those of you who haven’t experienced the quarter system… it feels like doing a marathon at a sprint!)

Entering Fall 2017

Tomorrow marks the first day of classes (although my classes don’t technically start until next week since my classes are on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). I’m really looking forward to this quarter’s classes because I think they will be directly relevant to the direction my project is taking. I’ll be taking:

Kris Peterson‘s “Theorizing Africa” (ANTH 289)

Main course readings include:
  • Basma Abdel Aziz, The Queue (Melville House, 2016)
  • Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Duke University Press, 2017)
  • Omolade Adunbi, Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press 2015)
Kris has stressed that this is less of an “Anthropology of Africa” course and more of an multi-disciplinary critical theory course. It’s catered to those who are studying Africa as much as it is catered to those who want to further their interest in radical theory and the de-centering of European/Anglo-American thought (regardless of your area of study). It also is geared toward thinking about how to scale research and writing in a way that can effortlessly cross disciplines and literatures while remaining grounded in anthropological principles (particularly of method). So this course is hopefully going to be an example of how to think and analyze across time, event, and theory.

Kavita Philip‘s “Science, Gender, Race & Empire” (HIST 290)

Main course readings include:

  • Mona Domosh and Joni Seager, ed Putting Women in Place
  • Sandra Harding ed The Racial Economy of Science

This course explores the interconnected histories of science, gender, race, and empire. I’ll hopefully know more but I’m looking forward to taking my first history course at UCI…