Scholarly Memory in Nairobi, Kenya: Essay Meta-Narrative


I have taken this year's frame of "innovation" very broadly to think about the technologies, spaces and practices needed to preserve and care for research data. What is particularly innovative about the long-standing practice of archiving primary source materials? I tack between historical materials found in the very places I highlight and the rationale behind the creation of these spaces. Why were archives deemed a necessary "innovation" in the 1960s at the cusp of Kenyan independence? How has their purpose and the care of them shifted over time? What are the implications for "innovations" in contemporary scholarly communications and the circulation of knowledges today?

Archives -- characterized broadly as a kind of "techno-prostheses" (Derrida 1995, 34) in time and space of our knowledge or experience of the world (Waterton 2010) -- continue to be an important place of/for "innovation." I pose that the "innovation" which scholarly data archives offer are--under the right conditions--as placeholders towards imagining what more decentralised, non-hierarchical and locally controlled forms of scholarly communications infrastructure might look like.

Scholars like Arondekar (2009) and Chaudhuri et al. (2010) have challenged the assumption that an archive is a neutral, immutable, and a historical repository of information, arguing instead that the archives are a place where important decisions about what documents--and therefore whose history--are made. Michelle Dizon explores the politics of archives in The Archive’s Fold where she questions: where are the archive of communities who are erased from the historical record? And how might digital technology inaugurate a space for state archives to repeat old forms of occupation and invent new ones? Across these questions, Dizon explores what understanding of archives might aid in a decolonial struggle for memory, all the while asking what needs to be remembered, why, and for whom?

Technologists and digital humanities scholars have also increasingly fixed their attention to the archives. I have come to learn of initiatives like the Digital Himalaya Project (Turin 2011); Mukurtu (Christen 2011); and individual projects like the development of an archive as part of Lisa Cliggett's dissertation project. The impact of digital technologies on practices of fieldwork and the materials that result from ethnographic research which is increasingly being "born archival" (Turin 2011) requires contemporary scholars to think about how they are making "back-ups for the future" through our own ethnographic data practices (Currie and Paris 2018).

In this exhibit, I focus attention on the sites and institutions which have been tasked to care for primary ethnographic materials, what I call elsewhere qualitative research data. Given the limited scope and time available, in this iteration of the exhibit, I am not able to follow the people who maintain as well as those who use the materials. I am also not focused on comprehensively documenting what is contained within these archives.

Rather, I am interested in these sites of public research data because of my broader interests in supporting non-commercial scholarly infrastructures. There is a neglected commercial layer to discussions about the scholarly archive. Emerging studies have shed light on the expansion of commercial publishers into all parts of the scholarly research life cycle, including data analytics for ‘impact factors’, university rankings and management of research data. While expansion of commercial publishers into of ethnographic research data archives appears still nascent, if recent news is any indication, it may only be a matter of time. Rhetoric about the “endangered” African archives on the continent has and could very well be again mobilized to bring more of these materials under the consolidated power of mainstream global North commercial publishers.

Given the already uneven landscape of publishing power, what are the implications for the diversity of knowledge production in such moves towards consolidation? A 2016 workshop on “Endangered and Post-Colonial Archives in Eastern and Southern Africa” mentioned that it is often the private research interests of individual historians that lead to an archive being identified, preserved or digitized. This is the case for the archive that is emerging concurrently with/as my own doctoral project. The workshop raised the broader question: who has the right and responsibility to preserve and promote particular “endangered archives” – historians, universities, governments, private sector? I question why it is assumed that diverse data actors cannot work together to ensure that robust non-commercial public research data sharing infrastructure is supported and maintained. I am hoping to spark such conversations through my own project because the late Industrial times we find ourselves in precisely necessitate figuring out how we might make such cross-institutional, asymmetrical, uneasy collaborations work.

Given my relationships, personal and professional commitments to the country and ongoing dissertation project research, I chose to look at questions of care and stewardship of research data specifically in Nairobi. Kenya appears to be a context where there is high research saturation across a wide range of disciplines and actors, thus making it a particularly important place from which to think about the care of research data.

To radically reshape the way scholarship and scholarly knowledge is produced and communicated requires questioning who makes the decisions about it and why. Focusing our attention on the sociotechnical knowledge infrastructures can help spark these important conversations: what might decentralised, non-hierarchical and locally controlled forms of scholarly communications and knowledge look like? From that vision we can help pluralise forms of knowledge and bring its stewardship and care closer to the communities it most concerns.


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Created date

June 4, 2019

Critical Commentary

This artifact details the rationale behind the Scholarly Memory in Nairobi, Kenya 4S 2019 iSTS exhibit.


Angela Okune