Okune, Angela. 2018. "STS in Africa: Discursive Risks." In PhD Orals Document: Querying Science and Technology Studies in Africa, created by Angela Okune. PhD Orals Document. UC Irvine Anthropology. October.
This essay answers the analytic question: "What are the analyst’s epistemic assumptions of “Africa”?" A highly established, ossified binary discourse noted, both in common public discourse and still in circulation even amongst STS scholars who recognized its problematics was that of “global North” - “global South.” Many of the scholars used the two interrelated terms to describe funding and partnership dynamics (Okeke 2011; Crane 2011; Coban 2018). Within her text, Pollock (2014) recognized the problematics of the bifurcation between global South-North but noted that “Africa” is an actor’s category and marks inequalities that cannot be ignored. Scholars are also still working through their own assumptions how distinct epistemologies align with “local” and “global” scales (Pollock 2014; Crane 2011). Some scholars suggested that “local knowledge” in fact comes to exist - and to gain value - because of global projects (Biruk 2018; Coban 2018; Tilley 2011). Analysis of data infrastructures was largely absent. Despite discussions about the politics of global funding, global race politics do not feature in most of this work and analyses of sexuality (exceptions being for example Adia Benton and Tousignant (2018) who discuss the racialization of expertise; and Laura Ann Twagira’s focus on gender).
This essay is part of a broader orals document by Angela Okune querying Science and Technology Studies in Africa. Sub-essays within the orals doc can be accessed directly through the following links: Discursive Risk; Deutero; Meta; Macro; Micro; Nano; Techno; Data; Eco.
This essay is part of three orals documents submitted by University of California, Irvine Anthropology doctoral student Angela Okune i n partial fulfillment of her requirements for...Read more
Bernal, Victoria. 2014. Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Citizenship . University of Chicago Press.
Bezuidenhout, Louise, Ann H. Kelly, Sabina Leonelli, and Brian Rappert. 2017. “‘$100 Is Not Much To You’: Open Science and Neglected Accessibilities for Scientific...Read more
Fortun (2012) described “discursive gaps” and its opposite -- “discursive risks” -- which emerge because of a tendency to rely on established idioms and ways of thinking. Discursive risks or the way a particular phenomenon is repeatedly talked about sets us up to miss key aspects of the dynamics. I have therefore adapted a set of layered questions designed by Fortun (unpublished manuscript) to unsettle and unpack nested problem spaces to better identify the discursive gaps and risks. Each of other previous sub-essays (Deutero; Meta; Macro; Micro; Nano; Techno; Data; Eco) support this essay on “discursive risk” in trying to identify ways that key aspects have been overlooked due to such sedimented dominant discourse.
An established binary discourse, both in common public discourse and in circulation even amongst STS scholars who recognized its problematics, was that of “global North” - “global South.” Many of the scholars used the two interrelated terms to describe funding and partnership dynamics (Okeke 2011; Crane 2011; Coban 2018). Within her text, Pollock (2014) recognized the problematics of the bifurcation between global South-North but noted that “Africa” is an actor’s category and marks inequalities that cannot be ignored. It is unclear if it was intentional but Tichenor (2017) avoided any mention of the "global North / global South," instead focusing on how the "global scale" of WHO standards and protocols are adopted by and affect Senegalese national government and local health workers (and how local health workers approximate and perform data to meet global standards (and funding requirements). She identified specific organizations explicitly (e.g. Gates Foundation) and did not use the terms “global North” or global South”.
Related to the discourse about a global north-south divide is the framing of knowledges around a binary of “global - local.” For example, Pollock (2014) leveraged concepts of “global science” and “local knowledge” to describe and establish her research site: “Whereas ethnographic exploration of efforts to pharmaceutically exploit botanical products and traditional knowledge foregrounds the conflict between local knowledge and global science (Hayden, 2003; Langwick, 2011), iThemba offers an opportunity to explore a Global South site that seeks not to translate local knowledge into global science, but to participate in global science itself.” Crane (2011) described how African scientists navigate tensions between their local “African” knowledges and “global” scientific expertise. Partially problematizing the concept, Biruk (2018) suggests that it is through fieldworkers’ engagement with data that they gain such “local knowledge”. Amid countless accounts that narrate how local knowledge is cannibalized or exploited by global projects, she noted that the case of fieldworkers in Malawi (and I believe hardware entrepreneurs in Nairobi as discussed by Coban 2018) suggest that “local knowledge” in fact comes to exist - and to gain value - because of global projects (Biruk 2018).
Scholars are still working through their own assumptions about distinct epistemologies that align with “local” and “global” scales (and the work of particular intellectual elite to help in translating these knowledges). For example, Tilley (2010) focused on understanding the translation of “primitive knowledges” and how those were framed in scientific logics. Elsewhere in my collaboration orals document, Cervone (2015) noted the inherant power in anthropologists being the one to do the translating and making intelligible subjects out of those that are not intelligible to others. She asked: “if translation is anthropology’s straight jacket, how can we decolonize such translations?” Similarly, Biruk (2018) pointed out that the anthropologist is still expected to provide the kinds of cultural knowledge that can enhance or fit into culturally relevant programes that take context for granted and still reify the tropes of local and global.
Tilley (2011) also noted that the process of “localizing knowledge” was paradoxical since even as insights derived from African experiences were folded into the fabric of scientific disciplines and policies of colonial states, Africans themselves were rarely at the helm of such decision making. Foster (2011) echoes this point in her description of the inherrant contraditions in how subjects could be both empowered and disempowered (where scientists acknowledge Hoodia plants and San peoples on their websites but continue to present them as mere sources of raw materials). Some STS scholars are explicitly grappling with their own complicity in the same system they are critiquing (e.g. Biruk 2018; Foster 2017), given that most are positioned in the “global North”. A Kenyan developer, Jude Mwenda (2018) for example frankly noted: “I think African STS is largely being defined in non-African universities. There is where the discourses are happening.” But as the data sub-essay demonstrated, few are looking at the question of decolonizing knowledge at the level of data and data infrastructures (which my project hopes to do).
Race and sexuality are topics on which much of the literature is largely quiet (exceptions being for example Adia Benton, Laura Ann Twagira and Tousignant (2018) who discussed the racialization of expertise). Many of the analyses focused instead on occupational or disciplinary categories (e.g. Biruk relies heavily on describing herself “as an anthropologist amongst the demographers”; Foster looked at Hoodia growers and scientists). Despite discussions about the politics of global funding, global race politics do not feature in most of this work.
A few of the notable annotations are included below for quick review. Each can be clicked to view it fully. A full list of all annotations submitted under this analytic question can be found here.
AO: The authors think about “capacity” in terms of relational, “arising not only in negotiations and trans- actions between African and non-African experts, but also in materiality,
AO: Okeke’s work contrasts with some of the other work on STS in Africa because of her knowledge as a practicing pharmacist and microbiologist in Nigeria. She notes her research...Read more
Mavhunga is particularly strong in his techno and eco level of analysis, focusing on the historical materiality of poaching and hunting technologies. He focuses less on the meso (
AO: Foster’s analysis is strong at the eco, macro, and nano scales (see her outline and arguments on page 11). She is particularly strong at revealing how the unpredictability of the...Read more
AO: Coban has a strong analysis of the meta discourses, especially focusing on how “Made in Africa, for Africa” narratives have characterized the tech space in Nairobi. She is missing...Read more