Tilley, Helen. 2011. Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Abstract: "Tropical Africa was one of the last regions of the world to experience formal European colonialism, a process that coincided with the advent of a range of new scientific specialties and research methods. Africa as a Living Laboratory is a far-reaching study of the thorny relationship between imperialism and the role of scientific expertise—environmental, medical, racial, and anthropological—in the colonization of British Africa. A key source for Helen Tilley’s analysis is the African Research Survey, a project undertaken in the 1930s to explore how modern science was being applied to African problems. This project both embraced and recommended an interdisciplinary approach to research on Africa that, Tilley argues, underscored the heterogeneity of African environments and the interrelations among the problems being studied. While the aim of British colonialists was unquestionably to transform and modernize Africa, their efforts, Tilley contends, were often unexpectedly subverted by scientific concerns with the local and vernacular. Meticulously researched and gracefully argued, Africa as a Living Laboratorytransforms our understanding of imperial history, colonial development, and the role science played in both."


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Contributed date

August 6, 2018 - 1:21pm

Critical Commentary

AO: In this 2011 book, Tilley traces the overlapping histories of the development of scientific expertise in the colonization of British Africa and the particular case of the African Research Survey, a project of the 1920s and 1930s about "the application of modern knowledge to African problems." She shows that historically, 'interventionist' colonialism dovetailed with the proliferation and increased professionalization of scientific disciplines and methods, creating the conditions for the creation of Africa as a subject and site par excellence of research and knowledge production. Through these histories, she aims to explore how scientific research impinged upon imperial ambitions, how the ARS in particular affected British approaches to science and development, and how research in Africa has shaped scientific practice more broadly, in other places and disciplines. Tilley advances two main arguments. First, she makes the case that national, imperial, and international infrastructures for science are co-constituted simultaneously, and ought to be analyzed as a tripartite (rather than dyadic) structure of knowledge production. That is, one cannot think of systems of knowledge production as national vs. imperial, or national vs. international, but as a whole (p.9). e.g: thinking like an empire required attending to heterogeneity, complexity, and diversity of issues and problems and devising new "machineries of knowledge" (21) African Research Survey is an example of this. Second, she argues that the relationships between science and empire are complex: imperial practices created Africa as a "living laboratory," but/and the practices and knowledge coming from that lab in turn challenged the foundations of empire (p. 27).

Cite as

Helen Tilley, "Tilley, Helen. 2011. Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.", contributed by Angela Okune, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 6 August 2018, accessed 23 June 2024. https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/tilley-helen-2011-africa-living-laboratory-empire-development-and-problem-scientific