Helen Tilley’s Africa as Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 asks three questions: first, “how did scientific research in and on British Africa impinge upon imperial ambitions?”; second, “what effects did the African Survey have on British approaches to science and development?”; third, “how did studies conducted in the African laboratory influence conceptual and practical developments in other parts of the world and across different disciplines?” In answer to these overarching questions Tilley elaborates four patterns of (British) science in the African colonial context.
[W]e find that the very people engaged in creating and maintaining structures of imperial domination in Africa were, ironically, among those who shared with postcolonial scholars a desire to “provincialize Europe.” In spite of their different motives and ideologies, it was they who began to question Europe’s epistemic authority, challenging truth claims that accepted European examples and standards as the norm.
This pattern allows Tilley to backdate postcolonial thought to the colonial era and has the added effect of attributing priority responsibility for postcolonial intellectual currents away from colonized non-European anti-colonial political activists and thinkers and into the hands of white British colonial scientists. This provincialization of Europe essentially entailed a decentering of European epistemology and the acknowledgement of European science as a local science writ global rather than an inherently universal system of knowledge. In Tilley’s telling, British colonial scientists demonstrated this by seeking “to connect everyday forms of expertise, especially orally transmitted knowledge, to formal scientific systems.”
[T]ropical Africa has served as a key site in which to work out a scientific discourse of complexity, interrelations, and interdependence, concepts that were at the heart of governmental and development interventions. This emphasis emerged as much from the transnational task of managing colonial states and directing the flow of information within and across African territories as it did from the interplay between field and laboratory sciences.
For Tilley, the bureaucratic complexity of managing a global empire and directing flows of information through (and useful to the maintenance of power over) that empire incentivized British imperialists to be receptive to types of knowledge predicated on relationality and interdependence. Coupled with analogous dynamics in the scientific disciplines dependent on field-laboratory coordination (anthropology, ecology, agronomy, epidemiology, etc.), this colonial governance imperative of relationality apparently helped challenge reductionistic and mechanistic properties of European epistemology hell-bent on isolating experimental variables. What Tilley fails to acknowledge (as she generally does) is the potential influence indigenous African epistemologies typically rooted in relationality and interconnection might have had on these developments in European epistemic order, instead overemphasizing the role of colonial experts and administrators in this development — choosing to laud British scientists for recognizing the validity of indigenous knowledges rather than lauding the epistemic power of those knowledges themselves.
[T]his book has explored . . . the imperial imperative to localize knowledge. Soils, deserts, forests, diseases, climate, species, and even witchcraft beliefs all underwent scientific scrutiny during the colonial period. While the research might have left a light footprint in terms of its intensity—in 1937, for instance, there were more scientists active in South Africa than there were across all of British tropical Africa—it still had lasting effects on how people thought about these physical features.
Tilley seems to be under the impression that European scientists could not have responsible for epistemic colonialism or ethnocide because there simply were not enough European scientists in Africa to do so, as when she states, “[h]ad European-trained scientists existed in greater numbers in tropical Africa, it might have been easier to stamp out or ignore Africans’ cosmologies, but their relatively thin distribution and the bureaucratic weaknesses of colonial states unintentionally abetted scientific interest in indigenous knowledge.” Rather than being complicit in ethnocide, Tilley seems instead to suggest that European colonial scientists in Africa are responsible for the very existence of subaltern knowledges, claiming that
the codification of indigenous knowledge often required colonial relations to bring these patterns into focus, which is why the first studies to define indigenous knowledge were usually done by the colonizers. To a great extent, theories of ethnoscience—folk, primitive, traditional, local, and indigenous knowledge—owe their existence to imperial structures and sociopolitical asymmetries,
as though the European institutionalization of these knowledges reifies them in a way that their formulation, elaboration, and utilization in their indigenous epistemic ecosystems never could.
the process of producing new knowledge and synthesizing its results often had the unexpected and unintended effect of prompting epistemic decolonization. Scientific research could subvert imperial ideologies and practices in unpredictable ways. This trend should not be elided with political change: however weak colonial states were, they clung to their existence powerfully and, when necessary, with brutal force. Yet epistemic decolonization, combined with the kinds of auto-critique scientists periodically expressed, weakened the rationale for empire and had lasting indirect effects on the political will to maintain colonial structures of rule.
Tilley amply demonstrates the myriad ways in which some British colonial ecologists, anthropologists, and epidemiologists critiqued British hegemony and sovereignty in Africa but arguments like this, absent any African actors and devoid of African agency tend, through these elisions, to invisibilize and diminish the role of Africans in the process of African decolonization, seeming to locate the seeds of the decolonization process in the hands of British scientists.
Speaking of the power of auto-critique, Tilley’s book, in its design choices and evidentiary basis opens itself up to several lines of problematizing critique. I have alluded to some of those above but Tilley does most of the legwork, identifying much of what is deficient in her scholarship, namely, that her “emphasis on scientific epistemologies” is “unsettling” and that it is difficult “to find much ‘mention of what Africans themselves think or wish’.” Equally perplexing is that, in Tilley’s own words, there is “too much attention to rhetoric and too little attention to practice or implementation.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. Throughout the book, Tilley seems to confuse British scientists gushing about the epistemic validity or “perfect adaptability” of indigenous (agricultural, medicinal, environmental, etc.) knowledge in writing for actual British scientific respect for indigenous knowledge in the form of power-symmetric knowledge exchange. Of course, in order to tell that kind of story one would have to include Africans as actors and would be required to mention “what Africans themselves think or wish.”
- 3 – In this book, three questions loom large. First, how did scientific research in and on British Africa impinge upon imperial ambitions? Second, what effects did the African Survey have on British approaches to science and development? Finally, how did studies conducted in the African laboratory influence conceptual and practical developments in other parts of the world and across different disciplines?
- 5 – It would also overlook the fact that, following on the heels of the Great Depression, a range of alternative visions and models for colonial development was emerging in British Africa that paid a great deal of attention to local conditions and environments. Many of these efforts were deeply indebted to the burgeoning sciences of ecology and social anthropology. They were also the culmination of decades of local experience during which earlier assumptions regarding the economic possibilities in tropical Africa were sharply undermined. One of the central arguments of this book is that British efforts to coordinate scientific research in tropical Africa led to a self-consciously interdisciplinary approach that stressed the heterogeneity of Africa’s environments and the interrelations among the various problems scientists studied. While their aim was unquestionably to transform and modernize Africa, they envisaged ways of doing so that stressed site specificity and even local knowledge.
- 7 – Africa as a Living Laboratory shows that national, imperial, and international scientific infrastructures were constituted simultaneously. Untangling these relationships and determining the changing dynamics of cause and effect, particularly with respect to centers and peripheries, can be quite complicated.
- 10 – Among scholars concerned with empire and Africa, a more problematic trend has emerged around the use of the highly misleading phrase “colonial science.” Imperial historians have an understandable desire to explain what was specific to “colonial forms of knowledge.” If we can legitimately identify the “colonial state,” which resembled, but was not identical to “modern states,” can we not also legitimately speak of colonial science? The answer to this question is straightforward: no. While the designation colonial state remains debatable, particularly because there were many shades of gray between colonial and modern nation-states, there are enough durable features, especially in terms of their juridical constitution, to give the phrase analytic heft. The concept of colonial science, though, has been deviled by theoretical fallacies and ambiguous dualisms since its inception. Built into its theoretical framework are several untenable assumptions. (Although not everyone who uses this phrase falls prey to these problems, they must be addressed.) First, that something called “Western science” developed in geographical isolation within Europe. Second, that colonial science existed as a distinct phenomenon separate from science proper. Third, that colonialism produced certain features that were pathological distortions of “real” or “good” science. Finally, that theoretically distinct bodies of knowledge, often called “indigenous knowledge,” were disrupted or destroyed by colonialism. While all of these assumptions have had considerable intellectual purchase, none can stand in the face of close historical analysis.
- What are we to make of the claim that “ theoretically distinct bodies of knowledge, often called “indigenous knowledge,” were disrupted or destroyed by colonialism” is an “untenable assumption”, especially when colonized people claim that it happened?
- Disciplines and their supporting institutions are constrained by location; their epistemological existence may even depend on it, as is the case with both fi eld and laboratory sciences. But they are almost never constructed to be immobile. Knowledge may be “situated,” but it is designed to travel. There is too much circulation between metropole and colony, across colonies, and between colonies and nation-states to warrant the designation colonial science.
- 11 – To take the thorniest of the problems: even the codification of indigenous knowledge often required colonial relations to bring these patterns into focus, which is why the first studies to define indigenous knowledge were usually done by the colonizers.25 To a great extent, theories of ethnoscience—folk, primitive, traditional, local, and indigenous knowledge—owe their existence to imperial structures and sociopolitical asymmetries.
- What exactly is she saying here?
- See p. 26
- 15 – Interpretations of science and empire have thus concentrated on three central issues: the power colonialism conferred on science, the ways in which sciences were used as “tools of empire,” and the agency of non- European peoples and places to reshape the sciences. For those who examine these complexities in historical contexts, one of the major theoretical and methodological questions hinges on the commensurability of divergent knowledge systems.
- 16 – As Hacking explains, “Science is said to have two aims: theory and experiment. Theories try to say how the world is. Experiment and subsequent technology change the world. We represent and we intervene. We represent in order to intervene, and we intervene in light of our representations.”51 This book explores the points at which “representations” turned into “interventions,” as theory and research were applied in practice. Defi ned in this way, interventions, including development projects, are part of an ongoing process of knowledge formation and reproduction.
- 17 – British states in tropical Africa were grounded in an economic logic from their inception. Imperial offi cials viewed African populations less as prospective political actors and more as potential producers. Colonial states in this sense were designed to be development states: their telos, from the start, was focused on resources, revenue, and production rather than political participation.57 If we accept this claim, it forces scholars to push back an analysis of colonial development to the fi rst decades of the twentieth century and reconsider the prevalent assumption that development in tropical Africa only began after the Second World War.
- 21 – Extending Scott’s analysis, this book argues that imperial management and control, particularly in the wake of the empire’s dramatic expansion in Africa, forced British officials and other interested parties to grapple actively with transnational and inter-territorial trends. Ideas of heterogeneity and diversity, far from being absent, were ever present in their discourse and became integral to the logic of empire building. Thinking like an empire meant drawing attention to competing interests and pointing out the ways in which one issue or problem was nested within another. It also meant avoiding watertight compartments of knowledge and drawing upon burgeoning disciplines, such as ecology and anthropology, that emphasized social and natural interrelations. Indeed, commentators often likened the empire to a “living organism” whose very “complexity” required not only new kinds of institutions but also a new “machinery of knowledge.”
- 23 – What makes the story of African empire building so noteworthy in this respect is that ideas of complexity in the imperial realm were melded with ideas of complexity in the sciences. Those statesmen and scientists most interested in deepening connections between empire and expertise were responsible for characterizing Africa as a “living laboratory.”
- Recently, historians have amply illustrated how scientists have given credence to pejorative, inaccurate, and sometimes patently false theories. Even those committed to the description of objective reality and suspicious of the view that science is socially constructed have come to acknowledge that all truth claims are produced within a specific political economy and social milieu that shape their content. These insights form an essential part of this book’s analytical framework. Yet, what scholars sometimes miss in their analyses of scientific research in colonial Africa is that historical actors’ attempts to get “full, precise, and accurate facts”—to quote the missionary anthropologist Edwin Smith—often undermined and transformed the assumptions that brought them to the continent in the first place. Experts’ collective emphasis on accuracy, especially when they had the opportunity to encounter their subjects of study firsthand in the field, could call into question not only the limits of the ways they pursued knowledge but also the very content of that knowledge.
- What does the bold selection mean?
- An important, hitherto unappreciated dimension to the story of the African Survey and of the scientifi c research conducted in Britain’s dependent empire during this period is the pervasiveness of criticisms generated from within by experts active in the fi eld. The interwar generation’s appeal for more and better “facts” is so fascinating because it often stemmed from a recognition of past errors.
- 24 – In many respects, this book offers conclusions that undermine Dover’s declaration. Indeed, it consciously foregrounds a dimension of the interactions among power, political economy, and knowledge production that has as yet received little scholarly attention: the subversive relationship that could exist between science and empire, particularly in the era of late European colonialism.
- In contrast, this book demonstrates that processes of knowledge production subversive of the status quo could emanate directly from epicenters of colonial power in Britain and tropical Africa. It offers not so much a view from below as a careful examination of the ways in which scientific research began to decolonize Africa by challenging stereotypes, destabilizing Eurocentric perspectives, and considering African topics on their own terms.
- 24-25 – When the ecologist Paul Sears fi rst proposed the idea of a “subversive” science in the context of his own discipline in 1964, his main argument was that this relatively young fi eld served to challenge fundamental economic and cultural assumptions about the modern world. Ecology was subversive, he believed, because it drew attention to the complex web of relations among all living things and demonstrated that problems of the nonhuman world were inextricably bound to human activities. He chose the word subversive because he believed that, intentionally and unintentionally, the insights of ecological science were being used to confront hegemonic socioeconomic and political values. “By its very nature ecology affords a continuing critique of man’s operations within the ecosystem.”
- 25 – The interpretation of the African Survey’s history and its underlying scientific networks that this book presents does not negate the fact that external imperial control in British colonial Africa was autocratic and bound to an ideology of European superiority. Nor does it deny that efforts to mobilize scientific advisors had the simultaneous effect of drawing these individuals and their institutions into the colonial apparatus. But it complicates that picture by exploring the heterogeneous ideas and proposals that emerged from this process, many of them bearing a striking resemblance to alternative agendas and critiques that emerged in Europe and North America in the second half of the twentieth century. . . . By misapprehending, mislabeling, and facilitating new forms of control, emerging sciences had the potential to coerce. Yet, by introducing new concepts, new ways of knowing, and new methods for understanding, these disciplines also had the potential to liberate. In the end, they did both.
- 26 – A related ambition of Africa as a Living Laboratory is to examine how particular scientists dealt with Africans’ knowledge. Colonizers in all parts of the world were forced to consider what indigenous inhabitants knew, how they knew it, and how reliable vernacular knowledge really was. Whether administrators wished to admit it or not, understanding why colonial subjects lived and behaved as they did could determine the success or failure of specifi c colonial interventions. A central question that this book seeks to answer is precisely how studying African ideas and practices gradually became a separate scholarly venture for Europeans and Americans, foreshadowing contemporary investigations into African indigenous knowledge systems.
- While many administrators and scientists believed most cultural traditions should be abandoned, some argued that they contained important insights that could be useful to colonial states and to the empire more broadly. This book aims to explain how scientific research in colonial Africa contributed to the construction of various ethnosciences, whether these related to agricultural, epidemiological, or therapeutic knowledge. I refer to this research as vernacular science to call attention to the fact that scientists and technical officers were often responsible for constructing the very categories that helped make vernacular knowledge visible and communicated it beyond the locality within which it arose.
- 26-27 – Had European-trained scientists existed in greater numbers in tropical Africa, it might have been easier to stamp out or ignore Africans’ cosmologies, but their relatively thin distribution and the bureaucratic weaknesses of colonial states unintentionally abetted scientific interest in indigenous knowledge.
- 27 – Colonial Africa was indeed a laboratory for scientifi c research, development experiments, and social engineering. It would be wrong, however, to stop there: it was also a laboratory for social criticism, interdisciplinary and transnational methods, the study of interrelated phenomena, and the codifi cation of new areas of ethnoscientifi c and vernacular research. This book examines all these facets of imperial administration, exploring how the continent became a laboratory in the fi rst place and how the production of scientifi c knowledge helped to challenge the very foundations of empire. Unless we consider all these dynamics in a single frame, we risk doing a serious disservice to the historical record.
- 28 – At the start of the twentieth century, most colonial rulers considered African agricultural practices fundamentally wasteful and unsound, yet by midcentury a number of field scientists had shown that many African techniques “could hardly be bettered by science.” This shift was accompanied by a transition away from a view that tropical environments were inherently fertile toward an understanding that they were fragile and susceptible to permanent damage. As officials began to reposition African agriculturalists in their development schemes, they tended to express explicit critiques of the capitalist foundations of colonial states.
- These critiques were never powerful enough to challenge capitalism, but they were suffi ciently pervasive to take some agricultural development strategies in new directions. Acknowledging that certain African cultivators possessed better knowledge of their environments than many colonizers did could implicitly call into question the wisdom of large-scale, profi t-driven revenue schemes.
- 30 – Anthropologists were by far the least numerous fi eld experts in tropical Africa during the entire colonial period. They also tended to be the most outspoken critics of colonialism’s imperfections and inadequacies. Indeed, anthropologists and their administrative allies were often the thin edge of the wedge in terms of critiques of empire. Their attempts to use the African continent to professionalize paradoxically allowed them to illuminate the Eurocentric and contradictory assumptions contained within colonialism. Anthropologists rarely set out to dismantle the empire; some were actually strong believers in paternalistic overrule. But their commentary and observations often inadvertently drew attention to its injustices.
- 36 – Firearms, steam technologies, and new modes of communication and transport also helped Europeans overcome Africans’ resistance to conquest.24 The Maxim gun was introduced just in time to quell the Ndebele rebellion in the 1890s. Steam engines, railways, and telegraphy made it feasible to administer vast territories and establish outposts of rule in Africa’s tropical interior, which had been considered too remote.
- Are this and the story of quinine assigning too much agency to technology in facilitating the conquest of africa?
- In order to understand the role of science, broadly construed, in Africa’s partition and early decades of state building, we must consider how learned societies were caught up in this process. Scientists and geographers had long been interested in tropical Africa, but only in the 1870s did that interest gather momentum and coalesce into a genuinely pan-European effort. At the forefront of these activities were geographical societies.
- 117 – To understand why and how this came about, we must consider what these advocates thought ecology would contribute that other disciplines could not. How did they defi ne “ecological thinking” and “ecological principles”? What place did ethnography hold in ecological fi eldwork, and what epistemological status was granted—or denied—to Africans’ own techniques of natural resource management?
- Focusing on agriculture draws our attention to several interconnected themes. Because agriculture has its roots in regenerative nature, both scientists and imperial offi cials pointed out its long-term value. Unlike mining, which produces a nonrenewable product, agriculture could potentially be sustained indefi nitely. All societies engage in agriculture, so its signifi cance extended beyond concerns with food production to cultural anthropology. By the 1920s, the human side of agriculture in tropical Africa had begun to attract more focused scientifi c attention. Any efforts to develop agriculture also involved botanical, zoological, and meteorological sciences concerned more broadly with fl ora, fauna, and climate. The science increasingly enlisted to make sense of these interacting fi elds in tropical Africa was ecology.
- 117-18 – Looking closely at agricultural research in tropical Africa provides a signifi – cant corrective to several recent interpretations of science in colonial contexts. Many historians and anthropologists, reacting against older, imperialist views featuring “backward” and resistant natives and “progressive,” enlightened colonial offi cials, have emphasized colonialists’ “misreadings of the African landscape.”8 They argue that scientists helped to construct inaccurate “environmental orthodoxies” that became “received wisdom,” and which had negative consequences for Africans that often extended into the postcolonial period.
- 119 – Ford was implicitly arguing in his 1971 book that new states in tropical Africa ought to pay attention to what today might be called subaltern strategies of disease control. He spelled this out a few years later in a volume edited by anthropologist Paul Richards: “If there is any lesson to be learned from the results obtained by applied science in tropical Africa in the twentieth century, it is that vast projects designed to solve artifi cially isolated problems do not work except with the willing collaboration of the people they are intended to help.”
- 120 – Ford’s arguments have been perceived by many to be a radical departure from colonial thinking. I would suggest instead that key elements of Ford’s work were less a rupture with the colonial era and more an expression of continuity. After all, he derived his evidence from his own extensive fi eldwork and from a close reading of the published accounts of technical offi cers who had been employed in the colonial service
- 120-21 – Paul Richards, in turn, took up the question of Africans’ environmental knowledge, calling it “folk ecology” and “people’s science,” and wrote one of the fi rst (postindependence) anthropological studies of West African “indigenous agriculture.” Richards was well aware that he was following in the footsteps of certain technical offi cers and scientists during the colonial period; in fact he took a great deal of interest in these precedents, but his examination of the colonial past was more utilitarian than comprehensive.
- 122 – Rather than embrace these critiques wholesale, this chapter examines instead the ways that scientists working in British Africa helped to deconstruct late nineteenth-century ideas about the tropics and early twentiethcentury assumptions about the unproductive and wasteful nature of indigenous agricultural practices. Indeed, it was research offi cers associated with agricultural departments who fi rst began to undermine widespread assumptions of tropical Africa’s natural fertility and drew attention to the relative infertility of the soils. Along with a handful of fi eld ecologists, they also began to speak in positive rather than pejorative terms about the techniques associated with African agricultural practices. The fact that these ideas originated during the colonial period requires us to reinterpret the interplay between science and empire in new ways.
- The agricultural research described in this chapter repeatedly pushed back against the wholesale transfer of European norms to African environments and offered a wide range of different approaches to modernization and development. As part of this process, Africans’ subaltern, or orally transmitted, knowledge became an object of scientifi c study, a pattern I refer to as vernacular science. While none of the British scientists involved in these activities was moved to call for the end of empire, many were keen to criticize how it worked in practice. They also often inadvertently opened up a space to reconsider and even redefi ne state and imperial aims.
- 130 – While they endorsed the idea of increasing the amount of research done in the region, they doubted that a “centralized” approach would yield the sort of knowledge they needed to do their jobs well. The drive to localize knowledge was just as strong an imperial imperative as the desire to standardize and systematize it.
- 133 – Recent historical research disaggregating African and European producers has shown that at some times and places the economic crisis conferred greater power on African producers and rural communities within local economies. When subsistence agriculture, noncash exchange, mixed cropping, and fl exible production were all part of the equation, the economic downturn could mean opportunity rather than calamity
- 134 – Agricultural departments’ research agendas had begun to undergo a subtle shift away from European and toward indigenous practices even before the Depression. This trend was intimately connected to burgeoning studies of soils, nutrition, and land tenure. In many parts of the world, agricultural and ecological sciences were coming together to form the new fi eld of agroecology, but only a handful of specialists who advocated this approach took the trouble to include rural cultivators in their studies.
- Scholars may lament that these approaches failed to protect subsistence agriculturalists, alter capitalist modes of production, or transform hierarchical power structures and economic policies that constrained African producers. But the attention that colonial officials and scientists paid to local agricultural techniques and vernacular knowledge was still unprecedented. The roots of agroecology and a “farmer first” mindset can be found in British colonial Africa.
- 137-38 – Defining what constituted agricultural progress and what ends it was to serve was fraught with contradictions: African farmers, white settlers, colonial states, and imperial authorities all had distinct and potentially conflicting ideas and interests. Before we can understand the broad influence of agroecology and vernacular science on inter-imperial development policies during the interwar period, we need to consider the ways territorial and metropolitan aims were bridged. The trajectory of studies of agriculture in Northern Rhodesia is a prime example of the ways scientists, colonial officials, and technical specialists wrestled with these issues. Their work demonstrated the value of new ecological models, disproved previous theories about the lack of productivity of indigenous agricultural methods, and pointed to new directions that influenced imperial thinking as well as the practices of colonial states.
- 150 – Richards located her 1939 book, Land, Labour, and Diet in Northern Rhodesia, which drew upon Moffat’s and Trapnell’s fi eld notes, on “the border-line between two different sciences, biological and social.”150 While her work painted a richer picture of the social side, the Ecological Survey’s reports provided a broader understanding of the environmental. What they shared was a concern to explore “indigenous” knowledge, which their research made increasingly visible and tangible.
- This resembles my master’s thesis about the coordination of agricultural and anthropological research for development
- 153 – “Complicated diagrams express the inter-relations of these [agricultural] systems and their infl uence on one another. The popular idea that African agriculture is a crude and inadaptable affair is completely contradicted by the Survey’s fi ndings. . . . African agricultural practice is very closely adapted to local conditions, and changes with them”
- I wonder if the social scientists involved in the Rockefeller project in Mexico drew at all upon these studies
- 153-54 – r. In the past, Europeans have gone much further than merely to suggest, and have recommended, advised, persuaded, almost forced, the farmer to adopt their proposals, often without having fi rst attempted to ascertain whether they were acceptable to him.” Many of these efforts were “a complete failure” and caused the “native farmer” to have a “justifi able suspicion of all new ideas.”166 “This is not because the native farmer is inherently conservative; indeed, he seems generally to be less conservative than the European farmer.”167 “The prevalent idea that the native farmer is excessively conservative is largely due to the mistakes of Europeans in the past.” Not only should schemes for improvement be thoroughly tested in the fi eld, but also social factors should be taken into account. Africans’ “agricultural methods are very intimately bound up with tribal traditions, with land tenure, and with the economics of village life,” and farmers had to consider all these factors when they contemplated any change in their cultivation techniques.
- 155 – Rather than promoting “large estates” and plantations, as had been done in the Caribbean, he advocated an approach he called “indirect agriculture,” which built upon “the strong points of peasant farming,” especially its “great resistance to adverse conditions.”172 Urging restraint and humility in imperial interventions, he admitted that “as one gets to know the social anthropology of the West Coast peoples, one often wonders whether their ideas may not sometimes be wiser than ours.”
- Green rev
- 156 – For more than thirty years, both the Germans and the British had sought to develop coffee plantations in East Africa. While some efforts met with success, attempts in the Usambaras and Rungwe districts in Tanganyika were “puzzling” and “expensive failures . . . under what seemed highly favourable conditions.” . . . Only when Geoffrey Milne undertook a chemical study of soil pH levels and F. J. Nutman examined the plants’ physiology was it ascertained that the Tanganyikan failures had to do with “the high acidity of the soil,” which caused unfavorable adaptations in coffee plants’ root systems.186 Ecological analysis demonstrated that the “micro” or “eco-climates” of Tanganyika infl uenced plant growth and yields through their direct effects on insects and parasites and indirect effects on soil conditions.
- Each farm is a highly sophisticated sociotechnical and envirotechnical system – this can help explain why social-anthropological and ecological factors must be taken into account
- 157 – African soils were so varied that methods that succeeded in one locale might be disastrous elsewhere. The second critique was both sociological and environmental: since African agricultural practices were well adapted to differing natural conditions and the philosophy of indirect rule prescribed a modicum of respect for indigenous practices, then the improvement of “native agriculture” should build upon Africans’ best practices. In a discussion of the causes of soil erosion at the second conference of colonial directors of agriculture in 1938, C. J. Lewin of Northern Rhodesia remarked that the papers presented showed that, contrary to popular opinion, “erosion was almost invariably due primarily not to the native but to the European who had introduced tillage in certain areas and had encouraged the production of economic crops.”
- 164 – Successive drafts were circulated among hundreds of advisors who had several opportunities to comment on and criticize their content. The collaborative process discouraged easy generalizations, sweeping solutions, and unfounded claims. It forced the authors to stress particularity, local specificity, and heterogeneity in African conditions. The African Survey’s contributors and advisors negotiated among multiple and competing strands of scientific research, public opinion, and official conviction to arrive at their conclusions. On almost every issue, they skirted between dominant and dissenting views, crafting unexpectedly moderate positions given their proximity to the centers of colonial power.
- The epistemological praxis of academic deliberation prevented the report from generalizing, totalizing epistemic coloniality
- Diagram depicting an ecology of knowledges isomorphic with the natural ecology of those knowledges’ objects of study
- 168 – To deny or overlook the abundant evidence that many such experiments had adverse effects, however unintended, would be arrogant in the extreme. This is not the purpose. What this chapter has drawn attention to is how the production of scientifi c knowledge transformed colonial understandings of Africans and their environments. The auto-critique that emerged among research scientists and technical specialists at both the territorial and inter-territorial levels unsettled colonial certainties and opened up a space to take ecological specifi cities and subaltern knowledge more seriously. These studies, because of their detailed and empirical basis, had what were arguably liberalizing effects, relieving rather than concentrating inappropriate colonial interventions.
- 314 – It would be difficult to evaluate the legacies of the colonial state and of colonial development if we ignored African cases.5 In all of these examples, the continent of Africa and its peoples have been far more than an incidental backdrop: they provided the bricks and mortar of disciplines, theories, institutions, and even laws. As we unpack this history it helps us to see both how European rule affected tropical Africa and how African experiences shaped key elements of the modern world.
- The centrality of Africa to so many aspects of Western modernity
- 315 – First, we find that the very people engaged in creating and maintaining structures of imperial domination in Africa were, ironically, among those who shared with postcolonial scholars a desire to “provincialize Europe.” In spite of their different motives and ideologies, it was they who began to question Europe’s epistemic authority, challenging truth claims that accepted European examples and standards as the norm.
- Indeed, the push to decenter Europe was an enduring feature of overseas empire building and often included a turn toward patriotic and vernacular sciences. The former suggests connections to state building while the latter implies an emphasis on local knowledge and cultural interaction. To pursue vernacular science was to emphasize ethnography and the signifi cance of Africans’ own natural and technical knowledge. Its proponents sought in their research to connect everyday forms of expertise, especially orally transmitted knowledge, to formal scientifi c systems.
- 317 – An analysis of networks and intellectual exchange during the colonial period reveals a second, equally important pattern: tropical Africa has served as a key site in which to work out a scientifi c discourse of complexity, interrelations, and interdependence, concepts that were at the heart of governmental and development interventions. This emphasis emerged as much from the transnational task of managing colonial states and directing the flow of information within and across African territories as it did from the interplay between field and laboratory sciences.
- 318 – A third pattern this book has explored is the imperial imperative to localize knowledge. Soils, deserts, forests, diseases, climate, species, and even witchcraft beliefs all underwent scientific scrutiny during the colonial period. While the research might have left a light footprint in terms of its intensity—in 1937, for instance, there were more scientists active in South Africa than there were across all of British tropical Africa—it still had lasting effects on how people thought about these physical features.
- 319 – The act of localizing knowledge meant that many field analysts were careful to distinguish the particular from the universal, or the local from the general. The site specifi city of phenomena forced this task upon them. Both fi eld scientists and laboratory experts were evaluated by their peers in relation to how well they were able to disaggregate specifi cs of place and people; most could not afford the oversimplifi ed cognitive frameworks that scholars sometimes attribute to them. Their emphasis on site specifi city did not mean that their interpretations were correct or even good in a normative sense. Nor did it mean that they easily accommodated competing epistemologies. Yet we should not assign all their “mistakes” to an ostensibly narrow and exclusive defi nition of science’s universality, because this argument rarely holds up under scrutiny.
- 322 – Finally, the process of producing new knowledge and synthesizing its results often had the unexpected and unintended effect of prompting epistemic decolonization. Scientifi c research could subvert imperial ideologies and practices in unpredictable ways. This trend should not be elided with political change: however weak colonial states were, they clung to their existence powerfully and, when necessary, with brutal force. Yet epistemic decolonization, combined with the kinds of auto-critique scientists periodically expressed, weakened the rationale for empire and had lasting indirect effects on the political will to maintain colonial structures of rule.
- 323 – The challenge that scholars and social critics face is to explain the coexistence of radically different points of view within scientifi c debates, some of which fed into a colonial status quo, while others transformed and undermined it. Indeed, one of the questions Africa as a Living Laboratory raises for further debate is the extent to which scientifi c knowledge and its production played a role not just in the construction of empires but also in their dismantling.
- 327 – The British delegation to the World Bank meeting was led by John Maynard Keynes as well as three representatives of the Treasury and two representatives of the Bank of England. A clearer endorsement of the importance of economic knowledge could hardly be found.59 Yet during the colonial period in tropical Africa, there was no such economic hegemony: states and their imperial coordinators relied on a much wider array of experts and explicitly endorsed a teamwork approach to problem solving. Only in the last decade has the World Bank begun to reinvent itself as a “Knowledge Bank,” traversing some of the same epistemic ground as European empires almost a century ago.
- 329 – Inadvertently, fi eld scientists, aided by weak colonial states, constructed a space for epistemic pluralism to persist. In the process, they helped to codify the conceptual categories—indigenous, local, traditional knowledge— that would sit uneasily side by side with the other kinds of scientifi c expertise. Whether and how to sanction pluralism offi cially were questions they left by and large to state leaders, scholars, and social critics in the postcolonial period.
- Numerous scholars highlighted asymmetries in the production of knowledge, which they argued made it easier for colonizers to dismiss Africans’ own knowledge claims. For these reasons, many historians and anthropologists from the 1970s through the 1990s spent a great deal of energy both trying to recover what they believed colonizers overlooked and to correct what they got wrong. Africa as a Living Laboratory reevaluates this work, particularly in terms of the history of ideas, and points to the colonial origins of a range of critiques that scholars in African studies have long suggested are products of postcolonial thinking.
- 330 – Astute readers may notice a certain tension that is inherent in my own interpretations of the evidence. The book’s opening epigraphs make it obvious where my fundamental sympathies lie, yet I am more interested in stimulating questions than in providing definitive answers. Must scientific truth always be paradox? Is any society exempt from living in a “system of approximations” with respect to the natural world? What does it mean for an “outdoor laboratory” on the scale of the African continent to be of its “own local kind”? Did “scientific knowledge of the facts” and anthropological perspectives really generate a “new power of self-criticism” among experts?
- Some readers may find my emphasis on scientific epistemologies unsettling, in particular because, in the words of the colonial critic Norman Leys after he read An African Survey, it is difficult to find much “mention of what Africans themselves think or wish.” Others may feel that the picture I paint of scientists’ theories and criticisms is overly coherent when, in fact, their perspectives were far more fragmentary and impressionistic. Still others may believe that there is too much attention to rhetoric and too little attention to practice or implementation. All these critiques are, to some degree, fair
- Helen Tilley auto-critique
- 331 – Rarely, however, do we fi nd a study that explores the question of scientifi c contributions to liberation or human freedom. We have moved beyond a time when scientifi c knowledge, facts, or rationality could be discussed as unproblematic contributions to “human progress.” Yet, the longer I consider questions of social change and human emancipation, the more I am convinced that truth matters and cannot be “relativized” out of existence.
- The liberatory power of science