Helen Tilley – Africa as Living Laboratory

23 August, 2021 - examPrep

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. 

Fourth, that:

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.”








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