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Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World, Cal Biruk (Data Then and Now Seminar, 3/13/2019)

Posted: 3/11/2019 (Local Events)

Time & Location

Wednesday Mar. 13, 4:00-5:00 pm, WRF Data Science Studio, 6th Floor of the Physics/Astronomy Tower


Cal Biruk – Oberlin College


Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World


This talk is based on my recently published book, Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (2018, Duke University Press). Drawing on long term ethnography with demographic survey research projects in rural Malawi, the book tells the life story of quantitative health data, tracking and analyzing their transformation from pencil marks recorded on a survey page into statistics consumed by policy makers, researchers and the public. In this talk, I trace how demographers’ scientific investments in pure, clean data—symbolically represented in surveys that act as a recipe for data collection—are made and unmade by Malawian fieldworkers’ practices and processes on the ground. First, through close analysis of everyday data collection practices, I illustrate how frictions between epistemological metrics for data and the particularities of everyday fieldwork produce—and come to validate—the numerical evidence we use to understand the AIDS epidemic in Malawi. I focus, in particular, on the cultural translation of survey concepts such as probability, the techniques used by fieldworkers to uncover the truth of rural Malawian social realities, and researchers’ efforts to harmonize encounters between fieldworkers and research participants. Standards of data collection, I show, make stability and fixity in numerical representation possible, not despite but because of, their customization by fieldworkers in the field (here, I counter racialized suspicions that fieldworkers are liabilities and center their indispensability to making good numbers). I conclude by gesturing toward connections between my past and present research and reflecting on what anthropology might contribute to critical data studies in the age of Big (and small) Data.


Cal Biruk is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College. Cal is the author of Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (Duke U Press, 2018) and numerous articles in venues such as Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Journal of Modern African Studies, Critical Public Health and Critical African Studies. Her research and teaching interests are at the intersection of medical anthropology, critical data studies and global health studies. Her second book project, Fake Gays: Metrics, Ethics and Authenticity in African Aid Economies, draws on long term ethnographic work with an LGBT-rights NGO in Malawi to capture the relations and transactions that constitute diverse political, identity, and economic projects that play out within aid geographies in the global South. Fake Gays melds insights from queer theory and critical data studies to show how numbers and quantification become unlikely resources in queer projects on the ground.

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Date: 03/13/2019

Time: 4:00-5:00 PM

Location: WRF Data Science Studio, 6th Floor of the Physics/Astronomy Tower