ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Science, policy and struggles over African health and environment

Contact Convenor: James Fairhead

Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9RE

Tel: 01273 877194.

Co-Convenor: Melissa Leach  

Panel abstract

This panel brings together ethnographies of the conduct of contemporary scientific research in Africa concerning both health and environmental issues. Through these, it will consider the relationship between science and ‘policy’ (its co-production or otherwise), and its implications for people’s experiences of and control over their bodies and resources. It will thus help explore what constitutes ‘science’ and ‘research’, and the place of science in contemporary governance/sovereignty.

Of the five papers in this panel, three address environmental issues (soils, forests, biodiversity) and two, health issues (vaccination, and medical research more broadly). They cover located interests in West, East and southern Africa. In different ways and through their specific concerns, they address several related themes. The first concerns contemporary contexts for scientific conduct. To what extent is research on African environment and health now conducted in relation to or in critique of de-centred global institutions (e.g. The World Health Organisation, Convention on Biological Diversity) and their epistemic communities, and with what implications? How does the political economy of its conduct now shape research agendas and questions?

The second theme concerns the relationship between science, policy and located responses to these. Arguably, in Africa, scientific investigation into environment and health has long been central to policies and programmes that exert control over people, their bodies and resources. It not only produces truths about the natural world but also generates, reproduces, naturalises (and problematises) social categories. How do these interplay with more located understandings, debates and material claims? In what ways have struggles ensued between ‘citizens’, ‘the state’, and ‘the international community’, and more significantly between patternings of social coalition and alliance which undermine such distinctions? How do the knowledges, concerns and actions of different administrators, activists and academics influence the interactions between globalised forces and located perspectives and practices?

Third, at a more conceptual level, the papers offer opportunities to reflect on the pertinence of contemporary Europe-focused debates concerning ‘high-tech’ science and society (e.g. concerning risk, trust, citizen science and so on) in contemporary Africa – perhaps in relation to more established perspectives emphasising relative autonomy of ‘indigenous’ knowledges, state coercion and resistance to international regimes. 

Science, policy and power: reflecting on environmental knowledge and policy from West African perspectives

James Fairhead and Melissa Leach

Emergent scientific and policy practices in African settings are closely interlocked with transformations in global science and governance. Nowhere is this more strongly the case than for environmental, forestry and biodiversity sciences. Embedded in the research and policy traditions of particular countries and regions, and implicating localised ecological and social processes, they have also become part of an internationalised 'vortex' of epistemic and political-economic concern which can be glossed as 'Tropical Forest International'.

Drawing particularly on case material from the Republic of Guinea, this paper explores the co-production of contemporary environmental policy processes with particular types of scientific inquiry. It tracks the unfolding relationships between international perspectives, national research traditions, state and non-governmental actions, and the knowledge and practices of land users in Guinea's forest and savanna regions. It examines how these relationships relate to broader political and economic histories and modes of public engagement with science, and are shaped by media and education. Internationalised science and policy are shown to play powerfully into national and local struggles for authority and resource control. Shaping people’s subjectivities, they are integral to processes of enrichment and legitimation for some, and impoverishment and disqualification for others.

Global access to  forest and community resources: environmental politics, cultural modernisation and the science of forestry in West Africa

Kojo Amanor, University of Ghana

During the early 1990s a global agenda for sustainable development was created through a number of international conventions, the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) and the creation of global environmental monitoring centres. In contrast to earlier approaches to the global environment based on the limits of growth and the impending environmental catastrophe which would be brought on by expanding markets and growth, the WSSD promoted an agenda based on a new age of global high-tech multinational capital. While optimistic of the abilities of the emerging global corporate culture to solve the world’s environmental problems, global environmentalism continues to portray a situation of crisis.  This crisis is largely attributed to poverty and inappropriate technology in developing countries.  The solutions involve introducing new technologies, encouraging community participation in environmental management and incorporating marginalised groups such as women and “indigenous peoples” into policy implementation.

This new approach to global environmental management has made considerable impact in West Africa, where under pressure from most donors most nation states have introduced reforms in forestry management based on decentralisation and community participation. With reference to case studies mainly drawn from Ghana this paper examines the impact of this framework of environmental management on ecological science, rural administration in West Africa, and the integration of the peasantry and other rural producers into national and international development initiatives.

Blood and knowledge: articulations of historical consciousness and global connections around medical research in a Kenyan village community

P.Wenzel Geissler, London School of Hygiene & University of Copenhagen

When conducting medical field research among the Luo of western Kenya, my colleagues and I were occasionally suspected of being blood-thieves, locally called kachinja. This forced me to reflect about my own location in the research field. This paper contextualises the blood-stealing accusations within the practices of medical research that prompted them, and within the historical experiences and global connections which, I shall argue, are articulated through them. Social situations, in which blood-stealing accusations were raised against me and people, who were in contact with me, are examined to show how the kachinja idiom is used in localised social practice, as part of long-term social processes as well as of momentary situations, within local patterns of relatedness. These observations add to our understanding of global contact and connectedness. They show how global structures and processes are articulated and moulded in a particular locality through idioms that carry memories of individual as well as collective, historical experiences, and how they are enacted by people within webs of contemporary social relations.

Vaccination science and emergent public concerns in a West African context

Melissa Leach and James Fairhead

Worldwide, childhood vaccination appears to epitomise effective public health intervention. Vaccine science and supply are now major areas of investment by pharmaceutical corporations, international organisations and donors within a highly globalised political economy. Yet scientific debate and uncertainty over vaccine adverse effects is intensifying given both new generations of technology (e.g. DNA vaccines) and vaccine proliferation. In many locations in both Africa and Europe public debate and anxieties also appear to have intensified, generating interactions which challenge distinctions between science and politics, and which highlight changing relations of knowledge, expertise and trust.

The Medical Research Council Laboratories in The Gambia have long been engaged in internationally-funded vaccine research and trials, enacted in ways which frequently blur boundaries with routine vaccination. In this context, and given an increasingly globalised field of public debate, this paper will explore how rural and urban Gambians are coming to reflect on childhood vaccination. It will examine the multiple ways in which interventions are understood, and how these relate to emergent socio-cultural knowledges, aetiologies, conceptualisations, information sources and rumours concerning disease, immunity and injections, and to people’s broader political identities and relationships with the state and health services.

Local and global connections: the case of soils management policies in Africa

James Keeley and Ian Scoones, IDS, University of Sussex

This paper looks at the way knowledge, power and practice interact in the construction of global policy issues, in this case the African 'soil fertility crisis'. By tracing the emergence of an international science-policy effort - the Soil Fertility Initiative - the paper examines the framing of problems by science in interaction with politics and bureaucracy. Through this lens, the interaction of science and policy can therefore be seen as a process of 'mutual construction'.

Of particular pertinence in the creation of ‘global’ science and policy is the interaction between the global and the local. While global knowledge, linked to global institutions, initially appears all-powerful, such framings should not be taken for granted. And particular forms of knowledge - be it the ‘high science’ of sophisticated computer modelling of soil characteristics and dynamics or more lay understandings of soil processes based on ‘indigenous technical knowledge’ - need not be seen as distinct. As the paper illustrates, there are a variety of actor-networks, creating different images of the 'crisis', with different local roots.

Thus, the paper concludes, the construction of local soil management problems is informed by different borrowings from global discourses, and vice versa. Local experiences therefore may help shape the accepted definition of the global. Equally, global processes do not just impact on and unidirectionally shape the local, they are inevitably refracted and reinterpreted through different local contexts and actor-networks.

[The paper is based on a chapter in Keeley and Scoones (2003), Understanding Environmental Policy Processes. Cases from Africa. Earthscan, London]