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Cooking data: Ethnographic reflections on assembling ‘populations’ in the field

‘Population Change in Africa: Interdisciplinary Conversations’, a webinar series organised by the African Population History Network (APHiN) and hosted by the Population Studies Group and the Centre for History in Public Health 

This webinar series is organised by APHiN in bringing together demographers, historians, anthropologists and archaeologists to discuss and discover critical and historical perspectives on population change in Africa. 

This talk, which draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with longitudinal survey projects collecting data in rural Malawi, foregrounds data’s materiality and social lives as they progress through their life course, bookended by survey design (birth) and dissemination of findings drawn from cleaned data.  

Dr Biruk will present an overview of her book Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World, illustrating how an anthropological perspective can enhance our understanding of the social worlds, politics, and transactions that population science brings into being.  

Throughout the session, the talk examines how shared epistemic criteria governing data collection create the human and social scaffolding for its implementation and to what ends. The talk is arranged around three seemingly minor objects that played a role in demographic data collection: soap, beans, and zitenje (African cloth). Each of these objects helps reveal how data collection happens in a sociotechnical infrastructure that variously enhances and disrupts the blueprints (recipes) for high quality data implemented by demographers.  

Dr Biruk is interested in demonstrating how data do more than merely count or miscount, get things wrong or right; they also assemble specific kinds of relations and transactions around them—they make social worlds and people as much as they measure them. 

Speaker  

Dr Cal Biruk Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University  

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