Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World

Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World. Crystal Biruk, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, 296 pp.

Cooking Data joins a growing field of scholarship on the social lives of numbers and the materiality of data at a time when metrics have become increasingly influential in determining policy decisions and financial flows in global governance regimes. Crystal Biruk offers an engrossing account of the relations, practices and transactions that make up large-scale demographic surveys in Malawi. The book combines a sensitive exploration of the processes and practices of collecting data with a close reading of the boundaries, demarcations, inequalities, and entanglements that such research entails—entanglements that affect both the data produced and the persons producing it.

The book is an ethnography of survey research projects that collected demographic data from thousands of Malawians in 2005 and 2007–8.  Demographic surveys, targeting randomly sampled households, have become an increasingly visible form of research across the globe, particularly in African countries in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They aim to collect statistics that can inform policy, seeking not only population-level data (e.g., births, deaths, marriage, and migration) but also detailed information on household spending and resources, support networks, perceptions of risk, and attitudes and practices concerning health, disease, education, and gender relations. From the negotiations that surround survey design in offices and meetings, to the everyday practices of research (“data collection”), to the transformation of data into numbers and the assembling of statistics as evidence in policy-making, Cooking Data offers multiple perspectives on the making of these research communities. In doing so, the book traces how numbers gain their legitimacy and authority while showing that they are as much artifacts of situated research practices as records of rural realities.

Placing demographic surveys in Malawi within longer histories of survey work and data collection on the African continent from colonial times to the present day, Biruk explores how concerns about “cooking data” (human deviations from research standards) “figure across multiple scales of data talk in survey research worlds” (p. 3). Focusing particularly on the fieldworkers who collect the data, Biruk foregrounds the social transactions and engagements that shape all stages of research, arguing that all data are “cooked” by the processes of its production. For example, it is through fieldworkers´ improvisations and deviations, based on their social and cultural expertise, that good data are produced. Biruk illuminates the practices—contingent, negotiated, and embedded in uncertainty—that produce numbers as standardized facts and as “stable and objective measures of reality” (p. 3).

Taking up themes in science studies and anthropology, one of the book’s most powerful arguments is that research worlds and the subjects who inhabit them are produced by transactions rather than being preexisting entities. The liveliest chapters are, accordingly, those that address the heterogeneous social fields in which data collection is embedded, the transactions that shape everyday research, and the corresponding obligations and detachments that shape forms of personhood and identity, as well as truth claims. For Malawian fieldworkers, who may have high school certificates or college degrees, even temporary employment in a research project offers opportunities for social and economic mobility. At the same time, the data survey is premised on, and serves to create, boundaries between researcher and researcher. In learning to perform expertise, fieldworkers self-consciously distance themselves from the subjects/objects of research, contributing to the image of the latter as rural villager.

Inequality is reproduced at higher levels, too. Like other forms of research, demographic studies in Malawi bring together unequal parties, including scientists from the Global North and the Global South, Ph.D. students, research managers, fieldworkers, and villagers. These individuals possess vastly different forms of economic, scientific, and social capital.  Scientists from the North make careers through designing and directing the research, while Malawian scientists, who do not have access to research funding bodies, moonlight from one consultancy to another. Likewise, Malawian fieldworkers gain their livelihoods from these projects. Collaboration and partnership thus imply unequal benefits.

In scientific research, the focus on normative ethics ignores the inequalities in which the research is embedded, aiming to “govern preexisting subjects rather than respond to the expectations and relations that arise in the course of data collection” (p. 124). Arising from a liberal human rights framework, normative ethics seeks to address unequal power relations and associated risks of undue coercion through informed consent forms and standard forms of compensation such as the gifts, described by Biruk, of two bars of soap given to survey participants. Research participants and fieldworkers, however, are more concerned about structural inequalities and how these translate into unequal distributions of knowledge, time and reciprocity. Their critique “resituates rights as material and collective entitlements” (p. 112). Biruk attends to the question of why some research respondents feel wronged and to the gaps between hopes, expectations, and disappointments when participation in research is viewed in terms of rightful distribution of past, present and future benefits. As one informant told her: “So many projects are coming here and not giving us anything and breaking their promises. It is time they stop asking us questions and start doing something for us” (p. 123).

The book has some shortcomings. First, while Biruk powerfully evokes fieldworkers’ critiques of research ethics, she also leaves them hanging in the air. I would have liked more sustained reflection on why such critique remains confined to private conversations and sidelined from the pursuit of science. Why do concerns about material inequalities and research responsibilities, which have been widely documented by anthropologists and others, fail to dislodge the framework of normative ethics?]. Second, at times, Biruk seems to take for granted the categories of villager/research participant and fieldworker produced within the research communities studied. As she explains in Chapter Three, her research followed in the wake of demographic surveys, thus her encounters with research participants—based on a form of “stranger intimacy”—rarely probe beyond given identities such as rural villager or household head. While her relationships with fieldworkers were more nuanced, an account of their biographies and trajectories could have offered multiple perspectives on their work and lives. That said, Biruk’s ability to both translate and connect the cultures of demographic survey worlds and anthropology is impressive. This theme is taken up in her excellent final chapter in which she reflects on the bounding of field sites, the co-production of knowledge, and the role of anthropological critique.

The form of goal-directed data collection that characterizes demographic surveys is at odds with “slow” research as an open-ended form of enquiry practiced by anthropologists.  At the core of this form of inquiry lie improvisation, serendipity, and the precept to follow one’s nose. Yet, even though demographic surveys appear to be worlds apart from ethnography, Biruk uncomfortably illuminates how all research is embedded in and reproduces postcolonial inequalities. At a time when most research is still being published behind financial firewalls, which few institutions in African countries can afford to access, Cooking Data raises important questions about the production of value.

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