1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World

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  • Reception follows in Brooks Hall Commons 

This talk draws on one chapter of my book manuscript, Cooking Data, which is based on ethnographic work amid and with Malawian fieldworkers collecting questionnaire data from rural households for survey projects. I borrow “cooking data” from my informants—both Malawian fieldworkers and foreign demographers—to open an analytical space for the central questions of the book: How do raw units of information—numbers written onto a questionnaire by data collectors—acquire value as statistics that inform national AIDS policy and interventions? How do on-the-ground dynamics and practices of survey research cultures mediate the production of “clean” numbers? Finally, how are quantitative health data and their social worlds co-produced and with what consequences for local economies, formulations of expertise, and lived experience? In this talk, I trace how researchers’ scientific investments in pure, clean data—symbolically represented in surveys that act as a recipe for data collection—are made and unmade by practices and processes on the ground. Through close analysis of the embodied techniques and technologies employed by fieldworkers during data collection, 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 epidemic in Malawi. I focus, in particular, on the cultural translation of survey concepts such as probability, the techniques and technologies used by fieldworkers to uncover the ‘truth’ of rural Malawian social realities, and researchers’ intensive efforts to harmonize encounters between fieldworkers and research participants. The talk pays careful attention to how evidence is fashioned through technologies and relations that add value to numbers and codes recorded on a page, even as those processes also threaten to undo that value by “cooking” data. 



Event Date: 
Friday, 21 October 2016 - 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Crystal Biruk
Speaker Title: 
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Oberlin College