AMAA on Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World

Questions developed by the members of CU Denver’s ANTH4600/5600, S2021: Kaylynn Aiona, Delilah Chavarria, Darcy Copeland, Keaton Green, Ari Jones, Caitlin Konchan, Chris Kuelling, Kuba Kwiecinski, Rosa Lawrence, Destinee Murray, Alexa Powell, Benin Rahma, George Sanchez, Emma Vittetoe, Renee Watson, and Abby Welch

Instructor’s note: In our era of “alternative facts,” and given the critical roles that data collection and interpretation continue to play in the pandemic, Cal Biruk’s Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World resonated strongly with students. The ethnography offered an entry point for reflecting on how ideologies of objectivity and truth – especially as these are claimed through practices of quantification – reflect and reproduce relations of power. My own lesson plan focused on situating foundational concepts like biopower, biopolitics, and necropolitics. This provided context for Biruk’s own interventions, in which they place their fieldwork in conversation with scholars including Meghan Vaughn, Alexander Weheliye, Jemima Pierre, and Agnes Riedmann to highlight the processes of racialization and racism at work in (post)colonial projects of quantification. Many students in this class either dealt with data in their current professional lives or hoped to in their future careers. As such, they connected with the mundane and profound dilemmas embedded in and generated by the research world(s) that Biruk so thoughtfully documents.

I. On concepts and consequences:

Q: Are some forms of knowledge production truer than others?

A: This is a great (and big!) question, one that is at the heart of the themes explored in my book, and one that has long animated research by scholars in anthropology and science and technology studies (STS). I think the best way that I can answer this question is to deflect back with some questions of my own: What is truth? How do we determine what is true or false? Why do we think some evidence is ‘better’ than others? In the book, I was preoccupied with neither arbitrating the truth or falsity of the quantitative data I discuss, nor determining exactly what number-centric evidence (say, the statistics produced by survey projects) gets wrong about the complexities of rural social realities in Malawi. Certainly, the bulk of work in anthropology focused on thinking critically about global health or development projects in the global South has excelled at demonstrating the latter. My book builds on this important work but tries to move beyond thinking about global health in and through the usual binary of researchers and the researched (reflected by questions such as: What do researchers get wrong? Or: How do the ‘researched’ or target populations respond to projects or interventions?) I was motivated to write this book because I wanted to think beyond representationalist critiques of data in their finished forms (polished statistics that appear in academic journals or policy documents). I wanted to instead reveal the criteria and metrics that are baked into methods, research design, and that determine ahead of time what count as data or not. In other words, my research was animated by an investment in unsettling what we take for granted to be ‘true’ or ‘truer.’

I do not mean to suggest that all forms of knowledge or evidence are equal, nor do I contend that we can never know anything for certain! Let me try to clarify my point with a simple example. Imagine a cultural anthropologist and an epidemiologist, both of whom are interested in better understanding elevated HIV prevalence among vulnerable populations (say, men who have sex with men, or MSM) in southern Africa, and in helping devise interventions to decrease these rates. (Incidentally, I am currently working on a project in this realm). Think about how each of these individuals would approach this project and what kinds of evidence they might use to make decisions about how to direct resources or energy. An epidemiologist might employ methods such as population size estimates, HIV-testing, behavioral surveys, and so on. These methods, before they are even enacted, foreshadow the kinds of ‘solutions’ to a problem that will come to be. Determining the population size of MSM in a given area, the exact rates of HIV prevalence, and learning more about ‘risk factors’ for contracting HIV in this population, for example, make viral load of HIV into a narrow target for interventions. Indeed, presently, the emphasis on counting, testing, reaching, and treating MSM in order to reduce the viral load of individual bodies and increase the number of MSM who present with undetectable viral load are prefigured by such methods. For the Global Fund, such metrics are key evidence of success in progressing toward the so-called ‘end of AIDS.’ An anthropologist, however, might approach the same problem in a very different way. Ethnographic methods and approaches, perhaps spending long periods of time with MSM as they navigate their everyday lives, or assuming MSM vulnerability is caught up in matrices of stigma, lack of economic opportunities, and even imperial histories of regulating sexuality and sex work, from the get-go frame the problem itself in a very different way. Sure, reducing the presence of virus in individual bodies is crucial to increasing quality of life; yet, anthropologists might insist on broadening our very conception of AIDS beyond the confines of a body proper that contains a virus, thinking about how AIDS and ‘health’ itself are entangled in complex historical, political, and structural contexts that contribute to their unequal distribution across bodies and geographies. So, here we have two renderings, two ways of seeing the same problem, which entail different solutions and interventions. I would not claim that one is ‘truer’ than the other, but I am interested in what different ways of knowing enable and foreclose, and in how and why certain kinds of knowledge gain prominence over others.

II. On methodology and praxis:

Q: Were the project supervisors and head researchers wary about your ethnographic involvement in the project?

A: As I always tell my students, doing anthropology takes a long while—well before beginning ‘fieldwork’ proper, it is important to get to know the folks you will be spending time with. I first encountered LSAM (the project I spent the most, sustained time with) very early in my graduate program. They were looking for graduate students to spend the Northern summer in Malawi to help supervise Malawian fieldworkers collecting survey data and to aid with data entry and coding of qualitative data from associated projects ongoing alongside the longitudinal survey. I spent two summers doing this work, out of interest, but also because my graduate program did not provide summer funding and I needed a job! As a young graduate student, I knew I wanted to think more about epidemics, particular AIDS, not as ‘events’ but as ongoing crises (interconnected with others, including racism, settler colonialism, imperial legacies, etc) so the subject material of LSAM’s field research (AIDS, reproductive health, etc…) aligned with my developing research interests. It was during these summer stints with LSAM that I initially got to know the American and European demographers heading up the project(s), and had the chance to meet the Malawian fieldworkers (supervisors and data collectors) who I would spend so much of my time with. Working as a graduate student with LSAM piqued my interest in doing what I call “research on research.” I realized that ethnography could be a good tool for understanding the rituals, social networks, materialities, relations, and politics that constitute research worlds. I ran the idea by demographers before presenting it to my own PhD supervisor, and they were excited at the prospect of such a project—indeed, they came to introduce me to many other demographers and economists working broadly in the field of AIDS/global health research in Malawi, and Africa more broadly, introductions that were instrumental to the success and feasibility of my eventual project.

Because I performed small but useful tasks in the field, contributing in minor ways to the efficiency of data collection and providing suggestions or feedback on field operations (demographers typically do not travel to the field on a daily basis), I don’t think demographers were ‘wary’ of me. I tried to approach my research with humility, to genuinely learn to see and understand the world like a demographer (without, of course, fully becoming one). In writing my book, I tried not to take a ‘hostile’ position toward numbers or quantitative ways of knowing, but, rather, attempted to capture how demographers care for data and invest immense energy in ensuring they meet high standards of data quality. Notably, when demographers have commented on the content of the book, they don’t see it as revelatory or surprising. Rather, they are mostly well aware of the kinds of dynamics and transactions and complexities I describe and document. In the field, I sometimes lived with or alongside graduate students supervising survey research for these or other similar projects: in these intimate settings, we often found ourselves talking about our investments in the very different projects (quantitative vs. qualitative, fast vs. slow research, etc) we were caught up in. Sometimes, these conversations could get heated because we disagreed about fundamental points, such as, for example, the potential (or not) of social incentives projects to address problems like girls dropping out of school. But moments like these helped me sit with, think deeply about, and learn to better articulate my own commitments or positions, and to really grasp how and why certain projects, interventions, or research questions are deemed valuable or not, by whom, and for what reasons.

I knew that in order to understand the particular cultures of science that make up survey projects, it would be important to be part of the everyday work of fieldwork (described in detail in the book). The Malawian fieldworkers were gracious in letting an anthropologist tag along with them in the field. Early on, I feared being ‘dead weight’, or not contributing enough to the daily labor of fieldwork to warrant my inclusion. I quickly identified logical places where I could help out, and this often entailed completing tasks that were boring, repetitive, and unexciting. For example, I checked a lot of questionnaires, going through surveys completed by fieldworkers line by line to make sure no information was missing, to verify the internal consistency of answers, to identify responses that seemed unreasonable or invalid, and to ensure all recorded data was readable. I also logged information in fat paper-filled binders, including whether a respondent had not been home, had moved away, or had died. I helped prepare for fieldwork in the early morning (printing questionnaires, packing the vans with boxes of soap, etc) and break down fieldwork in the evenings.

I write a lot about trust in one chapter of the book, and I think this question (the one I am responding to) gets at the dynamics of trust, suspicion, and reciprocity that underlie any evolving relationship (including between friends or family members!). Trust is not something you earn or ‘own’ in a stable continuous way, but unfolds in ongoing relations and transactions between people whose interests at some points align and, at others, diverge. As I built relationships with the fieldworkers around me, we became entangled in relations of mutual support that far exceeded the space of the research project, and drew on our respective knowledge, networks, and resources to help each other achieve our diverse interests, ranging from needing a ride somewhere to borrowing money to securing introductions (for me, to research interlocutors; for the fieldworkers, to potential future employers) and so on.

Q: Throughout “Cooking Data” the complexities of compensation and reciprocity are discussed in relation to the community, fieldworkers, and individual participants. I imagine participants in your own anthropological research also give you a great deal of their time and knowledge, and they might be asked relive or experience difficult emotions. How do you understand these complexities? How do you ensure you are giving back? 

A: This is a great question, and one I think about often. Certainly, anthropologists of global health are themselves caught up in the circuits of resource distribution, imperial histories, and geographic asymmetries that constitute global health. We are also complicit in its violences. For example, anthropologists, not unlike demographers, could also be framed as bloodsuckers, or people who give more than they take, who accumulate wealth or profit from the information they extract. They publish articles in academic journals, which propels their career and earning power, and they have the ability to come and go (access to global mobility and capital) from the places where they undertake research or other work. I think the first step in thinking about how to ‘give back’ is to upend the idea that it is ever possible to close off the cycle of reciprocity between two people or groups, to achieve ‘equal’ exchange. Here, I draw on Marcel Mauss’ (1922) theorization of the gift. Mauss argues that a primary function of the gift (or giving) is to solidify social bonds and maintain social ties: gifts open a relationship between two people who become mutually indebted to one another through ongoing transactions. Giving (and taking) makes parties to a transaction vulnerable, invites them to care for one another, to dwell in the uncertainty of return or payoff. So, if we think about the information, stories, and experiences that my interlocutors in Malawi (ranging from Malawian researchers and activists and policy makers to the fieldworkers to rural villagers) shared with me as ‘gifts,’ the question becomes: What ‘gift’ can I give in return? I like to think about this question structurally, meaning beyond the dyad of, say, anthropologist-rural villager (as I discuss in the book, I was caught up in larger cycles of gift-giving when I was compelled to give the same ‘gift’ of soap to the very people with whom I was speaking about the inadequacies of this gift). I personally do not have the skills, resources, knowledge, or individual ability to ‘give back’ to the rural Malawians I met, in the sense of drastically improving their economic well-being, for example.

So, I try to always hold myself accountable to two questions: What can I offer to people and a place I care very much about, given my specific skill set, networks, and expertise? How can I hold myself accountable not only for the present day and personal interactions and encounters I enter into in Malawi, but also for the long history of exploitation and extraction that anthropology is complicit in? I don’t know that I have found conclusive or satisfying answers to these questions, but leaving them not fully answered and sitting with the discomfort, I think, is more important than assuming there is one clear way to somehow fully pay back or give back. Of course, I maintain ongoing relationships with many of the folks discussed in the book, and we remain, to this day, engaged in relations of mutual support and reciprocity. But beyond this, which, to me, is a baseline part of being human, I have done my best to mobilize the skills and resources I have access to as a faculty member at North American universities toward ends deemed meaningful or desirable by friends and colleagues in Malawi. When I was living in Malawi during my long-term fieldwork, I was an unpaid lecturer at the University of Malawi for a semester. For me, this was a meaningful and appropriate way to draw on concrete skills and training I possessed—teaching, mentoring, writing lectures, drawing on my academic networks to connect Malawian students with Northern scholars; it wasn’t so much ‘giving back,’ as contributing concrete things in a minor way that, I think, brought something to the university. Presently, in my work with an LGBT-rights NGO in Malawi’s capital, I likewise draw on discrete skills I possess, namely writing, copy editing, and global networks I am embedded in, to contribute to grant writing and reporting projects that NGO staff members request help with. I am committed, perhaps, not to ‘giving back’ (or closing the circle through compensation or equal exchange, which is an impossibility) but to thinking critically about small ways that I can meaningfully contribute to projects. For me, it is essential that these gestures of ‘giving’ center solidarity, accountability, critical awareness of imperial legacies, and mutual aid rather than stem from guilt-driven assumptions that I could ever transcend my complicities in a larger system simply by giving back ‘enough’.  

Q: Do advancements in technology, especially digitization, impact how data is recorded and cooked? Does such advancements help initiate faster responses in policy making? Or do they, in some ways, generate more problems?

A: Thanks for this question, which certainly gets at how data collection methods and interfaces have changed since the period covered in my book, where pen-and-paper survey administration was the norm. Many projects have shifted to using electronic devices such as tablets, phones, and computers as data collection devices because they can be programmed ahead of time to prevent and minimize the kinds of ‘human error’ that are assumed to be threats to data quality. Digital data collection enables researchers and programmers to pre-empt common mismeasurements or errors that result from paper-based survey administration by building in, for example, automatic skip patterns or restricting the range of possible responses, or not allowing the interviewer to move to the next page if they leave a response blank or miss a question. According to standards held dear by demographers or other quantitative researchers, then, these devices are successful at mitigating human error and might enhance data quality. Yet, from the perspective of the claim in my book that all data are ‘cooked’ in their processes and practices of production, technologies such as these do very little to change the fundamental assumptions built into survey design and into the instruments and questions on a survey.

Imagine the beans exercise to measure probability of anticipated events I discuss in Chapter 4: What would change about the answers collected or the negotiations that transpire between fieldworker and respondent if that section of the survey were administered using a tablet instead of pen and paper? The numbers entered into the tablet, like those recorded on a piece of paper, are the products of the same kinds of negotiations, and they are laden with the same limitations. Yet, in both cases, if the section is completed fully with viable responses, it is deemed to be ‘good’ data by demographic standards. So, the means of administering the survey matters little in that sense. Another thing to think about here is the ways that material objects ‘fit’ into the infrastructures of field research. A tablet, even packaged into a protective case, would likely have a shorter life amid elements like mud, dirt, rain, and dust. As I mention in the book, the GPS devices fieldworkers were given often failed in the field and cell phones did not get a signal. Projects collecting anthropometric data such as heights and weights found that even the field-ready lightweight scales they carried broke within a few days. A stable supply of electricity would be required to charge an electronic device before its use every day (something that can’t be guaranteed in remote parts of Malawi). One could come up with more and more techno-centric solutions for such problems, for example, the use of solar panels to charge devices instead of electricity. Yet, these might need to be imported from abroad, or be cumbersome to pack into field vehicles amid so many other necessary material objects. Research infrastructures are composed of human and non-human elements, people and things, and changing one small cog in that machinery will generate rippling effects on the whole apparatus.

An aside: as a professor administering course evaluations over the past decade in two formats— pen and paper vs. computer-based—I’ve observed differences in the nature of responses. Pen and paper always produce more detailed responses and a higher response rate (though the latter could be because they are administered in class in a time-reserved fashion). Even when I make time for students to complete evaluations in class on their laptops, the qualitative feedback (comments) is limited and less rich. This raises interesting questions about differences in affect, investment, and thought as linked to the materialities of ‘writing’ practices. Just some food for thought…

Q: How did your own identity and positionality (citizenship, gender, sexuality, race, etc.) shape your experiences doing fieldwork in Malawi?

A: As science studies scholars have so well taught us, the knowledge we produce is always partial and situated, meaning it is mediated by the various and intersecting experiences we bring to research. While “I” can be broken down into identities including but not limited to white, queer, non-binary, American living in Canada, and so on, I think it is important to note that, in Malawi, the most prominent of these is whiteness. As a white person working in Africa, I fit into a larger historical and semiotic context in which “Whiteness” is a set of codes and meanings that exceed phenotype or skin colour. As an “embodied agent” of Whiteness, then, I could not escape the discursive economy—dating to the colonial-era—that imputes traits such as modernity, economic success and cultural superiority to certain bodies and not others (Pierre 2012:77). This manifested in social relations on public transportation, where people assumed I was a ‘backpacker’ (a person afforded mobility by virtue of economic privilege), or in policy meetings or NGO spaces where people assumed I was a development worker (Whiteness belies an intention to modernize, improve, or develop), or on the plane between Johannesburg and Lilongwe (where people assumed I was a missionary or volunteer headed to orphanages). These assumptions help illuminate how Whiteness, including my own, engenders certain assumptions, and mediates all social interactions in Malawi.

While people in Malawi are easily able to ‘place’ me as white, however, they were often less able to slot me into the boxes of ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ My gender ambiguity, in this way, operated in much the same way in Malawi as it does in the US or Canada. Living in a place, any place, for a long period of time in your embodied self works wonders for challenging or complicating mythologies and homogenizing assumptions about that place. For example, Malawi, like most of Africa, is cast as homogenously homophobic and inimical to queer or trans people and identities. Many queer and trans folks based in North America have reached out to me before traveling to Malawi to seek advice about how to navigate “African homophobia.” Part of my current work lies in challenging the idea that Africa is a locus of pure homophobic sentiment, drawing on the time I’ve spent embedded in queer networks in Malawi, where queer folks navigate stigma and suspicion on a daily basis; yet, their lives are not solely spent avoiding homophobic attacks or hatred. My orientation to my queerness and my gender presentation have changed over the fifteen years I’ve been visiting Malawi; early on, I was hesitant to disclose my sexual identity to some colleagues, friends, or interlocutors there (just as I was in the US!) Nonetheless, it is important to note the different stakes for a white visitor to Malawi versus for a Malawian embedded in local kinship networks and obligations and religious communities.

Living in Malawi and thinking more acutely and explicitly about how to perform, hide, and reveal my ‘self’, and being more acutely aware that people were making assumptions about me, has informed my understanding of identity as complicated, contingent, performed, and involving a toggling between visibility/invisibility… Some of these reflections later influenced my writing about the mythologized figure of ‘fake gays’ in Malawi (Biruk 2020). Identity indeed ‘shapes’ fieldwork experiences, but even as my identities more obviously granted me access to certain people, places, and benefit of the doubt in Malawi (I was never assumed out of place at a hotel pool or asked to leave my backpack at the door of a grocery store, while Malawian friends regularly has both of these experiences), I don’t lose sight of how my whiteness, especially, does the same for me everyday in Canada and the US, if more obliquely. I think of “fieldwork” always as a realm of practice and engagement that is not cut off from or separate from ‘real life,’ but rather an extension of it, with all its sometimes delightful, sometimes scary, sometimes anxiety-inducing encounters, emotions, and exchanges.

Cal Biruk (she/they) is Associate Professor of Anthropology. Cal is the author of Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World (Duke University Press, 2018). The book draws on ethnographic work in Malawi to trace the social lives of quantitative health data collected by population scientists and shows how data reflect and cohere new social relations, persons, forms of expertise, and economies. Cal is the author of numerous articles that have appeared in journals such as Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Critical Public Health, Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, Medicine Anthropology Theory, Journal of Modern African Studies, and Critical African Studies. Cal’s research and teaching interests include medical anthropology, critical global health studies, feminist STS, anthropologies of quantification and data, histories of anthropological theory, and queer/trans studies. 

Cal’s current work with an LGBT-rights organization in Malawi tracks the emergence of ‘key populations’—as knowledge object, target for global health interventions, and site of affective, activist, and monetary investment—in Africa. Taking the global focus on key populations amid the so-called ‘end of AIDS’ in Africa as entry point, Cal is working on an ethnographic history of the concept of ‘population’, and the relations, technologies, and ways of knowing it coheres. Drawing on long-term ethnography and analysis of colonial archival sources, the project seeks to excavate the submerged racialized ontologies of global health’s metrics, concepts, sociotechnical infrastructures, and technologies, and considers how they have produced imaginaries and valuations of African health. 

Ask-Me-Almost-Anything (AMAA): Centering Student Engagement with Ethnographic Monographs” is a series edited by Christine Sargent.


Biruk, C. 2020. “’Fake gays’ in queer Africa: NGOs, metrics, and modes of (queer) theory.” Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 26(3):477-502.

Mauss, Marcel. 1922. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton.

Pierre, Jemima. 2012. The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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