Experimental interventions and interventional experiments in the Global South

Our workshop aims at scrutinizing the temporal and spatial conditions of experimental interventions and interventionist experiments by focusing on the ways in which evidence is produced and stabilized. Deadline: 02.08.19

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  • Was Call For PapersExperimental interventions and interventional experiments in the Global South
  • Wann bis (Europe/Berlin / UTC200)
  • Wo Köln Deutschland
  • benötigte Unterlagen abstract and short CV
  • Termin herunterladen iCal Datei herunterladen


Experimental interventions and interventional experiments in the Global South On the temporal and spatial consequences of a new figuration of the social and natural sciences Workshop organized by Mario Schmidt and Simon Holdermann, University of Cologne Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the ways in which “practices of experimenting, testing, and measuring have broken free from the laboratory” (Beisel et al. 2018: 109). Situating themselves in the wider context of Science and Technology Studies, ethnographers follow such diverse practices as HIVtesting, Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) or auditing performances which increasingly take place outside of their traditional habitats (such as the laboratory, the corporation or the clinic).

Anthropology and other social sciences thereby finally take a closer look at what Helen Tilley has unpacked as an almost one hundred and fifty year long story of “Africa as a living laboratory” (Tilley 2011, cf. Geissler & Molyneux 2011, for other areas of the Global South, cf. Pickles 2009, Raj 2007). Scholars have started to analyze the detrimental effects of this “therapeutic domination approach” (Rottenburg 2009) that is not necessarily supported by knowledge already experimentally justified, but rather depends on an understanding of knowledge as a collateral byproduct of an experimental or test-bed situation (cf. Halpern et al. 2013). This new experimental figuration constitutes a form of “post-facto, self-validating knowledge” (Nguyen 2009) creating “its own measure of success” (Petryna 2009: 46) that is not always backed by political legitimation.

We can furthermore observe that these experimental interventions are no longer solely conducted by natural scientists, governments and non-governmental actors who invade and integrate into local epistemic settings. Increasingly we also witness how such practices are employed by social scientists themselves such as behavioural economists, ethologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and HumanComputer-Interaction Scholars (here we are not referring to approaches to experimental ways of doing or writing ethnography).

Our workshop aims at taking a closer look at such forms of experimental interventions, focusing especially on the following three interrelated sets of questions:

1. Temporal and spatial concentration and containment and emerging temporal and spatial gaps and ruptures Experimental knowledge production is characterized by both temporal and spatial concentration and containment. We are interested in why projects within development cooperation, medical science, behavioral economics and other sciences increasingly focus on such highly localized interventions while anthropologists appear to be drawn in the opposite direction (studying supra-local relations, the world system, globalization etc., cf Candea 2007). What is the epistemological and political rationale of this “new localism” and the accompanying establishment of single-sided localities (the lab-in-the-field, e.g.)? Which practices enable the establishment and maintenance of these spatial configuration as well as the temporality of before, during and after the experiment? When and especially how do experiments start and when and how do they end? What is the inside of experiments and what their outside? The temporal and spatial containment and concentration are carefully calibrated achievements of specific scientific practices. On the one hand, they are always threatened to be destabilized or compromised if the experimental setting is breached by, for instance, an experimental subject transgressing the rules of the experiment. Intrascientific as well as political pressures to produce relevant and significant results, on the other hand, lead to attempts to generalize the validity of the results. In a discussion of ‘experimentality’ as a new form of governmentality, Richard Rottenburg draws attention to what he calls the “archipelago pattern” (2009: 426) of experimental intervention, i.e. the fact that only a few places are covered by intervention although the validity is supposedly true for a much wider area. In this context, a diversity of ethical and epistemological work aims at closing the gaps or at least at explaining them away or branding them as irrelevant.

2. Evidence production against the background of the paradox of reproducibility and closure Experiments are often understood to be, in contrast to ethnographic fieldwork, reproducible. However, taken into account the massive scale of RCTs in the Global South (e.g., the Give Directly Basic Income Study in Western Kenya running for 12 years and including hundreds of households), the possibility of reproducibility appears to increasingly come into conflict with the necessity of closure. Question such as the following thus arise: What is the scope of the validity of the results? Who is their intended addressee? What role does theoretical reproducibility play if, de facto, a reproduction is highly unlikely if not impossible? For which area and for how long are experimentally produced results valid?

3. Experimental interventions and interventionist experiments Whole political or scientific interventions can have an experimental characteristic: They are designed to enhance circumstances or improve situations without knowing for sure that the desired benefit (for specific citizens, a region, ‘the’ economy etc.) can be achieved by the introduced measures and means. Vice versa, experiments can have the aim of making way for profound change or contributing to a general concept of well-being by informing, supporting or intervening into policies, decision making processes or living conditions. At the same time, these interventions or experiments respectively are quite often deemed to have a necessary positive outcome, because an admission of failure can be seen as an expression of breaking one’s word, not having used money effectively or gambling away one's (professional or academic) career. By emphasizing the complexity and impossibility of adequately planning or deciding, trial-and-error approaches are legitimized. Against this background we ask how the status and interrelation of experiment and intervention can be (re)conceptualized. How and when do they have to be recalibrated? Who benefits from such endeavors? Before whom should such experiments or projects be justified in the first place (policymakers, funders, interlocutors)? What narratives of progress, change, legitimation, modernity are (re)produced, implicitly and explicitly, by experimental interventions and interventionist experiments? How can their impact be measured and how are their outcomes rendered plausible?

We are interested in scholars from diverse social and cultural sciences who wish to enter into fruitful discussion about these topics and who primarily work in the context of Africa, but are open to contributions from other areas concerning the Global South.

We especially encourage young researchers (PhD students and early postdocs), for whom we offer limited funds for travel expenses. Applications should be send to mario.schmidt@uni-koeln.de (incl. abstract and short CV) before August 2, 2019.


Beisel, Uli; Calkins, Sandra; Rottenburg, Richard (2018): ‘Divining, testing, and the problem of accountability’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (1-2): 109-113.

Candea, Matei (2007): ‘Arbitrary Locations: In Defence of the Bounded Field Site’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13:167-184.

Geissler, Paul Wenzel and Catherine Molyneux (eds.) (2011): Evidence, Ethos and Experiment: The Anthropology and History of Medical Research in Africa. Oxford: Berghahn.

Halpern, Orit; LeCavalier, Jesse; Calvillo, Nerea and Wolfgang Pietsch (2013): ‘Test-Bed Urbanism’. Public Culture 25 (2): 272-306.

Nguyen, V. (2009): ‘Government-by-exception: Enrolment and experimentality in mass HIV treatment programmes in Africa’. Social Theory and Health 7 (3): 196-217.

Petryna, Adriana (2009): When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pickles, Anthony (2009): ‘Part and whole numbers: An “enumerative” reinterpretation of the Cambridge anthropological expedition to Torres Straits and its subjects’. Oceania 79 (3), 293-315.

Raj, Kapil (2007): Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Rottenburg, Richard (2009): ‘Social and Public Experiments and New Figurations of Science and Politics in Postcolonial Africa’. Postcolonial Studies 12 (4): 424-440.

Tilley, Hellen (2011): Africa as a Living Laboratory. Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Preliminary Workshop Program

Experimental interventions and interventional experiments in the Global South On the temporal and spatial consequences of a new figuration of the social and natural sciences September 18-19, 2019, University of Cologne, a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School, Aachener Str. 217, 50931 Köln, 3rd floor “Skyfall”.

Wednesday, 18/09/2019

14:00 Introduction
14:30 - 16:00 Opening keynote & discussion
16:00 - 16:30 Coffee break
16:30 - 18:00 Session 1): Temporal and spatial consequences 3 presentations (á 20min) & discussion (30min)
19:00 Dinner

Thursday, 19/09/2019

10:00 - 11:30 Session 2): Design, reproducibility, evidence 3 presentations (á 20min) & discussion (30min)
11:30 - 12:30 Lunch
12:30 - 14:00 Session 3): Experiments and/as interventions 3 presentations (á 20min) & discussion (30min)
14:00 - 14:30 Wrap-up and farewell


Nähere Informationen

s.holdermann[ at ]uni-koeln.de

Dokumente senden an

mario.schmidt[ at ]uni-koeln.de