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The Intimate Politics of Ornithology in Colonial Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 May 2006

Nancy J. Jacobs
Departments of Africana Studies and History, Brown University


A tendency in studies of science in colonial Africa is to focus on the “big politics” of resource extraction, environmental control, and the governmentality of subject bodies. As a result, we now recognize that colonial science was a highly political enterprise in which the pursuit of knowledge was infused with the dynamics of starkly exclusionary societies and extractive regimes. Scientific improvements in medicine and agriculture yielded benefits that underwrote colonial projects and the construction of authoritative knowledge in medicine, racial biology, and social science created disciplinary power over Africans as scientifically objectified colonial subjects. It has been observed that the failure of science to heed indigenous knowledge led to a “misreading” of the landscape and inappropriate intervention. Recently, some historians have attempted to mitigate overly stark depictions of colonial science, making good cases that the practice of scientific ecology, agronomy, and medicine in colonial Africa had motivations and effects beyond the service of extraction and governmentality. They have rightly informed us that the assessment of applied sciences in colonial Africa cannot be reduced to their role in European domination. Clearly, these are critical issues that merit attention. Yet the focus on ways science did (or did not) support various colonial agendas may have impeded the development of a more representative understanding of Euro-American scientific pursuits in African colonies.

Research Article
© 2006 Cambridge University Press

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