I have three recent publications on the politics of biometric identification in, respectively, South Africa, Kenya, and the UK.
As part of a special edition of the Journal of Southern African Studies on Science & Scandal I wrote an article on the use of biometric technology within the post-apartheid welfare bureaucracy:
Starting in March 2012, the South African government engaged in a massive effort of citizen registration that continued for more than a year. Nearly 19 million social welfare beneficiaries enrolled in a novel biometric identification scheme that uses fingerprints and voice recognition to authenticate social grant recipients. This article seeks to understand the meaning of biometric technology in post-apartheid South African welfare through a study of the bureaucratic and policy elite’s motivation. It argues that biometric technology was conceived of and implemented as the most recent in a series of institutional, infrastructural and policy reforms that seek to deliver welfare in a standardised and objective manner. This has, at times, been driven by a false faith in technical efficacy and has involved a playing down of the differential political implications of biometric welfare identification.
In the new issue of Environment & Planning D: Society & Space I have a piece on the material pragmatics of cash transfers in northern Kenya:
In numerous African countries humanitarian and development organizations—as well as governments—are expanding expenditures on social protection schemes as a means of poverty alleviation. These initiatives, which typically provide small cash grants to poor populations, are often considered particularly agreeable for the simplicity of their administration and the feasibility of their implementation. This paper examines the background work required to deploy social protection in one especially remote area: the margins of postcolonial Kenya. Specifically, it documents the often overlooked social and technical construction of the infrastructure necessary so that cash transfers may function with the ease and simplicity for which they are commended. Attention to the practice of ‘infrastructuring’ offers insights into the tensions and politics of what is rapidly become a key form of transnational govermentality in the global South, showing that humanitarian rationalities and subjects cannot be understood independently of the material networks on which they rely.
And, with Aaron Martin, I have a piece in Public Understanding of Science on the public contestation of biometrics in the UK:
Before a newly-elected government abandoned the project in 2010, for at least eight years the British state actively sought to introduce a mandatory national identification scheme for which the science and technology of biometrics was central. Throughout the effort, government representatives attempted to portray biometrics as a technology that was easily understandable and readily accepted by the public. However, neither task was straightforward. Instead, particular publics emerged that showed biometric technology was rarely well understood and often disagreeable. In contrast to some traditional conceptualizations of the relationship between public understanding and science, it was often those entities that best understood the technology that found it least acceptable, rather than those populations that lacked knowledge. This paper analyzes the discourses that pervaded the case in order to untangle how various publics are formed and exhibit differing, conflicting understandings of a novel technology.
Versions of each are available here.