Helen Tilley‘s new book Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 (University of Chicago Press, 2011) uncovers the surprising relationships that developed between science and empire as Britain attempted to fulfill its imperial projects in Africa. Focused primarily on Britain’s colonial dependencies, Tilley shows how the weakness of the empire and the complexity of Africa and of Africans transformed field studies into social and scientific laboratories conducting not merely scientific experiments but also experiments in epistemology, governance and disciplinary methods and aims. Tilley shows how what she calls “vernacular knowledge” circulated and affected metropolitan decision making, how understandings of ecology and complexity seemed to produce both epistemic and imperial humility and how some scientists were ambivalent about their participation research in states that were founded on white rule. Development, under all of its meanings, began long before decolonization, and Africa as a Living Laboratory shows us how imperial ambitions, expertise and experience transformed understandings of what was possible and how it would be best achieved.
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