Grace Davie

Apr 19, 2017

Poverty Knowledge in South Africa

A Social History of Human Science, 1855-2005

Cambridge University Press 2015

purchase at Apartheid in South Africa formally ended in 1994, but the issue of poverty and what to do about it remained as contentious as it had been a century earlier. In the new book, Poverty Knowledge in South Africa: A Social History of Human Science, 1855-2005 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Grace Davie shows that the poverty question was up for grabs even into the twenty-first century because of ongoing disagreements about how to measure poverty and to manage the racists assumptions that underwrote it. The book uses the idiom of co-production to show how scientists, activists and other knowledge-makers made and remade poverty in dynamic interaction with the people they sought to know. The book documents the thwarted efforts of scientists to accomplish their political goals as their expert knowledge was variously invoked, reinterpreted, and dismissed not only by white-supremacist governments, but also by social activists, black communities, and labor unions, which all used experts poverty knowledge for their own political ends. At issue was the question of what constituted credible evidence, and over more than a century debates continued to toggle between quantitative and qualitative forms of evidence, between statistics and stories. Through this analysis, Davie pushes back against the familiar claim that the technocratic state was on a steady march towards quantitative objectivity. Poverty Knowledge in South Africa is a serious, thorough book and it is indispensable for thinking through questions of social justice not only among historical actors but among scholars in the present day.

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