Review of Crystal (Cal) Biruk’s Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World

Cooking Data: Culture and Politics in an African Research World

Crystal (Cal) Biruk

Duke University Press, 2018. 296 pages.


Biruk’s Cooking Data is a sensitive ethnography of demographic research in Malawi. Based primarily on ethnographic research with projects to collect survey data and HIV tests from rural Malawians, it presents a story about the “cooking” of data, or their transformation into something recognized and valued as statistical evidence. It follows the social life of data from survey design to the circulation of statistics, focusing especially on the practices on demographic fieldwork.

Impressive in its focus and scope, Cooking Data makes a clear and compelling case for the social thickness of numbers. Biruk shows that data do not exist on their own, as if they were waiting to be collected by adequately rigorous researchers. Rather, data has to be organized, shuffled, and codified in sets of practices across sites that demographers characterize as “the office” and “the field.” Data are therefore the product of intense social and cultural work. In the course of making data, research practices also produce social relations. They contribute to the construction of a “research world,” part of the complex social space of global health that enacts relations between researchers, fieldworkers, respondents, policy makers, and nations. Data are therefore multiply consequential, and Biruk focuses ethnographic attention on their making.

Biruk’s approach to this book as an ethnography of a “research world” is of special interest. This approach emphasizes that researchers do not enter an already formed and cohesive world, which is to be understood in terms of cultural difference. Instead, their practices help constitute the world in which they work. Thus, the work of analysis involves parsing the different subject positions, goals, and relative powers of those involved in building the worlds of global health.

By taking the production of survey data as a path into the production of global health, Cooking Data centers the creative and skilled labor of fieldworkers. Biruk shows how facts are made through such mundane but socially entangled acts as renting out hotels, driving to villages, pestering rural Malawians for personal information, and giving them bars of soap. Through this process, information collected from rural Malawians is transformed into the major currency of global health research worlds: data. Far from threatening the purity of “clean” data, the skilled practices of fieldworkers facilitate what Biruk calls, in a nod to James Scott, “seeing like a research project” (2018: 20). Indeed, the sorts of demographic studies that Biruk examines enact the gaze of global health, collecting and isolating certain kinds of information and translating them into something that meets disciplinary standards. To do this, researchers and fieldworkers must construct a large research apparatus oriented around the unit of the sample. In its ideal form, this process should amount to something like an assembly line for data sets. However, the labor of making this apparatus work is deeply social, often creative, and occasionally requires bending some of the guidelines of survey research. In exchanged for their skilled labor, fieldworkers seek to obtain whatever social, cultural, or economic capital might be on offer. Global health research worlds are therefore sites where researchers seek to make visible the AIDS epidemic and fieldworkers try to position themselves in a flexible market.

One of the book’s most striking chapters offers an analysis of a standard gift in Malawian research projects: a bar of soap. According to Biruk, soap is conceived of by researchers as a “clean” gift. Not so valuable as to coerce research participation, soap appears to offer the perfect closer for a bounded and contractual relationship of exchange meant to come to an end after the giving of a symbolic gift. In contrast, rural Malawians read diverse meanings into this sudsy present, pointing to soap to critique the arbitrary distribution of benefits from research, the inadequacy of the remuneration for their work, and the failure to fulfil past promises. For Malawians, soap evokes colonial and postcolonial historical legacies as well as the demands of more intimate gift-giving relationships. Soap is therefore an inextricable part of unequal research relationships that extend beyond the historical timeline of individual projects. Through this analysis of soap’s meanings and histories, Biruk critiques the attempt at detachment by research projects from the communities they study.

Biruk also describes how research data in survey projects is treated as innocuous, an argument that resonates with Ramah McKay’s ethnography of humanitarian care in Mozambique, Medicine in the Meantime, which describes yet other dimensions of the social life of data. McKay argues that data practices mandated by approaches to AIDS care further differentiate patients from one another, producing gaps and inconsistencies in medical care, while the apparently innocuous nature of data makes these political effects insidious. Just as data are produced by substantive social relations, the statistics that they generate do not stand alone but are bolstered by what Biruk describes as social and cultural scaffolding. Biruk shows how the claim that harmful cultural practices contributed to the AIDS epidemic circulated in global health contexts without any substantial statistical backing, while the claim that MSM (men who have sex with men) practices spread HIV faced resistance even when it was backed by rigorous demographic research. Numbers were not granted authority on their own, but depended on the position of the person making the claim and the context in which the claim was performed.

Like the other authors in this forum, Biruk questions the role of the anthropologist within the context of global health research. Biruk advocates for making the tensions and contradictions of anthropology’s critical role in global health research worlds its source of value. Throughout the book, Biruk compares and relativizes anthropology and demography, highlighting their dissimilarities as well as their shared predicaments. It is the very awkwardness of anthropology as a discipline that mirrors and critiques global health that makes it an especially compelling source of insight. Biruk has written a book that is aware of its own complicities in multiple kinds of economies (scientific, but also political-economic, racial, and cultural). It is this very complicity, Biruk suggests, that might make a non-innocent discipline like anthropology a source of some productive new kinds of stories. In this case, it is a story about data that shows dichotomy of “raw” and “cooked” data to be a conventional distinction that does not hold up under scrutiny.

This is a substantive contribution to our understanding of the role of data in global health, which should be read alongside Metrics: What Counts in Global Health, edited by Vincanne Adams. Like that book, Cooking Data demonstrates the contributions that a critical and engaged anthropology can offer to global health. It is a credit to the richness of this book that its conclusions generate further questions. Cooking Data shows what is at stake in the production of data, raising questions about the sorts of ethical principles that can guide the evaluation of data once the black box of value-neutral “good science” is opened up, and points in some productive directions. If all data are “cooked” by sociocultural entanglements, then I wonder what sorts of political and ethical commitments could be found in such entanglements. If the global health call for clean and transparent data meant to inform politically neutral, technocratic policy decisions is based on the convenient fiction of detached objectivity, then what might be a more productive attitude toward numbers? To what or to whom should the distinctions between “good” and “bad” data practices be held accountable? Like other books in the forum, Biruk suggests Deborah Thomas’ approach, which considers “reparations” as a framework for considering transnational entanglements. Both anthropology and global health, this suggests, could seek more reparative modes of operation grounded in addressing histories of structural inequality. Biruk has relativized the foundational dichotomies that underpin the production of demographic data. This is necessary for more conscious decision-making about future research practices.

Damien Droney is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge (SIFK) at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in anthropology from Stanford University, where his research focused on the politics of science, technology, and medicine in postcolonial Africa. While at SIFK, he is revising his dissertation as a book manuscript to be titled Weedy Science: Making Medical Herbalists in Postcolonial Ghana. This is an ethnographic study of Ghana’s herbal medicine sector, with a focus on political projects of class, race, and nation that shape the vocation of science.