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Africa as a Living Laboratory

Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950

Tropical Africa was one of the last regions of the world to experience formal European colonialism, a process that coincided with the advent of a range of new scientific specialties and research methods. Africa as a Living Laboratory is a far-reaching study of the thorny relationship between imperialism and the role of scientific expertise—environmental, medical, racial, and anthropological—in the colonization of British Africa.

A key source for Helen Tilley’s analysis is the African Research Survey, a project undertaken in the 1930s to explore how modern science was being applied to African problems. This project both embraced and recommended an interdisciplinary approach to research on Africa that, Tilley argues, underscored the heterogeneity of African environments and the interrelations among the problems being studied. While the aim of British colonialists was unquestionably to transform and modernize Africa, their efforts, Tilley contends, were often unexpectedly subverted by scientific concerns with the local and vernacular. Meticulously researched and gracefully argued, Africa as a Living Laboratory transforms our understanding of imperial history, colonial development, and the role science played in both.

520 pages | 8 color plates, 2 halftones, 8 line drawings, 48 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History, British and Irish History

History of Science


“This is an ingenious book that will establish Helen Tilley as a considerable authority in the field. It presents a real opportunity for systematic historical revision of many received models of the processes of long-term economic and scientific development in a key field of colonial and postcolonial importance. Tilley’s unusually rich  and sensitive exploration of primary materials and firm grounding in the existing literature will help students and scholars reorient their understanding of the crucial roles scientific agencies played both in imperial administration and economic development.”

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

Africa as a Living Laboratory is an extremely ambitious book about the history of the production of knowledge about medicine, the environment, ethnography, geography, and race in British colonial Africa. It may prove somewhat controversial in its conclusions, but Helen Tilley’s scholarship is impeccable. Historians of science and medicine and historians and anthropologists of Africa, as well as colonialism in general, will be fascinated by what she has to say.”--Steven Feierman, University of Pennsylvania

Steven Feierman

“Helen Tilley’s deeply researched, well-argued, and thought-provoking book on science in the British colonial empire in Africa should be read and pondered by historians of science and historians of empire. Africa as a Living Laboratory offers an antidote both to a view of science as a straightforward history of progress and to seeing science as the imposition by Europeans of an unwanted modernity on Africans. In a book of considerable nuance and sophistication, she provides a simple but convincing answer to the question of whether there was such a thing as ‘colonial science’: ‘no’ [….] Tilley advances, without being polemical, a view of knowledge within a colonial context more interactive and more historical than such influential approaches as Foucauldian concepts of biopower and other scholars’ emphasis on states as agents of singular, simplified, forcefully imposed conceptions of society and social change. Science, she shows, was a source of debate and criticism. As much by their disagreements among themselves as by the consensuses they reached, scientists contributed to an important aspect of the politics of empire in the late 1940s and 1950s: uncertainty.”—Science

Fred Cooper | Science

Africa as a Living Laboratory will surprise some readers, who may expect from the title yet another stricture on the way Britain used its colonies and their peoples as a research facility for its own imperial purposes; but they will find that Tilley is far too aware of the nuances, ambivalences, weaknesses and even contradictions of British imperialism to be seduced by such foolish simplifications. She is at pains to emphasise that she is not defending imperialism; and the effect of her analysis is to provide a much more reliable basis for any critique of it [….] Tilley admits that she is a ‘defender of science’: the scientific method, that is, rather than the conclusions that ‘bad’ science sometimes throws up. The same method informs her own research, which is rigorously empirical, in contrast with the airily theoretical approaches that mar so much recent work in this area.”

Bernard Porter | London Review of Books

“A major contribution to African colonial history….Africa as a Living Laboratory is superbly researched and extremely provocative, and it deserves a wide readership.”

Jeff D. Grischow | The Historian

Africa as a Living Laboratory is a groundbreaking study that challenges existing orthodoxy concerning the role of science in the colonization of Africa. It offers much not only to scholars of Africa, but also to those interested in the intersection of scientific thinking and politics more generally.”

Matthew V. Bender | Journal of World History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Introduction: Africa as a Living Laboratory

ONE / An Imperial Laboratory: Scientific Societies, Geopolitics, and Territorial Acquisitions

TWO / A Development Laboratory: The African Research Survey, the Machinery of Knowledge, and Imperial Coordination

THREE / An Environmental Laboratory: “Native” Agriculture, Tropical Infertility, and Ecological Models of Development

FOUR / A Medical Laboratory: Infectious Diseases, Ecological Methods, and Modernization

FIVE / A Racial Laboratory: Imperial Politics, Race Prejudice, and Mental Capacity

SIX / An Anthropological Laboratory: Ethnographic Research, Imperial Administration, and Magical Knowledge

SEVEN / A Living Laboratory: Ethnosciences, Field Sciences, and the Problem of Epistemic Pluralism

Appendix: African Colonial Service Employment, 1913–51




Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Society for Social Studies of Science: Ludwik Fleck Prize

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