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Synthesizing Hope

Matter, Knowledge, and Place in South African Drug Discovery

Synthesizing Hope

Matter, Knowledge, and Place in South African Drug Discovery

Synthesizing Hope opens up the material and social world of pharmaceuticals by focusing on an unexpected place: iThemba Pharmaceuticals. Founded in 2009 with a name taken from the Zulu word for hope, the small South African startup with an elite international scientific board was tasked with drug discovery for tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria. Anne Pollock uses this company as an entry point for exploring how the location of scientific knowledge production matters, not only for the raw materials, manufacture, licensing, and distribution of pharmaceuticals but also for the making of basic scientific knowledge.

Consideration of this case exposes the limitations of global health frameworks that implicitly posit rich countries as the only sites of knowledge production. Analysis of iThemba identifies the problems inherent in global north/south divides at the same time as it highlights what is at stake in who makes knowledge and where. It also provides a concrete example for consideration of the contexts and practices of postcolonial science, its constraints, and its promise.

Synthesizing Hope explores the many legacies that create conditions of possibility for South African drug discovery, especially the specific form of settler colonialism characterized by apartheid and resource extraction. Paying attention to the infrastructures and laboratory processes of drug discovery underscores the materiality of pharmaceuticals from the perspective of their makers, and tracing the intellectual and material infrastructures of South African drug discovery contributes new insights about larger social, political, and economic orders.

208 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History of Science


Sociology: Medical Sociology


"It fills a gap in the anthropology of pharmaceuticals . . . . It is rare for science and technology studies scholars to conduct research in laboratories in the Global South; it is also rare for them to do long-term fieldwork. Pollock shows what can be gained from following the life and death of a research company over time, situating it both locally and in the webs of global and local research connections. Synthesizing Hope presents fascinating insights on how a company called iThemba Pharmaceuticals was set up on the outskirts of Johannesburg. . . . The post-apartheid context, the vivid descriptions of laboratory life, and the incisive analysis of the context in which the laboratory emerges makes Synthesizing Hope a compelling case study of postcolonial science."

Medical Anthropology Quarterly

"The empirical basis of the monograph is rich and detailed ethnographic research. . . . Of particular interest to anyone with an interest in pharmaceutical knowledge making in South Africa specifically, but more generally it should appeal to anyone with an interest in novel ways to organise drug discovery for neglected diseases in the Global South, the problematisation of dichotomies between Global North and Global South in global health discourses which perpetuate inequalities, and the ties between pharmaceutical knowledge making and infrastructure including how materiality and place matter."

Sociology of Health & Illness

"A particular strength of the book is its use of a particular global South example to show the benefits and drawbacks of an effort to enable in-country scientists to develop new drugs appropriate to local needs. . . . In its problematisation of dominant geographic and sociological understandings of scientific knowledge production, the book makes an important contribution to science and technology studies and critical global health studies."

Medical History

"In this concise and accessible volume, Pollock considers the familiar territory of the material and social history of pharmaceutical development in an unfamiliar place: a South African startup, iThemba Pharmaceuticals. And, as the reader learns over the course of six chapters, place matters. Though iThemba ultimately folded, Pollock shows how situating the production of scientific knowledge within South Africa opened up new forms of hope and postcolonial world-making. . . . Historians of medicine, chemistry, and pharmaceuticals will find much of interest. . . . Global health and STS scholars will likewise find Pollock's reframing of postcolonial science and biomedical power relations refreshing and informative."

Social History of Alcohol and Drugs

"A fantastic introduction into the stakes of technoscience in societies in transformation. I highly recommend it for scholars of science and technology studies, students interested in global health geographies and everybody with an interest in science in the Global South."

Connections: A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists

"Synthesizing Hope opens up a fascinating landscape of the challenges and possibilities of postcolonial science. Using iThemba Pharmaceuticals as her research site, Pollock opens up postcolonial knowledge construction in brilliant detail to reveal the myriad layers of power, capital, and global politics that shape the making of modern science. This is a sobering tale of ambition and failure, of faith and despair, reminding us that the histories of colonial science continue to haunt the future hope of lives in the Global South."

Banu Subramaniam, University of Massachusetts Amherst

"This book shows us how pharmaceutical science both derives from and drives different forms of political, biomedical, and affective power. Moving seamlessly from molecules to macro-structures, the text troubles the distinction between economic and emotional investment in science. Pollock reveals how ‘hope’ is more than a feeling, but a practice that is synthesized in relation to scientific disciplines. It's a necessary read for everyone who cares about the future of global health and democratization of knowledge."

Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University

Table of Contents

Introduction / Hope in South African Drug Discovery

One / Questioning the Bifurcations in Global Health Discourses
Two / In the Shadows of the Dynamite Factory
Three / Science for a Post-apartheid South Africa
Four / “African Solutions for African Problems”
Five / Im/materiality of Pharmaceutical Knowledge Making
Six / Hope in Flow

Epilogue / The Afterlives of Hope


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