Photograph by Klein Ongaki
Researcher, Writer, Ethnographic Consultant
Technology, Migration, Borders
I am a researcher, writer, and ethnographic consultant with extensive, on-the-ground expertise in East Africa. I am also a senior lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations and a fellow at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen Mary University of London. Working at the intersection of science and technology studies (STS) and migration and border studies, I examine problematics related to mobility, digital identity, and biometrics. I have over a decade of experience carrying out archival research, fieldwork, and interviews in cross-cultural, multilingual settings and collaborating with non-profits, artists, and practitioners across the US, UK, continental Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Over the years, I have honed a deep expertise based, in large part, upon listening to people.
In recent years, I have been focused on the human rights and ethical implications of digital technologies, especially biometrics. I am particularly attuned to the impacts of biometric and digital identity systems on migrants, nomadic populations, refugees, and border communities who have historically struggled to access identity documents. I am increasingly interested in the ramifications of mobility and digital identity systems as states and societies grapple with the transition to a de-growth, lower-carbon future due to the impacts of climate change and depleting reserves and diminishing returns on fossil fuels.
My interest in the intersections between migration and digital identity evolved out of research for my first book, We Do Not Have Borders, which examined Somali transnational networks in Kenya. I am now working on two new book projects. Biometrics from the Margins weaves together ethnographic details from my time spent with undocumented and semi-documented people in the town of Garissa in northern Kenya and Nairobi. It also looks at Kenya’s fraught history with fingerprinting, first introduced by British colonial authorities in the early twentieth century. This project examines how those at the physical and metaphorical margins of the nation (including migrants, nomadic populations, refugees, and border communities), who have historically struggled to access identification documents, are now navigating the new world of digital identity.
The Other Climate Technology, my second book project, looks at one of the most important yet overlooked technologies likely to shape a future defined by scarcity and climactic crisis: biometrics. Both proponents and critics of green growth have tended to focus on technologies intended to replace fossil fuels, overlooking those aimed at rationing and managing its diminishing returns and supplies. In contrast, the Other Climate Technology argues that biometric tools of identification, like fingerprinting and iris scans, can be conceptualized as climate technologies. Doing so allows us to think critically about the risks, possibilities, and pressing challenges of low-growth and post-carbon economies, including the future of migration and the politics of social welfare, rationing, and redistribution.
It's my belief that there is enormous value in learning about biometrics, border management, and digitized social welfare from the vantage point of regions like East Africa. Far from being on the margins, Kenya is, in fact, at the cutting-edge of these global developments, prefiguring possible futures for the rest of the world.
In recent years, I have applied insights gleaned from my time in East Africa to broader global questions. I've worked on projects for civil society organizations like Amnesty International, Privacy International, and Campaign Against the Arms Trade that have explored the rights of refugees in the digital age, the growing use of digital technologies for border and immigration enforcement, and the use of biometrics in the humanitarian/aid sector and counterterrorism industry. I have also worked on a moving-image work with filmmaker Edwin Mingard, funded by UCL Culture and Arts Council England, which explores the UK hostile environment.
Having lived and worked in global cities such as London, Nairobi, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, I've learned how to engage with diverse audiences. I’ve published in a variety of forums ranging from top academic presses to popular blogs and have been cited and featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Quartz Africa, and BBC World Service. I also have a successful track record of winning competitive US and UK grants to support my research. My work has been funded by the Fulbright US Scholar program, the American Council of Learned Societies, the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, the Alan Turing Institute, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
To find out more about what I offer and my ethnographic and research consultancy practice, contact me.
Photograph by Anna Marazuela Kim