Biometrics from the Margins

From fingerprint to iris scans, biometrics—the application of statistical analysis to biological data—is increasingly part of people’s lives, especially in postcolonial countries such as Kenya. Though often portrayed as a frontier market for cutting-edge biometric technologies, Kenya has a long and fraught history with fingerprinting, which was used by British colonial authorities to monitor and discipline African laborers.

 

Biometrics from the Margins asks: How have East Africans harnessed, transformed, and subverted biometric technologies since they were first introduced in the early twentieth century? Can an identification and registration technique long associated with colonial extraction be a means of accelerating political and financial inclusion for the world’s poor, as many proponents suggest? How are those at the physical and metaphorical margins of the nation (including migrants, nomadic populations, refugees, & border communities, who have historically struggled to access identity documents) navigating the new world of digital identity? Supporters argue that digital biometrics will enable African countries to “leapfrog” to new stages of development. This project flips the script by showing that digital biometrics, though a novel technology, is layered atop an older, analog history.

We Do Not Have Borders

Though often associated with foreigners and refugees, many Somalis have lived in Kenya for generations, in many cases since long before the founding of the country. Despite their long residency, foreign and state officials and Kenyan citizens often perceive the Somali population to be a dangerous and alien presence in the country, and charges of civil and human rights abuses have mounted against them in recent years.

We Do Not Have Borders examines the historical factors that led to this state of affairs. In the process, it challenges many of the most fundamental analytical categories, such as “tribe,” “race,” and “nation,” that have traditionally shaped African historiography. Its focus on how Somali representations of the past and the present inform one another places this research at the intersection of the disciplines of history, political science, and anthropology.

Given tragic events in Kenya and the controversy surrounding al-Shabaab, We Do Not Have Borders has enormous historical and contemporary significance, and provides unique inroads into debates over globalization, African sovereignty, the resurgence of religion, and the multiple meanings of being African.

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