"Ontological politics and practices: social anthropology, knowledge and development aid”

Kollokvium arrangeret af CESAU's forskergruppe for Science, Technology and Society Studies

21.02.2014 | Kristian Lindegaard Svendsen

Dato fre 28 feb
Tid 10:00 12:00
Sted ADA 333, bygning 5342.

Oplægsholderne er: Associate professor Brit Ross Winthereik, PhD, IT University of Copenhagen og Associate professor Ivan da Costa Marques, PhD, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Brit Ross Winthereiks præsentation bærer titlen: "Ontologizing’ optimization practices: Monitoring and evaluation in an environmental NGO":

In Why has Critique Run Out of Steam (2004) Bruno Latour depicts himself as a ‘wolf covered in flour’ arguing that constructivism has led many young scholars astray as they are no longer able to argue with knowledge based in a firm sense of evidence. In arguing for new tactics Latour suggests we attend to objects as things and to matters-of-concern. But why would anyone believe him, Latour asks polemically. Another take on the problem of what comes after the successful translation of ANT’s debunking of scientific evidence, has been proposed by Ien Ang. She asks: How to simplify without being simplistic as we plot a course through complexity? (Ang 2013).

In this talk I argue that the renewed empiricism, which a flour-covered Latour is arguing for, could attend to questions of ontology and their various politics firmly based in ethnographic evidence. After critique has run out of steam, what we have available as STS-anthropologists, it seems, is the ability to engage with working imaginaries, those of other people and our own as they are related in - disconcerting - encounters (Verran 2001, 2013).

Based on research carried out in collaboration with Casper Bruun Jensen (Jensen & Winthereik 2013), I will provide stories of monitoring and evaluation practices in the Danish branch of an international NGO. I zoom in on two particular attempts to establish insights about development projects and their effects. One is the attempt to re-introduce a locally produced evaluation standard, and the other is the attempt to turn monitoring of the progress of a development project into a partnership event.

Both examples problematize the role of the critic and the knowledge-creation practices of this figure. By turning our attention to how optimization happens in moments of disconcerted encounters, where bodies, theories and technologies come to matter in significant ways, we may be better equipped to simplify without being simplistic.  

Ivan da Costa Marques' præsentation bærer titlen: "Ontological Politics and Latin American Local Knowledges":

When it comes to issues relating knowledge and colonization, one simple albeit challenging argument made is that, historically compared with other colonizers, Europeans have been singular in successfully mobilizing its own metaphysics to colonize the planet. If we borrow John Law’s terms, “Euro-American metaphysics” came to be by far the dominant and sole basis for establishing reliable knowledge for agreement among nations in planetary scales. (Crosby 1986), (Chatterjee 1986), (Law 2004) Nevertheless, modern sciences are not capable of carrying on a dialogue except if this dialogue happens in their own terms. In order to disagree or discuss a scientific fact one needs a laboratory or, better said, a counter-laboratory which the great majority of people usually lack the resources (or even the interest) to build. (Latour 1987) (Latour 2013)

I would like to talk and hear about lines of flight from the restrictions imposed by modern science (or its hegemonic way of constructing knowledge if you prefer). I propose to value dialogical and symmetrical approaches to take the “right to difference” seriously, conferring respectability to and from the multiplicity of the real. I will present two cases of very different kinds that throw light on issues that may arise when local and situated Brazilian knowledges are placed in Euro-American frames of reference and juxtaposed with modern so called “global”, “universal” and “neutral” knowledges. The first case, which I will deal with succinctly, involves Jeca Tatu, a popular character in Brazilian literature. He exemplifies how both a configuration of the local and its contraposition can reinforce the dominant Western frame of reference. The second case which I shall deal with in a more detailed fashion, shows three realities that appear when describing a widely spread child nutritional program called Multimistura. It will tell us about a local (form of) knowledge that has so far resisted the global and indicate a line of flight from the global frame of reference towards a more dialogical space where local knowlegges can afford greater respectability.


  • Chatterjee, P. (1986). Nationalist thought and the colonial world. A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
  • Crosby, A. W. (1986). Ecological imperialism : the biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
  • Latour, B. (1987). Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
  • Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence : an anthropology of the moderns. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
  • Law, J. (2004). After method : mess in social science research. London ; New York, Routledge. 
  • Ang, Ien (2011): “Navigating Complexity: From Cultural Critique to Cultural Intelligence”. Continuum Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 779-794.
  • Jensen, Casper B. & Winthereik, Brit R. (2013): “Weedy infrastructure: Monitoring Environmental Partnerships”. In Monitoring Movements in Development Aid: Recursive Partnerships and Information Infrastructures. MIT Press.
  • Latour, B. (2004). “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30(2): 225-249.
  • Verran, H. (2001). Disconcertment. In Science and an African logic. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. Chapter 1, pp. 1-20.
  • Verran, H. (2013): “Engagements between disparate knowledge traditions: Toward doing difference generatively together and in good faith”. In Green, Lesley (ed.): Contested Ecologies. Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge. Chicago: Independent Publishers Group.
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