Research Themes

From January 2017, WISER will support seven new research projects:

These theme descriptions are currently under development.

Categories of Persons

Digital Infrastuctures and Subjectivities

Governing Intimacies

Knowledge Futures

Locations of African Critical Theory

Medical Humanities

Oceanic Humanities


Categories of Persons

The assembling of a new set of South African and global citizenships has taken on new urgency and a new plurality twenty years after the supposed advent of freedom. Categories make persons and persons make categories, as Jones and Dlamini have recently pointed out. In the South African constitutional text – where the phrase ‘categories of persons’ is written – race is but one of sixteen categories on the formal list. Indeed, the effort of desegregating publics now takes place without the freshness of new symbols and with potentially merely symbolic institutions. In the public sphere, some responses harken back to earlier times – either to times of forward-thinking, to times of social-making, or even to times of separating. Other responses rest in a consumptive present or appear as mere promised rhetorical bridges into the future. In this project WISER will examine the new questions that scholars in the law and the humanities are posing themselves. What are the complex fashions in which bounded enclaves and social categories are fraying and unravelling or reforming? How, if at all, are persons remaking themselves as citizens? At the same time that these questions pose themselves, new fields of play are emerging with the changing audiences of the fashion shops and the sports terrains as well as the changing forms and formats of affluence and the new middle class. The very concept of a person as well as their categorical boundaries may shift with the movement of blood, organs, and self-awareness.

Digital Infrastructures and Subjectivities

A generation ago scholars worried that the African continent was structurally disconnected from the global network economy, and destined to drift backwards as the rest of the world accelerated into a technologically mediated future.  In the present something like the opposite seems to be happening as African states, citizens and firms have become objects of unconstrained digital experiment and innovation.  These experiments take many forms -- cybernetic research trials, biometric identity registration, mobile credit surveillance, cash transfers and a host of hacking activities -- but the combination is fashioning a 21st century Africa powerfully made by networked, mobile and numerical technologies.

Governing Intimacies

Why, despite decades of democratic experimentation in the global south, are gendered inequalities so persistent in form and so violent in outcome? One category of answers to this question quite legitimately focuses on state agencies, human rights instruments and political parties and civil society, or put more abstractly, institutional design and quality. From this research, we have a clear understanding of the possibilities and limits of two elements critical to the erasure of inequality: an increasing feminist presence in the state, and the importance of autonomous civil society organization. This project proceeds from a different starting point, thinking about the state not from the vantage point of whether it is an ally for feminism or not, but rather from the perspective that subjects and state are mutually constituted and contingent. In this spirit, project seeks to understand the very terms on which gender is constituted. Rather than treating gender as a universal category, with familiar contours, such as heteronormativity and male power, we seek to research the ways in which gender emerges in particular forms in postcolonial societies. Participants will theorise gender in various manifestations – as identity, as regulatory force, as mode of exploitation, as political resource and as political practice – in East and South Africa and India. We aim to explore how gender was made as a category of meaning in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Inverting the tendency in much postcolonial feminist literature on the state, which turns on the question of whether to think of the state as either oppressor or savior of women, this project burrows into the spaces in which the state, law and citizens convene to understand how gender is understood, articulated and made material to systems of governing. The project will focus on forms of intimacy and conditions of intimacy, taking the view that the state is itself made in these everyday interactions of intimacy. Furthermore, while states may be constituted by the regulation of intimacies, various modes of affective relationship escape the gaze of the state. While not necessarily outside of modes of regulation, these practices of intimacy outside of the circuits of the state and law give shape to gender and require attention.

Knowledge Futures

This theme will focus on contemporary challenges to the University as a consequence of political contestations, epistemological reconfigurations, technological innovations and the emergence of new knowledge formations. It will examine the conditions under which traditional knowledge institutions might still be able to respond effectively to new learning environments and publics. What conception of the University would ultimately constitute the most effective response to the set of challenges it is being confronted with, in contexts both national and global?  - this research cluster asks.

Locations of African Critical Theory

Under this theme we aim to trace, and undertake new research in relation to, African inflected critical theory. This will involve drawing from various traditions of African and  African diasporic thought to begin to grapple with the  world not in any provisional sense but in ways which allow for a renewal of critical thought for our times. While locations such as Dakar, London and New York have often been the focus of work on African and African diasporic thought, we will shift our focus in this research cluster to other sites of thought including Maputo, Lagos and Lisbon.

 Medical Humanities

WISER is working to establish the field of medical humanities in South Africa with other partners at WITS and in the region. Medical Humanities took root in the interdisciplinary spaces between social history of medicine, medical sociology, medical anthropology, literary studies, art and film studies, cultural studies, politics, philosophy, legal studies, public health, psychiatry, medical economics and medical ethics. Although initially concerned with contrasting and comparing approaches from the humanities and medical science to themes of health, suffering, therapy, pain and illness, it has grown in ambition to consider the foundational question of what it is to be fully human, inviting debate around vital epistemological problems. The interface of medicine and humanities also demands a broadly interdisciplinary discussion about what constitutes evidence, and this is critical in the formulation of all contemporary political arguments, including health policies. This project was initiated in 2013 with an international conference Body Knowledge, and it will now continue to consider two themes: Cultures of Sex, Ageing and Dying in South Africa and Body Parts as Commodities.

Oceanic Humanities

This project  seeks to institute oceanic humanities as a field in the global south, through graduate curriculum development and training, research production, building supra-national global south research networks, and public humanities activities and platforms.  The rise of ocean levels has become a tangible sign of climate change and the Anthropocene.  These rising water levels have precipitated a new awareness of the ocean and have shifted the ways in which scholars think about it, inaugurating a new critical oceanic studies.  There have of course been long and rich traditions of maritime scholarship on human history at sea, tracing movements of people, ideas and objects across oceans. This work has however been human-centered and concerned only with the ocean as a backdrop.  Critical ocean studies asks us to engage with both human and non-human aspects of the ocean, with both the depth and the surface, with the materiality and seaness of the sea.