Keith Breckenridge

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Keith is a Professor and Deputy Director at Wiser. He writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems.  He studied at Wits and Johns Hopkins and completed his PhD at Northwestern in 1995.    His book -- Biometric State: the Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (Cambridge, 2014) -- shows how the South African obsession with Francis Galton's universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th century incubator for the current systems of biometric citizenship being developed throughout the South.  He has also published widely on the history and contemporary politics of biometrics,  with papers in Africa, History Workshop, the Journal of Southern African Studies, Public Culture and comparative anthologies on systems of identification (the full list is here).  This interest in biometrics has also drawn him in to the global institutional history of state documentation, especially the forms of birth, death and marriage registration that are ubiquitous (but very poorly understood) in Europe, Asia and the Americas (see  With Simon Szreter he edited Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History published by OUP and the British Academy in 2012, a volume of essays which examines the workings and failures of civil registration in twenty different regions and periods around the world.  He is currently working on several book projects:  Power without Knowledge, which examines the very limited forms of official knowledge that supported the state in South Africa in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; Mining, Power and Politics in South Africa which interrogates the usefulness of the idea of the Resource Curse in South African history; and Biometric Citizenship, which investigates the global infrastructure of biometric civil registration that is developing in the former colonial world.  He is one of the editors of the Journal of African History

Some recent talks

“The Political Virtues of the Imperial Archive: Burke, Milner and the Scandal of Empire,” African Studies Workshop, University of Michigan, November 11, 2014

“Geology of Death: the Science and Magic of Deep Level Rock Bursts on the Witwatersrand,” Society for the History of Technology Annual Meeting, Dearborn, Michigan, 5 November, 2014

“Future of the Book: Open Access, Piracy and the Fate of Reading in the South African Universities”, CHE ICT Colloquium, October 15, 2014

“The Book of Life: The South African Population Register and the Invention of Racial Descent, 1950-1980”, Indexing the Human Programme, Stellenbosch, August 14, 2014

“Biometrics, Governance, Predictability: credit histories and the production of risk”, German African Studies Association Annual Meeting, Bayreuth, 11 June 2014

“Registration in World History” European Social Science History Conference, Vienna, 25 April 2014

“The Anti-Bank and Biometric Citizenship: Net1 UEPS and biometric financial services on the African continent,” Seminar at the Max Plank Institute for Social Anthropology, 22 April 2014

“Metrics that Matter: Using Google to measure the influence of Humanities scholarship,” University of the Free State, 28 February 2014

“Technological Inertia: Privacy and the failure of biometric technology in the West,” Workshop on the Social Life of Information, CSDS / SARAI, Delhi, 14 – 16 November 2013

“Some thoughts on neoliberalism and histories of technology,” Presidential panel, Society for the History of Technology, Annual Meeting, Portland, Maine, 12 October 2013

“The infrastructure of post-imperial citizenship”, Science, Technology and Society Seminar, University of Michigan, 7 October 2013

“Silicosis and the limits of colonial progressivism: a discussion paper,” From silicosis to silica hazards: an experiment in medicine, history and the social sciences, Sciences Po, Paris, 24 – 6 September 2013, video

“South Africa as a Gatekeeper State,” African State-Formation and Bureaucracy in Comparative Perspective , Public Affairs Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 16 – 18 September 2013

“Geology of Death: the Science and Magic of Deep Level Rock Bursts on the Witwatersrand,” Exploring Traditions: Sources for a Global History of Science, CRASSH, Cambridge, 31 May 2013

Racial Limits of the will to know: science and government in the making of modern South Africa,” Keynote, Exploring Traditions: Sources for a Global History of Science, CRASSH, Cambridge, 31 May 2013

“Galton's Imperial Science: the African origins and objects of Eugenics”, Seminar Room 1, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 16 May 2013

“Feminists and banks in the Bantustans: the South African roots of the global technology of biometric cash transfers,” African Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 13 May 2013

“Imperial Biometric Laboratory: Edward Henry on the Witwatersrand in 1900” World History Seminar, University of Cambridge, 9 May 2013

“Revenge of the Commons: South Africa and the Resource Curse”, Harvard Africa Workshop Conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 26 April 2013, video.





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