Keith Breckenridge

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Keith holds the Standard Bank Chair in African Trust Infrastructures. He studied at Wits and Johns Hopkins and completed his PhD at Northwestern in 1995. He writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems.  For the last twenty years he has been writing about biometric identification systems and their political effects, especially on the African continent. 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.  In 2017 the book was awarded the inaugural Humanities Book Award by the Academy of Science of South Africa.  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 has 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 Bhalisa).   He is now working to finish several book projects:  Biometric Capitalism, which investigates the global infrastructures of biometric civil registration and credit surveillance that are developing in the former colonial world; 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; and Mining, Power and Politics in South Africa which interrogates the usefulness of the idea of the Resource Curse in South African history.  From 2014 to 2019 he was one of the editors of the Journal of African History. He has a B1 rating from the National Research Foundation.


POLS 4033/POLS 7036: The State in Africa: Democratisation and Crisis

Some recent talks

"Land, debt and trust in the making of biometric capitalism."  Ataya Seminar, HUMA, UCT, August 24 2023

“Recasting the Technologies of the Carceral Empire: India, South Africa, and the Political Paradoxes of Post-Colonial Citizenship” Keynote Lecture, Behind Walls, Beyond Discipline: Science, Technology & the Carceral State, Webinar Series, University of Michigan — Ann Arbor, May 14-June 11, 2021

“Rethinking the politics of occupational health in a world without industrial work.” Keynote, International Congress of Occupational Health, 23 February 2021,

‘Revenge of the Commons: property, debt and collateral in the history of African financial capitalism', Oxford Global and Imperial History Research Seminar Michaelmas Term 2020 : 'Legacies of Colonialisms', 16 November, 2020

“Welfare, Labour and Re-Allocation” Scripts Cluster of Excellence : Opening Conference, FU Berlin, 4 February 2020

“Skeletal and elephantine bureaucracies in Africa and India : comparing histories of registration and their effects on digital infrastructures.“ Digital Empire(s) : Perspectives from Asia and Africa, Delhi 4 December 2019

“Engineering ungovernance : Biometric technologies that surpass the regulation of unsecured credit in Kenya and South Africa” Global Un-Governance Workshop, University of Edinburgh, 23 - 4 May 2019

Property, Debt and Collateral in the Evolution of African Financial Capitalism, The Politics of Economics network, CRASSH, Cambridge, 14 May 2019.

"Mathematical abstraction, writing and Imperial racism : on the theoretical significance of biometric government" Identités De Papier, Papiers D’identité En Afrique Contemporaine (XIXE‒XXIE Siècle),  Universite Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, 22–23 June 2018

"The single source of truth about Kenyans : collateral mysteries, credit information and Safaricom in the evolution of the National Digital Registry System" to the Workshop on Empires of the Digital,  IFRA, Nairobi, Kenya, May 21 - 2, 2018

Biometric Capitalism : Africa in the 21st Century, " Department of Geography Colloquium, University of California, Berkeley, April 4, 2018. 

"Gold to Platinum : Resources and Risks", Presentation to the Sibanye Gold Corporation Advisory Committee, 16 March 2018

"Migration and biometric state building on the African continent" Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, 20 November 2017.

"The global ambitions of the biometric anti-bank: Net1 and African models of financialization." PLAAS, University of the Western Cape, 24 October 2017.

"Biometric Capitalism : Africa in the 21st Century" Truth Measures : Technosphere x Knowledge, Haus der Kulturen der Weldt, Berlin, April 15, 2016

“Plaatje's  Native Life , the Commons and the racial limits of colonial progressivism” Workshop on Writing History after EP Thompson, History Department, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, November 18, 2015

“Biometric state and African Historiography”, joint African History / STS Post-Graduate Seminar, Columbia University and New York University, November 11, 2015

“Biometric State : the South African model of post-colonial citizenship”, Shifting Social Contracts: Rethinking Technologies of Citizenship: Biometrics, Social Provisioning and the New Politics of Distribution, New School for Social Research, New York, November 9, 2015

“The South African credit amnesties and the politics of risk: The politics and technologies of worthiness: Workshop on Consumerism, regulation and informality in South Africa and Kenya, Roskilde University, Denmark, April 30, 2015

“The Biometric State and Post-Colonial Citizenship: the South African origins (1850-2000)” Séminaire IMAF-CERI : L’Etat documentaire et les mondes du papier en Afrique. Matérialité, technologies, affects, Sciences Po, Paris, April 13, 2015

“The Global Infrastructure of Biometric Citizenship: Civil Registration in the Aftermath of Empire,“ American Historical Association, New York, January 2, 2015

“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.