Beyond the Bush Pump: Microworlds of Humanitarian Design

14 Mar 2013
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Peter Redfield
Associate Professor, Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

At the turn of millennium, Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol published a provocative article on technology in the context of development.  Entitled “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology,” it followed the movement of a model mechanism in order to highlight a non-heroic vision of design, starring an object “that doesn’t impose itself but tries to serve, that is adaptable, flexible and responsive” — one that would, in their terms, prove seductively fluid and thus easy to “love” (de Laet and Mol 2000: 225-6).  Fast-forwarding to the present, I recast their piece as a device to situate an expanding array of objects that engage the world in the name of improving human welfare.  A wave of social entrepreneurs has sought to respond to social problems of disaster and extreme poverty with ingenious, small-scale projects, examples of which fill volumes with titles such as Design Revolution or Design Like You Give a Damn.  Like the bush pump most are modest contraptions in technical terms and express similar claims to serve and adapt to shifting conditions, operating with minimal materials and an ecological ethos.  Unlike it, however, some define themselves through market logic rather than against it.  Moreover, not all share the assumed framework of de Laet and Mol’s Zimbabwean socio-technical landscape:  a postcolonial state happily en route to national self-definition.  They are not, in other words, all so easy to love.  And yet they clearly embody, convey and manipulate moral affect, often in the idiom of humanitarian concern rather than development.

By outlining this brave new world beyond the bush pump, my aim is to open up three interrelated lines of inquiry for discussion.  First, I consider aspects of a “postcolonial condition” at the level of micro-practice, including assumptions about nation state politics.  Second, I emphasize science and technology in the form of infrastructure, the material frontline of norms.  Third, I return reflexively to love, and the complicated allure of engagement in academic work.


This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Program in Science and Technology Studies • Department of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology