Indexing the Human series to interrogate history and future of social anthropology and the human sciences in South Africa

In 2013 a postgraduate student conducting research on the history of the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Stellenbosch University (SU), discovered a human skull along with eye and hair colour charts among the remnants of the old Volkekunde Department. The discovery caused an uproar across South Africa and in the media, raising a number of scientific and ethical questions amongst social anthropologists based at the University, as well as the public, regarding the history of racial science at Stellenbosch, and the department and university’s broader involvement in Apartheid.

While it is now clear that the skull cannot be directly implicated in this form of science, the discovery has served as a catalyst for a team of Stellenbosch researchers to ask a series of important questions regarding SU’s past and present, transformation in the broader sense and how the academy is taking on these questions. The group has launched the Indexing the Human: From Classification to a Critical Politics of Transformation project to focus on rethinking the past and future of social anthropology at the institution and in the region.

With funding from the Mellon Foundation, Stellenbosch researchers – Prof Steven Robins, Prof Kees van der Waal, Dr Thomas Cousins, Dr Lindsey Reynolds, Dr Bernard Dubbeld and Dr Mandisa Mbali will lead a year-long programme of seminars, workshops and collaborative learning opportunities in partnership with a group of local, regional and international scholars from August this year.

The Indexing the Human project will comprise of a seminar series around four focal areas – Technology of Governance and the Shapes of Politics; The Place of Race; Science, Experimentality and Intervention; and Kinship, Ethics and the Everyday in South Africa.

The first seminar will kick off on Thursday, 7 August, at 13:00 with a talk by Prof Peter Redfield from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill, USA. His talk will focus on After Infrastructure: Governing the Needy Human and explore the “politics of infrastructure by examining instances where it appears absent or inadequate to support the expected norms of modern life”. It will take place in Room 401 in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences building.

“We find ourselves obligated to respond to the racial classification objects and the conceptual, methodological, and ethical challenges they present to us as anthropologists at Stellenbosch in 2014,” the research team explains.

“How we understand the ways in which life chances are curtailed or increased in 21st century South Africa depends on the categories we inherit or receive, and the methodologies we rely on to observe, analyse and intervene in the world. Thus, the project asks questions about the roles of scholarly knowledge production in government policies in the past. It also interrogates what we have inherited of these past forms of knowledge and politics in contemporary South Africa. For example, can the same techniques of counting and classifying populations be used for more progressive outcomes, such as to improve the health status of population groups?

“The seminar series is an occasion to think about the connection between university-based knowledge production and governmental policy and practice, and thus about the role of the human sciences in the new South Africa.”

For more information, visit: