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WiSER professor wins inaugural Humanities Book Award

- Wits Communications

The Academy of Science of South Africa has identified Prof. Keith Breckenridge as the winner of its Humanities Book Award for his book on the Biometric State.

Breckenridge is Deputy Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

The award will be presented to Breckenridge for his book Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present.

The book shows how the South African obsession with Francis Galton's universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th Century incubator for the development throughout the south of the current systems of biometric citizenship.

The ASSAf Humanities Book Award is presented to a writer of a scholarly, well-written work of non-fiction published up to three years prior to its nomination. The book should be noteworthy for its contribution to developing new understanding and insight of a topic in the Humanities.

Chosen from among 58 entries, Breckenridge's book is claimed to have reawakened international interest in the fine details of South African state-building, showing that our history can reveal and explain patterns of state formation in Europe, the Americas and Asia, and our peer states on this continent.

The book, reviewers have commented, engages problems that have broad interdisciplinary significance, reworking them to place South African history at the centre of a new global explanation. It has produced new explanations of the roots of Galton's eugenics, of social Darwinism, of Gandhi's distinctive anti-progressivism, of the limits of the colonial state's will to know, of the surveillance capacities of the apartheid state, and the current global enthusiasm for biometric social welfare.

The book does this by combining very wide comparative reading with the fine-grained archival research that has been the hallmark of South African historiography for two generations. It is carefully and fluently written and encourages South African social scientists, historians, in particular, to be comparative, and theoretically ambitious, deploying the detail of what we know best about our own society to shape debates in the global academy.

The prize will be awarded to Breckenridge at the inaugural ASSAf Annual Humanities Lecture and Book Award event on 9 March 2017 in Pretoria. 

Broadly, Breckenridge writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems. Read more about his publications.