Inquiring Minds and Postcolonial Devices: Examining Poverty at a Distance

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Abstract

Inquiries into poverty in the countries of the South have become a preoccupation and a focus for action among many institutions located in the North. This article interprets inquiries as cultural devices through which the complexities of North/South interactions can be analyzed. It builds on postcolonial critiques of these interactions, examining the role of inquiries in light of current debates about ethnocentrism. It examines the extent to which, in particular times and places, inquiries may act as “postcolonial” devices. The article focuses on an inquiry into poverty and development in southern Africa, known as the Second Carnegie Inquiry, which was carried out in South Africa during the 1980s with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The hybrid framework adopted combines insights from the postcolonial turn with recent work in the geographies of science. By shifting the analysis from institutions, such as the Northern philanthropic trusts, to particular devices and their contexts, the article argues that the spatial genealogies of knowledge can be traced, together with the diverse modes and relations of power on which inquiries such as those of Carnegie are based and that they also serve to produce. This approach questions the assumption that, in their exercise of power at a distance, cultural institutions have fixed or singular identities. It provides the opportunity to highlight the uncertainties that frequently lie behind a projected global image and the ways in which this image may be deliberately harnessed and manipulated for specific purposes within the South.

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