Seminar | The Return of Anthropometry: Digital Positivism and the Body Politic | August 27th, 14.00 – 17.00 CET

Anthropometric determinism, the 19th century notion that the human body, individual personalities, cultural traits, and social groups can be reduced to numbers, is back. The critical social sciences were, essentially, forged alongside, and fighting against, this idea that informed pseudoscientific practices, namely Euro-American racist ideologies at the heart of so many anti-immigrant and refugee sentiments, colonialisms, fascisms and a wide array of ‘othering’ practices. Especially the Boasian circle of anthropologists confronted and thoroughly undercut the use of biological determinism to stigmatize, alienate, surveil, and control the other. This workshop looks at how critical social scientists are doing this work again as the ideas behind anthropometry have returned alongside and through biometric technologies, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The digital transformations of the body politic, and with them a renewed sense of positivism in (some) social sciences, have again reared the ugly head of Euro-American ideologies of control through the quantified self, now mediated by binary code. 

Rosa L. L. Wevers, University of Utrecht

Embodied Discomfort and Caged Faces: Artistic Engagement with the Politics of the Face in New Surveillance Technologies

This paper analyses two art projects that address the gendered and racialised implications of facial recognition and DNA profiling. It argues that they create a much needed space for critical reflection on these systems’ histories in 19th century anthropometry and the contemporary implications of these technologies for marginalised persons.

Guillaume Dandurand, Université de Sherbrooke

The Making of Empowered Bodies: Digital Positivism, Welfare, and the Production of Arbitrariness

As part of a food security project, the Indian state has introduced new digital and analog instruments and practices to ‘help people to help themselves’ against chronic hunger. In this paper, I explore how these instruments and practices have been designed to improve the lives of people targeted by this biopolitical project while arbitrarily excluding them.

Isidore Dorpenyo, George Mason University

Are you who you say you are? Biometric use in elections and the return of anthropometry

The mass subjection of elections to the logic of the biometric technology in the Global South is welcoming; but, its use raises social justice and localization concerns. Why did the biometric technology used in Ghana reject farmers, manual labors and those engaged in agriculture?

Alena Thiel, University of Halle

Population Data Dashboards and “Real-Time” Decision Making in Ghana

Ghanaian officials have recently embarked on an unprecedented inter-agency process of harmonizing and integrating the country’s fragmented civil and administrative population registers, in addition to incorporating geospatial, telecom and financial transaction data. The paper analyses how Ghana has come to subscribe to the idea of real-time, data-driven governance, and which infrastructural arrangements are put into place to achieve this goal.

Stephanie Hobbis, Wageningen University, and Geoffrey Hobbis, University of Groningen

Biometric Technologies and the Politics of Identification in Solomon Islands

This paper situates Solomon Islanders’ encounters with biometric voter registration and biometric passports within colonial histories of identification technologies. It shows how these technologies have, historically and today, been used to transform and solidify claims to power irrespective of their technological functions.

Timm Sureau, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology

A Thinkpiece for the Introduction of AI into Legal Contexts

Fully understanding deep learning mechanisms (AI) is an oxymoron, especially regarding black boxed norms and values within AI. I will reflect on new layers of complexities that are emerging, and on the relation to its usage and to the question of responsibility in legal contexts.

Jevan Hutson, University of Washington, and Luke Stark, University of Western Ontario

Physiognomic AI

Physiognomic AI, this paper contends, is the practice of using computer software to infer an individual’s character, natural capabilities, and future social outcomes based on their physical or behavioral characteristics. This paper endeavors to conceptualize and problematize physiognomic AI and offer policy recommendations for state and federal lawmakers to forestall its proliferation.

Tereza Kuldova and Christin Thea Wathne, Oslo Metropolitan University

Algorithmic Governance, Rogue Data, and Harm: Critical Zemiological Perspectives on the Uses and Abuses of Artificial Intelligence in Policing and Border Control

Analyzing the harms and the logic of algorithmic governance as it manifests in policing and border control, we will argue for the need to go beyond the focus on ‘AI ethics’ and issues of ‘bias’. Instead, we will propose a critical zemiological perspective.

For questions about the workshop, please contact the organizers Stephanie & Geoffrey Hobbis by sending an e-mail to