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Race haunts the halls of Stellenbosch University


Handri Walters is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University. Her doctoral research traced the history of anthropological constructions of race at Stellenbosch University read through a set of scientific objects in order to highlight the interstices of race, science and state policy during the pre-apartheid and apartheid period. In addition, her research poses questions about the remnants of racial science and race-thinking in post-apartheid South Africa.

The recent Stellenbosch University study on ‘cognitive functioning in coloured South African women’ was not only bad science, it also reflects a pattern of race-based research at the university stretching back almost a century. The university’s public apology for the study completely misses the point.

The backlash to the article titled Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Coloured South African women, as highlighted in Daily Maverick by Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, has been immense, and so it should be. The study, which is the product of a broader research project in the Sport Science Department of Stellenbosch University, proclaimed that “coloured” women of South Africa have “an increased risk for low cognitive functioning”. In this study, the term “coloured” became the centre of generalised conclusions that could be seamlessly applied to a single, supposedly homogeneous category of people.

Among the past week’s many reactions to the publication, it is the response from Dr Barbara Boswell of Wits that hits the nail on the head. In a tweet posted on 26 April 2019, she proclaimed: “The authors have unjustifiably and exploitatively used the apartheid-inspired understanding of race […]” – a statement that for me not only highlights the continued and unquestioned use of apartheid race-logic but also alludes to the use of science in perpetuating these categories.

The historical use of science as an authoritative tool towards the creation and confirmation of “race” is well documented. This occurred on a global scale. The idea of race was also challenged on a global scale, particularly after World War II, with the release of Unesco’s statement on race. Even scientific practice and authority needs critical engagement from time to time. This is part of practising responsible science.

Today it is broadly accepted that race is a social construct. The historical construction of race has been heavily influenced by broader social and political circumstances (ie providing a justification for slavery, to name the obvious). In current scientific studies, the race is no longer simply assumed to be an identifiable group based on shared visible physical features with inherent characteristics that relate to behaviour, intelligence, emotional capacity (or cognitive functioning).

Yet it seems this idea has not completely left the ranks of academia. Take Stellenbosch University: here a study was produced by researchers who seemingly saw no problem in making claims about the cognitive functioning of a supposed racial category – highlighting the lingering presence of broad assumptions about race, or rather, common-sense understandings of the race that still appear to haunt both this country and its academic institutions.

It is not the first time in the history of Stellenbosch University that such logic has informed scientific research. In 1937, the Zoology Department conducted an anthropological study of “the coloured males of Stellenbosch”. The study consisted of a mere 133 research subjects who were meticulously measured to draw conclusions about the physical make-up of “coloureds” in general. The research occurred on the downward slope of global racial science that purported the existence of separate and homogeneous racial groups that could be measured, whose characteristics could be listed and described, and who could thus be known through scientific practice.

The existence of this 1937 study was uncovered in the university’s archive after a hair colour table, an eye colour table and a human skull were recovered in early 2013. Heavily publicised, the recovery of these objects resulted in a broader research project, “Indexing the Human,” in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University. Part of this research set out to study the history of racial science at the university as related to these objects and their historical use in human measurement. Importantly, these objects had assisted in the scientific construction and validation of racial categories as based on supposedly concrete biological difference.

The public announcement of “Indexing the Human” as a research project was met with, at times, public resistance. On occasion, it was dismissed for the simple reason that the researchers looking into the history of these objects had “no apparent understanding for classification as a general scientific principle”. While this point was raised in personal communication with the department, it spoke to a more general trend, particularly present in the letters column of Die Burger in the course of 2013.

But the research continued and offered a critical engagement with the history of anthropology at Stellenbosch University. In closely scrutinising existing concepts within anthropology, the project interrogated common-sense understandings of race. It also illustrated the constructed nature of racial categories through scientific practice as informed by broader social and political processes in the South African context.

It was discovered that human measurement was introduced in the 1920s in Stellenbosch University’s Zoology Department and that the hair colour table and eye colour table (as well as a range of other instruments) were mass-produced and globally used in the field of physical anthropology. The university’s acquisition of these and other objects, including a set of calipers used to measure the head, followed soon after the introduction of this scientific activity. It would also be employed to measure the “coloured males of Stellenbosch” in 1937.

The 1937 study appears to have been the start of a fixation with the “coloured” category at Stellenbosch University. (It coincided to some extent with the investigations of the Wilcocks Commission – otherwise known as “The Commission of Inquiry regarding the Cape Coloured Population of the Union).” In this study, it was the physical characteristics of the research subjects that took precedent, seemingly in an attempt to solidify this category through scientific practice leading up to the subjection of this population group to targeted laws of the apartheid state. The study was meant to focus on physical traits; however, in the data sheets, one can find handwritten speculations, largely unflattering I might add, about the intelligence of the research subjects.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Psychology Department continued to speculate about the intelligence of this group by conducting studies on the learning ability of the “coloured” in relation to other (racial) categories. The existence of these studies has also been recently pointed out in a Facebook post by Dr Desmond Painter, who currently teaches in this department. A variety of Stellenbosch University’s departments were once again involved in studying the “coloureds” of South Africa in the 1950s, coinciding with those so categorised being scrapped off the voters roll. Indeed, a multidisciplinary committee was created at Stellenbosch University to study the subsequent labour preference policies then given to the “coloured” population in the Cape Province.

Throughout these decades, no one seemed to question the existence of the racial category itself. Every study started with the assumption that “coloured” was a homogeneous grouping and that scientific study could expand our knowledge about this category of people. Even the Unesco statements of the early 1950s, proclaiming race a myth, appear to have had little effect on the logic that informed research conducted at Stellenbosch or in broader South Africa. The conclusions drawn by Unesco were rejected in favour of governance that operated in accordance with four official racial categories.

And over the course of the next few decades, South Africans would be confronted by, and subjected to, the act of racial classification. The existence of separate racial categories – neatly separated in homogeneous boxes – would become common-sense knowledge. For the most part, racial difference did not require any form of questioning.

In 1994, the apartheid-era racial categories were inherited by the new government with our democratic transition. We continued along the path of racial classification coupled with a common-sense belief that in South Africa we had many races, each with their own, essentialised, characteristics. Fast-forward 25 years and we arrive at the publication of the article in question.

It is quite possible that the authors of the article did not see any problem with their study and their use of “coloured” women as a homogenous collective – notably one with low cognitive functioning. And it is clear that the reviewers of the article did not find any problematic element either (I invite anyone in the know to correct me if I am wrong). It is also becoming abundantly clear that Stellenbosch University, as an academic institution, did not (and does not) see the study itself, nor the use of “coloured”, as directly related to low cognitive functioning as problematic either. Their media statement of 24 April 2019 chose to apologise for “the pain and anger that the article has solicited” – as if all that required a response was the emotional, or potentially irrational, the reaction from the public and the academic community.

To Stellenbosch University: Please understand that this is not merely about “pain and anger”, as the university’s media statement would suggest. Many of those who object to the study object to it on scientific grounds. The method is one thing. How can 60 women, ranging between the ages of 18 and 64, become representative of an entire collective? Even if I did not have a problem with the category chosen to be the unit of analysis, ie “coloured”, the sample size remains inadequate for the broad conclusions that are offered.

But as a social scientist, there is a far greater issue at stake for me and that is the main assumption made by the researchers: that “coloured” refers to a homogeneous collective that can be subjected to scientific study, and that the study can offer another “characteristic” related to this supposed homogeneous collective. And the use of the term “ethnicity” (used once in the article without a discussion about how this term should be conceptualised) comes across as a thinly disguised stand-in for “race” – neither of which terms are defined or questioned in your article, not even a footnote. The entire study is premised on a false assumption. Or let me rephrase: the framing of the study was entirely misguided.

Without trying to dictate your results, allow me to say that you are not drawing conclusions about “coloured” women here. Your conclusions could pertain to any individual that would have been exposed to a particular set of environmental circumstance (an argument that anthropologist Franz Boas brought to our attention as early as 1913). What this study has done is to locate low cognitive functioning within a particular category of people based on race. By doing so the article keeps the ghost of racial science alive and well into the new century.

And finally, I think the following questions need to be reflected on: How does this study differ from those that were produced by Stellenbosch University in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s? What type of understanding of “race” accompanies this study? Is it one that takes the existence of fixed and essentialised racial categories as a starting point? Is it one that links behaviour and intelligence to a particular group of people based on these categories? How was this not seen as highly problematic by the researchers, the reviewers, or Stellenbosch University itself?

This is not a response based on hurt feelings. This is a response to irresponsible science. This is bad science.

It is for this reason that the media statements released by Stellenbosch University leaves me somewhat disappointed. To apologise for the “pain and anger” and then again, in a second statement, for the “pain and anguish”, it seems like the university largely missed the point. As an academic institution competing on a global scale, I would have expected the focus, in this case, to be on scientific practice.

The outrage that has followed the publishing of this particular study is a reminder that we need to critically engage our scientific practices both in the present and in our past. While last year Stellenbosch University gave precedence to celebrating its 100-year existence, maybe this year should be dedicated to critically reflect on the history of science at this institution. A starting point could be a critical engagement with the practices and assumptions that informed “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women.” Continuing the unproblematic implementation of racial categories means continuing to reinforce outdated beliefs and apparently-outdated scientific practices.

This publication highlights a crucial question that the university needs to ask itself: Is this publication a return to prior racialised assumptions (a case of having been here before)? Or is it evidence that we never left them behind? DM


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