evidence-based blog of Filippo Dibari

Science and the Starving Subject: How science and biomedicine have portrayed, sustained, and (re)produced malnutrition in Africa

In Under-nutrition on June 2, 2012 at 10:05 am

PhD thesis by Kelsey Ripp


Hunger remains prevalent across Sub-Saharan Africa; however, hunger in Africa is also disproportionately prevalent in media images and charity campaigns. How have the discourses and depictions of hunger in Africa been created historically? Scientific research is one major producer of knowledge about hunger in Africa. In particular, hunger has been scientized into its medically operationalized term malnutrition. Employing critical discourse analysis of 20th century scientific literature on severe malnutrition, particularly kwashiorkor, this thesis aims to determine: 1) how Africans have been represented—and stereotypes (re)produced—within scientific discourse on hunger, and 2) how the history of medicalization of hunger has affected the framing, study, and response to hunger. I argue that scientific discourse has contributed to image of Africa as a “starving continent” and has produced problematic representations of Africans. Scientific discourse has also influenced the response to hunger throughout the 20th century, including through technical interventions ranging from food-based solutions to agricultural biotechnology. I argue that the continued research on malnutrition and privileging of technical solutions has distracted from a political discussion of the underlying poverty and global inequalities that ultimately cause malnutrition. Scientific research on malnutrition needs to be more politically aware of how its discourse can affect representations of hunger (and the hungry) as well as its perpetuation.

Download the whole thesis.

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