Seeing like a research project: producing "high-quality data" in AIDS research in Malawi

Med Anthropol. 2012;31(4):347-66. doi: 10.1080/01459740.2011.631960.


Numbers are the primary way that we know about AIDS in Africa, yet their power and utility often obscure the conditions of their production. I show that quantification is very much a sociocultural process by focusing on everyday realities of making AIDS-related numbers in Malawi. "Seeing like a research project" implies systematically transforming social reality into data points and managing uncertainties inherent in numbers. Drawing on 20 months of participant observation with survey research projects (2005, 2007-2008), I demonstrate how standards govern data collection to protect and reproduce demographers' shared expectations of "high-quality data." Data are expected to be "clean," accurate and precise, data collection efficient and timely, and data collected from sufficiently large, pure, and representative samples. I employ ethnographic analysis to show that each of these expectations not only guides survey research fieldwork but also produces categories, identities, and practices that reinforce and challenge these standardizing values.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / epidemiology*
  • Biomedical Research
  • Data Collection / methods*
  • Health Surveys / methods*
  • Humans
  • Malawi / epidemiology
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design