DiSAA – Digitization and Society in Asia and Africa

Axe de recherche : Axe 3 - Éducation et Savoirs au Sud

Responsables scientifiques

Partenariats dans le pays de recherche

Partenariats sans convention

Membres du Ceped participant au projet

Membres extérieurs au Ceped participant au projet

  • Marine Al Dahdah, CEMS, CNRS
  • Douze autres chercheur.se.s appartenant aux institutions de recherche sus-mentionnées



This project emerged from a series of workshops organized in JNU-Delhi (March 2017), in Paris Descartes University (June 2017) and at IFRA-Nairobi in May 2018. During these three scientific meetings social issues raised by the spread of digital technologies in the Global South were discussed, focusing especially upon Africa and Asia and their inter-regional links. These events gathered a community of researchers from social studies of science and technology, who wanted to address collectively the issue of digital change in an intercontinental perspective (both comparative and connected/multi-sited), with a focus on two important sites of consumption as well as production of digital technologies – South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Another important topic of these conferences was the link between digital technologies and (old and new forms of) imperialism. Beyond individual presentations, the workshops wanted to encourage collective discussions regarding the setting of a research platform dedicated to digital issues in the Global South. This application constitutes an outcome of these events as well as a starting point to set up a team of researchers from Asia, Africa and Europe working together upon digital empire(s).

• Digital studies in South-south perspective

Digital technologies have raised a great interest from the social sciences during the last decades (Castells 2010 ; Ling 2008). However, digital technologies have more rarely been studied in developing contexts (Al Dahdah et al. 2015 ; Taylor et Schroeder 2015). And yet, those technologies are agents of profound changes and instruments of distinctive policies in those developing contexts (De Bruijn et al. 2009 ; Jeffrey et Doron 2013) ; as massive socio-technical artefacts, they result from and structure specific power configurations (Ong et Collier 2005 ; Jasanoff et Kim 2015). In a postcolonial context, digital technologies are inscribed in a long history of powerful relationships between science, technologies, states and empires (Petitjean, Jami, et Moulin 1992 ; Raina 1996 ; Cohn 1996 ; Arnold 2000), they revive old debates on technological development and unequal transmission of knowledge in the developing world (Frank 1966 ; Amin 1973 ; Said 1978 ; Escobar 1995 ; Mbembe 2006) and at the same time they contribute to the spreading of a radically different image of less well-off regions that use, own and create innovative digital tools. We propose to challenge the North-focused approach, dominant in the study of digital technologies ; and to insist instead upon geopolitical power relations and inequalities, as well as techno-cultural hybridization processes and actors that are normally invisibilized by dominant discourses. Building from science and technology studies as well as post-colonial studies, we would like to revisit North-South as well as South-South power imbalances emerging or revisited through digital technologies.

• Digital empire(s)

An important goal of the group is to revisit the notion of “empire”. The group intends to describe some of the central aspects of contemporary imperialism, not only as a nation-to-nation process of domination, but also involving development, market and technology actors, and as a more general process of intensification of technological and capitalist reasons, a particular way to order and standardize the world. To tackle digital policies and their effects, we propose to revisit the notion of "empire" in the digital age. We wish to mobilize critically this historical category of analysis because it allows us to highlight the geographical, social and biological expansion of the digital world, the interests of its stakeholders, and how this expansion contributes to their own profit. Thus, the notion of "digital empire(s)" first emphasizes the omnipresence of digital technology and its uses in all social fields. It refers to a hegemonic phenomenon, an inescapable invasion of territories, institutions, minds and bodies. To illustrate this colonization of the social through the digital, we can think about the place of the mobile phone in our lives (Menrath and Jarrigeon 2007, De Bruijn et al., 2009), the way digital tools redefines the public administration (Dagiral 2007), the health sector (Topol 2013) and education (Bouchet, Carnino, and Jarrige 2016). The notion of empire also allows us to refer to an economic system where the control of the markets endures well after the fall of the colonial empires : it can thus be mobilized to describe the forms of economic hegemony which are exerted today (Harvey 2003).

The convergence between development issues and the interests of the digital industry has been little studied so far and can be an important focus of the group. The current digital expansion is based on the creation of monopolies, the closure of technical objects, the control of physical digital infrastructures, flows and norms of the sector by a limited number of actors, generating exclusion and pathways of dependence of certain "territories", social groups and individuals (Wade 2002, Ya’u 2004, Pieterse 2010). Indeed, far from the initial imagination of the free internet, most digital objects are today products that (even in the absence of price) have a market value and (even in the absence of patent) refer to property rights. Digital development policies are supported by digital economy players, sometimes directly by big digital firms such as Intel, Samsung or Orange or through their philanthropic foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates (Microsoft), Omidyar (ebay) or Vodafone (Toepler 2006, Wylie 2007) Foundations. Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric Schmidt (Google) or Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are emblematic figures of this economy. These actors view digital technologies as a systematic response to social issues, they are funders and active entrepreneurs of digital policies in the global south and sit in governance bodies of development policies (Marten and Witte 2008, Guilbaud 2015). These new benefactors are regularly criticized for their philanthro-capitalism : their propensity to use a good cause to develop new markets (Birn 2014, McGoey 2015).

In counterpoint to the futuristic sociotechnical promises associated with the digital world, the notion of empire refers to historical continuities between different power regimes that use science and technology for the purpose of domination (Petitjean, Jami, and Moulin 1992, Arnold 2000) ; it thus makes it possible to show that imperialism in the digital age, if it takes on new clothes, is based on old government practices. The notion of “digital empire(s)” thus reflects both the ubiquitous, structuring and imposing character of this mode of social organization while being attentive to the inequalities and forms of domination prolonged or reinforced by this colonization. This group proposes a new reflection on the stakes of power and the inequalities in the digital age. It examines how digital technology is used to embody a vision of development and progress promoted by the most influential players of the digital economy. It shows how this technicist vision of development extends imperialist logics through mechanisms of partitioning, protection, property and cost. However, this group will not limit its research to denouncing overarching forms of power. Indeed, our intent is also to study how - in this hegemonic enterprise - the "subjects" have a capacity for resistance. By studying resistances to digital policies, the diversion of these tools by individuals, our researches will highlight the limits of what digital technology can do or have its users do.

• Geographical and thematic approaches

We offer to focus on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa as major sites of technological change. They constitute huge markets for digital investments in the South in spite of huge socio-economic inequalities. For these reasons both these sub-continents bring an interesting light upon the political role of digital technology. Furthermore, studied altogether, they give important insights upon technological collaborations between India and Africa and South-South circulations of technology, people and goods. These zones are not only permeable one to the other, but also would bring into light interesting aspects of the current shaping of a digital world.

The consortium will adopt a thematic-based approach, by focusing on big social themes or domains to approach digital issues. The main themes are :

• Digital citizenship (focusing upon biometrics, projects of identification such as Aadhaar in India, e-voting machines in Sub-Saharan Africa).
• Digital money (focusing upon the role of information technologies in financial inclusion policies, such as the JAM project in India ; m-Pesa project in Kenya).
• Digital inclusion (focusing upon the use of digital technologies in health, education, and access to public services, such as the use of IT in universal health coverage project in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, social welfare services in India).
• Smart cities & villages (focusing upon the role of IT, and especially geo-mapping and participatory cartography, in the development of urban policies, such as Silicon Savannah in Kenya, smart cities in India and post-earthquake reconstruction policies in Nepal).

• Aims and strategic outcomes

The main aim of the consortium is to gather a transnational research team in order to analyse the deep changes brought by new information technologies in development policies, with a particular focus upon the circulations between South-Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The first step of the project will be the collective writing of a book during two writing workshops. The second step will be the setting up of collective fieldwork investigations, involving multi-sited analysis between South-Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Further developments would include application to ERC fundings.


Numérique, technologie, postcolonial, infrastructure

Zones géographiques

  • Inde, Delhi
  • Nepal, Katmandu
  • Kenya, Nairobi
  • Afrique du Sud, Johannesburg


  • 2019 - 2021


Courriel : mathieu.quet chez ird.fr