Sociologist figures out Africa

On the third floor of the McNeil Building, a group of African scholars share cubicles and a mass of raw data that offers an unprecedented view of an entire continent.

It is in this room where the African Census Analysis Project, directed by Associate Professor of Sociology Tukufu Zuberi, shows its human face. The ACAP, founded and based at Penn, presently contains the last 50 years of census materials from 15 African nations, with more countries being added each year.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Zuberi came up with the idea of a central repository for African census data while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. "I was doing an analysis of migration patterns in Botswana and I tried to get the data. It took five years," he said. "In the end I didn't use it, but the difficulty of the process made me aware of the lack of raw census data."

It's a testament to Zuberi and his collaborators' efforts that the ACAP has been able to develop its collection. Many countries, including the United States and most European nations, do not give their raw census data to their own citizens, let alone to foreigners.

"It's historic in that we've been able to accumulate it. Of course there is concern that Western scholars will abuse it. But we've proven that we can be trusted to use it judiciously," Zuberi said.

In some cases project researchers have used what he called a "snowball approach," with each new country that shares its data convincing other countries to do the same. In other cases, however, Zuberi has had to directly approach government ministers and parliaments to present ACAP's case.

The trust the countries bestow is a product of cooperation between scholars at several African universities and institutions and researchers working out of Penn. Presently, ACAP's office houses visiting scholars from Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe and a handful of dissertation students, primarily from abroad.

The project's first concern is archiving the vast resources which it has compiled. "Sometimes it takes a year to read the data," Zuberi said

Just behind archiving, ACAP is concerned with training scholars and building a network among African institutions and individuals. ACAP sponsors workshops to train scholars how to use the material in new ways; one in Pretoria last winter attracted 40 demographers-in-training. "We are in the process of integrating census data with all other data," Zuberi said. "Soon we'll be able to look at the quality of housing, if there's running water, the type of sewage - the data is quite detailed."

The results of combining sets of data from two or three (or more) countries will allow a rare examination of similar cross-border conditions such as infant mortality and quality of life, which in turn could have political implications.

ACAP maintains a distance from this by making its role in this clear. "The project is not a data dissemination point. What we are is an analysis project," Zuberi said.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999