Alena Thiel

Alena ThielNetwork Member

Since 2019, Alena Thiel is a post-doc at the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. She obtained her PhD in 2016 from the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law, University of Aberdeen. She has previously been a research fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies (2011-2017), the University of Leipzig (2017) and the University of Bayreuth (2018-2019), and has carried out research fellowships at the African Studies Centre Leiden (2017), Sciences Po Paris (2018), and the University of the Witwatersrand/WiSER (2018). Her projects have been awarded funding within the framework of the DFG priority programme SPP1448 (2017), the DAAD PRIME/EU Marie Curie Actions programme (2018-2019) and recently, the German Research Foundation’s individual research grant scheme (2019-2022). She is Associate Editor of Africa Spectrum.

Alena Thiel has published on Ghanaian and Senegalese urban marketspaces, mainly focussing on the workings and impacts of entrepreneurial mobilities between China and West Africa. Among other issues, she has analysed the impact of transnational circulations of ordering technologies (such as business models) on employment relations, gendered notions of urban space, and modes of intergenerational capital transfer. She has also published on the legal pluralism of ordering institutions in the Ghanaian market place, as well as transnational translations of citizenship and activism.

Her current work is concerned with the role of (biometric) identification technologies in Ghana. Taking the promise of the current, digital “data revolution” of the Ghanaian population data system as a starting point, the project “Identification Technologies in Ghana” explores how Ghanaian policy makers integrate previously isolated, administrative population registers for new, interoperability-based applications aimed at improving the timeliness and coverage of population data for internationally standardized reporting.

Alena Thiel recently published ‘Biometric identification technologies and the Ghanaian data revolution’ in The Journal of Modern African Studies.

Current research themes: Identification; Data infrastructures; Measurement policies, ‘governance by numbers’; Technicization of citizenship; Sociology of quantification; Anthropology of the state; Theories of travelling models, translation and adaptation

Current position
Project Lead/PI "Identification Technologies in Ghana"
University affiliation
University of Halle


I received my PhD in 2016 from the Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law at the University of Aberdeen. My doctoral dissertation focuses on travelling concepts of citizenship in urban Ghanaian activism. The theoretical starting point of my dissertation is the problem that, stemming from a widespread homochronist world view, orders of social interaction are routinely inscribed with dissimilar temporal values, such that some societies ‘lag behind’ others. Critical theorists, such as Harootunian or Mbembe, refer to Benjamin’s theory of history when they suggest an alternative, heterotemporal perception of history with multiple yet coeval strands of time repeatedly converging and diverging from one another and, thereby, producing transformations. My argument emphasises the creative work of translation in these convergences. My work is inspired by the theoretical advancements of the SPP1448, of which I have been a member since 2011. As a doctoral fellow in the SPP1448, my research traced the translation of business models in the mobilities of transnational entrepreneurs between China and Ghana, a topic on which I have published in a range of disciplinary and area studies journals. In 2017, I received funding for my post-doctoral project on the production of biometric measurement policies in Ghana. In the course of two consecutive international fellowships at Sciences Po, Paris, and WISER, Johannesburg, I explored how categories, practices and material infrastructures for measuring and authenticating identity are brought into existence in the circulation (and ultimately, translation) of expert knowledge between global development agendas, international “card cartels” (Lyon 2003), the institutional settings of “biometric capital” (Breckenridge 2014), and local political environments in Ghana. My recent research expands on these insights, focusing on innovations in population data infrastructures and their application in statistical production in Ghana.


  • Thiel, Alena and Humphrey Agyekum (forthcoming) (2023) "Crisis Politics and the 2020 “Imposition of Restrictions Act” in Ghana." in Cahiers d’Études Africaines, No 252.
  • Thiel, Alena (2022) "Une histoire politique du recensement au Ghana aux 20e et 21e siècles." in Statistique et Société 10 (1): 59-78. →
  • Thiel, Alena (2022) "Identifying Beneficiaries in Ghana’s Donor-Oriented Welfare State." in Data & Society: Points, 23.03.2022. →
  • Villacis, Byron, A. Thiel, D. Capistrano and C. Carvalho da Silva (2022) "Statistical Innovation in the Global South." in Comparative Sociology, 21 (4), 419-446. →
  • Thiel, Alena (2021) "Biometric payment and gendered kinds in Ghana." in Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society 4 (1). Thematic Cluster: Justifying Gender. →
  • Thiel, Alena (2021) "Ghana upgraded its census to make it more inclusive: but old tensions still surfaced." in The Conversation, 22.07.2021. →
  • Thiel, Alena (2020) "Biometric identification technologies and the Ghanaian ‘data revolution’." in Journal of Modern African Studies 58 (1): 115-136.
  • Giese, Karsten, Laurence Marfaing, and Alena Thiel (2019) "Introduction: From Rejection to Social Change." in Chinese and African Entrepreneurs: Social Impacts of Interpersonal Encounters , edited by Karsten Giese and Laurence Marfaing, 1-18. Leiden: Brill.
  • Thiel, Alena and Jan Beek (2018) "Orders of Trade: Regulating Accra’s Makola Market." in Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 49 (1): 34-53.
  • Thiel, Alena (2018) "Cheat Me in the Price, but Not in the Goods’: Negotiating Imaginaries of Authenticity in Accra’s China Trade." in Chinese and African Entrepreneurs: Social Impacts of Interpersonal Encounters , edited by Karsten Giese and Laurence Marfaing, 253-272. Leiden: Brill.
  • Thiel, Alena (2018) "Translating the Time of Capital: Travelling Ideas and Collective Claims-Making in Accra’s Makola Market." in Translation Revisited: Contesting the Sense of African Social Realities , edited by Jean-Bernard Ouédraogo, Mamadou Diawara and Elisio Macamo, 2-19. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Thiel, Alena (2017) "Entangled temporalities: Ghana's national biometric identity registration project." in Anthropology Today 33 (1): 3-5.
  • Marfaing, Laurence, and Alena Thiel (2017) "African entrepreneurs in China: True actors of globalization." in Mobility between Africa, Asia and Latin America: Economic Networks and Cultural Interactions , edited by Ute Röschenthaler and Alessandro Jedlowski, 200-219. London: Zed Books.
  • Thiel, Alena and Michael Stasik (2015) "Market men and station women: Changing significations of gendered space in Accra, Ghana." in Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (4): 459-478.
  • Marfaing, Laurence, Karsten Giese and Alena Thiel (2015) "Introduction: Du rejet des autres à leur implication dans les dynamiques de changement social." in Entrepreneurs africains et chinois: Les impacts sociaux d’une rencontre particulière , edited by Karsten Giese and Laurence Marfaing, 7-29. Paris: Karthala.
  • Giese, Karsten and Alena Thiel (2015) "Chinese factor in the space, place and agency of female head porters in urban Ghana." in Social and Cultural Geography 16 (4): 444-464.
  • Giese, Karsten, and Alena Thiel (2015) "The silent majority: The psychological contract in Chinese-Ghanaian labor relations." in International Journal of Human Resource Management 26 (14): 1807-1826.
  • Marfaing, Laurence, and Alena Thiel (2015) "Networks, spheres of influence and the mediation of opportunity: The case of West African trade agents in China." in The Journal of Pan African Studies 7 (10): 65-84 , edited by Adams Bodomo (Special Issue: “Africans in China: Guangzhou and Beyond”).
  • Marfaing, Laurence, and Alena Thiel (2014) "Demystifying Chinese business strength in urban Senegal and Ghana: Structural change and the performativity of rumors." in Canadian Journal of African Studies 47 (3): 405-423.
  • Thiel, Alena (2014) "Imaginaires d’authenticité et leurs négociations dans le marché de marchandises de Chine à Accra." in Entrepreneurs africains et chinois: Les impacts sociaux d’une rencontre particulière , edited by Karsten Giese and Laurence Marfaing, 345-370. Paris: Karthala.
  • Marfaing, Laurence and Alena Thiel (2013) "The Impact of Chinese Business on Market Entry in Ghana and Senegal." in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 83 (4): 646-669.
  • Marfaing, Laurence, and Alena Thiel (2013) "Petits commerçants chinois en Afrique et saturation des marchés ouest-africains: Déconstruction d’une rumeur (Dakar-Accra)." in Migrations & Sociétés 25 (149): 137-158.
  • Giese, Karsten and Alena Thiel (2012) "The vulnerable other: Distorted equity in Chinese‐Ghanaian employment relations." in Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (6): 1101‐1120.