Keith Breckenridge

Keith BreckenridgeNetwork Member

Keith writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems. Over the last decade he has focused on the history and politics of biometric registration projects on the African continent.  His book – Biometric State (Cambridge, 2014) – shows how the South African obsession with Francis Galton’s universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th century incubator for the current systems of biometric citizenship being developed throughout the South.  With Simon Szreter, he edited Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History published by OUP and the British Academy in 2012, a volume of essays which examines the workings and failures of civil registration in twenty different regions and periods around the world. His research and publications can be found at

Current position
Professor and Deputy Director
University affiliation
WiSER, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research


Biometric Capitalism: Africa in the 21th century

Keith‘s current research examines the development of biometric identification and financialisation technologies on the African continent.  States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international national security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations. Much of this turn to enhanced forms of state surveillance is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. Automated biometric identification systems, aimed chiefly at adults, present these states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. Keith‘s research examines Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – where commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralised biometric population registers. In doing so the banks have explicitly in mind the development of an unusual of a national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus, a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects of for automated debt appraisal.


  • Breckenridge, Keith (2021) "What happened to the theory of African capitalism?" in Economy and Society 50(1): 9-35. →
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2020) "Capitalism without Surveillance?" in Development and Change 51(3): 921-935. →
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2019) "The Failure of the ‘Single Source of Truth about Kenyans’: The National Digital Registry System, Collateral Mysteries and the Safaricom Monopoly" in African Studies 78 (1).
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2018) "The Global Ambitions of the Biometric Anti-Bank: Net1, Lockin and the Technologies of African Financialization." in International Review of Applied Economics.
  • Serlin, David (2017) "Confronting African Histories of Technology: A Conversation with Keith Breckenridge and Gabrielle Hecht." in Radical History Review 127: 87-102.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2015) "The Conspicuous Disease: The Surveillance of Silicosis in South Africa, 1910 - 1970." in American Journal of Industrial Medicine 58 (S1): 15-22.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2015) "Hopeless Entanglement: The Short History of the Academic Humanities in South Africa." in American Historical Review 120 (4): 1253-1269.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2014) "Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2014) "The Book of Life: The South African Population Register and the Invention of Racial Descent, 1950 – 1980." in Kronos (Special Issue: Paper Regimes) 40: 225-240.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2014) "Marikana and the Limits of Biopolitics: Themes in the Recent Scholarship of South African Mining." in Africa 84 (1): 151-161.
  • Breckenridge, Keith (2014) "The Politics of the Parallel Archive: Digital Imperialism and the Future of Record-Keeping in the Age of Digital Reproduction." in Journal of Southern African Studies 40 (3): 499-519.
  • Breckenridge, Keith and Simon Szreter (2012) "Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History." Oxford: Oxford University Press.