What's at stake in the fake?

Indian pharmaceuticals, African markets and global health


Regulating fake drugs as ‘fake-talk’

Professor Julia Hornberger

My name is Julia Hornberger. I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wits University. I am a cultural anthropologist of policing and health, particularly in Africa. I am interested in how technologies are being used to divide good medications from bad medications.  Technologies here can be anything from law and legal regulations to police practice of raids and investigation, laboratory practices, packaging, holograms, testing devices and minilabs. These technologies are important. They flourish on the assumption of making things safer. But their very appearance – be it the drug bust in the newspaper or the hologram on the package – evokes the suspicion that there must be plenty of fakes out there. And the irony is that these very same security technologies, such as holograms, are increasingly being suspected of being faked. My research focus is how these technologies put into service of detecting the fake create new categories not just of medication but of people associated with these, such as consumers, traders, producers.  I have already been conducting long term research with the commercial crime police of South Africa and Interpol in Africa. I am looking forward to be working with local and international labs, developers and users of minilabs, and legal firms which take on counterfeit cases for pharmaceutical firms etc.  

My overriding research interest is that under the potent signifier of fake pharmaceuticals – be it through an understanding of fake as substandard or as counterfeit or whatever definition applied – market, security and health actors are coming together in new ways. This constitutes a significant shift in the governance and regulation of the flow of pharmaceuticals which can best be described as a shift from Drug Safety to Drug Security (Hornberger 2018). The problem which becomes the focus of my research here is: ‘What kind of value is being produced under this new constellation, and for whom?’  

On a conceptual level this research speaks to the following concern: The figure of the fake as in fake pharmaceuticals but also as in other fake goods and fake news plays a powerful role in our contemporary times in which questions of legitimacy and authority as well the order of established hierarchies are questioned as never before. For some, ‘the fake’ stands for creativity and resistance as in upsetting established capitalist orders, for others, and here especially the meaning of pharmaceuticals is key, – fakeness foremostly means threatening people’s lives. I am interested in developing a theoretical understanding of the fake and fake talk as both speaking to this notion of relativity and shifting positionalities as well as that of urgency and connection to the body, as we find it in fake pharmaceuticals.