Empires of Knowledge

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop „Empires of Knowledge“ that took place on the 15-16 September 2017 at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver/Canada. It was convened by Axel Jansen (GHI Washington), John Krige (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Jessica Wang (University of British Columbia).

You can find the program of the conference here.

Together with John Krige and Jessica Wang you organized a workshop on “Empires of Knowledge”: How did you come up with the idea for this workshop?

Jessica and I have long been interested in the history of science, particularly science in the United States, and John has published widely on the history of technology and its political dimensions during the cold war and beyond. Our workshop idea evolved as a response to broader concerns in the field about the global dimensions of science and technology. Structures provided by science-related institutions such as universities have had a global role in the context of empires. Even before the nineteenth century, science has provided a discourse, which in the long run had to measure up to universalistic standards, but this discourse was also part of a power structure in the context of empire. Our workshop provided an opportunity to investigate this relationship, with a particular emphasis on the 1945-divide: How would the colonial role of knowledge in science and technology change in the context of decolonization during the cold war? What are the connections between prewar colonization and postwar development?

California. Mexican agricultural laborer topping sugar beets (1943). Picture by Marjory Collins, Library of Congress.

Why do you think it is important to study the history of knowledge and knowledge dissemination particularly in the context of imperial structures?

I come to the study of the history of knowledge by way of the history of science, particularly the legitimacy of science in different societies. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the legitimacy of political power has been enmeshed with science and technology as states have endorsed technologies for military purposes or public health. Hence any consideration of imperial structures will have to take into consideration these dimensions in order to get a better sense of how different kinds of empires work and what happens when they fail.

Which questions in the field of knowledge history are still understudied and in which ways did your workshop contribute to fill these gaps?

A key challenge in understanding the role of scientific and technological knowledge in the context of empires relates to its role “on the ground”: How did knowledge cultures in regions under colonial rule reject, endorse, or adjust to knowledge brought in or developed by colonizers? How did colonial powers adjust to knowledge held by subalterns? In order to trace the peculiar relationship and developments that arise in the imperial context, we need to grasp the specific issues driving the dominant knowledge culture of empire and we need to understand the knowledge cultures of the subaltern. The latter may constitute a significant challenge for it may require methodological and conceptual tools to investigate a culture that has left few traces. At our workshop, we had excellent papers in which such matters were explored. Sarah Ehlers (TU Munich) and Mari Webel (Univ. of Pittsburgh), for example, presented papers on the transformation of sleeping-sickness research in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Prakash Kumar (Pennsylvania State University) discussed state-led agrarian developmentalism in Nehruvian India and Frederik Schulze (Münster/GHI Washington) presented a paper on ambitions and disappointments associated with large-scale development projects in Venezuela during the cold war.

Axel Jansen is the Deputy Director of the German Historical Institute Washington. He completed an M.A. in history at the University of Oregon and his doctorate at Goethe University Frankfurt where he remains a private lecturer (Privatdozent). He has held a number of fellowships (including a Fulbright American studies fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles and a visiting fellowship at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge) and he has taught at several universities in the U.S. and in Germany, among them Frankfurt, Tübingen, Heidelberg, and UCLA. In his research, Axel Jansen focuses on United States history and on the history of science.

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Citation: Empires of Knowledge – Interview with Axel Jansen in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.10.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7958.


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