Empires of Knowledge

September 15-16, 2017
Conference at University of British Columbia, Vancouver/Canada
Conveners: Axel Jansen (on behalf of GHI West), John Krige (Georgia Institute of Technology), and Jessica Wang (UBC)

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the mobilization of knowledge as an adjunct to modern state power became essential to imperial projects worldwide.  As traditional empires consolidated colonial rule by backing administrative legal structures with coercive policing and military force, they found that legitimacy also called for legibility.  The gathering and creation of facts about local custom and habit, indigenous structures of power and productive practices that could be “improved,” resources that could be exploited—such forms of knowledge facilitated governance, whether by engaging local elites in the colonial project, displacing and supplanting existing structures of political authority, extending systems of surveillance and control, or otherwise expanding the reach of imperial rule.  Empires combined hard with soft power, producing a cohort of trained imperial agents in metropolitan institutions—universities, foundations, and, in the post-World War II period, think tanks—whose fieldwork aided the projection of power abroad.  

Our workshop on “Empires of Knowledge” starts with the knowledge/power nexus itself and explores the roles of experts in developing knowledge about colonial and post-colonial societies as part of the global cultural, economic and political agendas of metropolitan centers of power from the late nineteenth century to the present.  Questions the workshop will address include: how did traditional colonial powers use knowledge as a tool of empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in the areas of public health and medicine, agriculture, the geosciences, and the nascent social sciences?  To what extent did imperial powers actively exchange practices and collaborate across borders?  How did emerging global powers (e.g., the US, Russia, and Japan) deploy scientific and social scientific knowledge as part of their efforts to reshape the global order?  How did colonial expertise move across the chronological divide of World War II?  To what extent did it produce neo-colonial social formations, even as post-colonial societies attempted to mobilize technoscience in order to fulfill nationalist aspirations? How did the two cold war superpowers deploy knowledge in post-colonial settings, and to what extent did they reproduce past patterns even as they claimed to speak on behalf of a new era of freedom and liberation?  How successfully did the post-World War II rubric of “development” differentiate itself from the old “civilizing mission” of colonialism in its uses of knowledge and mission of “progress”? How did the producers of knowledge – scientists, engineers, and others – feel about their new role in ambitious and expanding states?  Ultimately, what does this global history suggest about the relationship between knowledge and the modern state, its ironies, and its possibilities?