Andrea Westermann

Research Fellow & Head of Office

GHI | PRO - Pacific Regional Office of the 
German Historical Institute Washington
Institute of European Studies
249 Moses Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2316
(510) 643-4558

Biographical Summary

Andrea Westermann specializes in the history of earth sciences, environmental history and the history of material culture. She studied at the Albrecht-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, the Universitat de Barcelona, and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; did her PhD at Bielefeld University; and worked at the history and humanities departments of ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. She was a visiting scholar at the Science Studies Program at UC San Diego and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Her first book Plastik und politische Kultur in Westdeutschland (Zürich 2007) sets out to demonstrate that plastics were not just a material, but also a vital part of political communication. She examines the research efforts that brought the most important and controversial plastic of the postwar period, polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), into existence and then into the marketplace. She analyzes the roles of processors, designers, and consumers in shaping technological change and investigates the use of the material, often symbolically, in political debate. She argues that the shifting significance of plastics highlights a substantial change in West Germany’s political culture which was remodeled, after 1945, as a consumer democracy. The early social market economists based citizens’ social belonging around access to economic security and affluence, aptly embodied by plastic-based infrastructure and artifacts, rather than overtly political notions of participation. By the late sixties, however, people started insisting on the political aspects of their group identity as consumers; they questioned the environmental and (occupational) health effects of vinyl and defined both consumer information and protection as rights of citizenship.

Andrea Westermann’s second book project deals with late 19th and early 20th-century history of geology and explores how Swiss and Austrian Alpine geologists and their colleagues coped with diverging scales in geological or earth systemic research. Entrusted with managing a state’s mineral and environmental resources, geology had formed part of, and took its modern shape among, the state or cameral sciences. The human scale–supporting societal concerns–had thus been at the core of geology from the beginning. From the late 19th century on, geologists devised many new planetary concepts and entities which eventually informed collective action beyond the scientific realm – for instance, the model of the earth as layered and enveloped in spherical shells; tectonic pictures of former supercontinents breaking up; global earthquake belts; or world mineral reserves (Westermann 2011; Westermann 2014; Westermann 2017). How did geologists, politicians and the public at large recalibrate ideas, instruments and institutions to encompass geological, economic and environmental phenomena that were previously unimaginably large, unrelated, or occurred in a hitherto irretrievable past? And how exactly did geologists mediate between the terrestrial and the human scale? The questions reveal their topicality against the backdrop of global warming and other unintended environmental and political consequences of massive mineral resource consumption distributed unequally around the globe. 

At GHI West, Andrea Westermann studies what people arriving, working, or living in the Chilean Atacama Desert knew about the earth and about geopolitics. She does so by combining social history perspectives with approaches in the history of science.

Main Areas of Interest

  • History of science and technology
  • Environmental History
  • Material Culture Studies
  • History of labor migrants’ environmental knowledge

GHI Research Project

  • The Atacama Desert. A Landscape of Mining, Migration, and Geopolitics