Knowledge about Mountains and Forests

Discourses and Transfer Practices in the Mining and Forestry Sciences – A Comparison of Central Europe and North America (1860-1960)

Swen Steinberg

Utilizing the approaches of the history of knowledge, this project examines the transmission, modification, and translation of knowledge related to forestry and mining – especially on the level of practical and everyday use – as well as occasions when such transmission processes failed to occur. Against the backdrop of contemporary discourses about romantic, sacred and national concepts of nature or promises of industrial and economic rationality, this project critically assesses the classic theme of the transatlantic exchange of scholarship and knowledge in order to sound out changes and adaptations. Although concepts (e.g., smelting methods, forestry and forest management plans) that were developed especially at the German institutions such as the Bergakademie Freiberg (Mining Academy of Freiberg) and the Forstakademie Tharandt (Forestry Academy of Tharandt) were initially adopted, these concepts were successively adapted to the natural as well as the social and cultural conditions of North America. Such adaptations, in turn, then made their way back to Europe, leading to phases of scholarly and personnel exchange that was sometimes quite intensive. Both the feedback effects on Europe and the modifications remained unnoticed for a long time; in particular, in the context of research on German emigration to North America, the idea that concepts for utilizing nature were merely 'exported' long held sway.

The project, however, is not limited to examining processes of knowledge acquisition or the modification of knowledge that arose in the context of migration; these can be analyzed on the basis of students, employees of government agencies like the US Forest Service or private companies, as well as on the basis of systematic excursions and sources associated with them (field diaries, photographs and photo albums and publications that arose in the travel context). Rather, it also explores aspects of the translation and translatability of concepts for utilizing nature (forestry and mining dictionaries) as well as the material dimension of the relevant knowledge-related exchange processes that manifested themselves, for example, in model, seed and stone collections or xylothecas. Moreover, it pays particular attention to the conflict-ridden field of the scientific professionalization of career groups that continued to engage in practical work. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was not unusual for this process to lead to disputes between the „pure“ scientists and the practitioners who had mostly been trained by them. Alongside the horizontal-transatlantic level, the project also explores vertical processes of knowledge transfer and modification. The study is fruitful especially in that it demonstrates how mostly regionally or even locally developed knowledge migrated across long distances and shows which media were significant in these migration processes and how the modification or adaptation of knowledge occurred in various political, social, economic, and cultural settings – or failed to occur. Consequently, the project uncovers the potential of combining the history of knowledge and the history of migration on the basis of questions from environmental history.

Swen Steinberg‘s study is likewise his habilitation project (with adviser Winfried Müller), which he began in 2015 with a 21-month research stipend from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in connection with the University of California at Los Angeles (hosted by David W. Sabean). This was followed in 2017 by a short-term fellowship at the GHI Washington. Together with Simone Lässig, Swen Steinberg has been investigating the connection between migration and knowledge for quite some time (conference panels, publications). Currently, a joint project on the history of the knowledge of young migrants is in preparation, which will also investigate migrating students as young adults with a particular focus on the North American West Coast.

Related Publications

Edited Volumes

Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, eds. “Knowledge and Young Migrants.” Special issue, KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3.2 (2019).

Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, eds. “Migration and Knowledge.” Special Issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43.3 (2017).

Journal Articles 

Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg.  “Why Young Migrants Matter in the History of Knowledge.” In Special issue,“Knowledge and Young Migrants,” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 3.2 (2019).

Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg. “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge." In Special Issue “Migration and Knowledge” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43.3 (2017): 1-34.

Other Publications

Swen Steinberg. “Wooden Wars: American Foresters, Knowledge, and French Forestry (1917-1919).” In War and Geography: The Spatiality of Organized Mass Violence, edited by F. Jacob, S. Danielsson, pp. 215-241. Paderborn, 2017.