Expertise on the Move: Technologies of Rule across the British Empire

AHA Session 97
National History Center of the American Historical Association 4
North American Conference on British Studies 2
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Legal Expertise and Polygamy in the British Empire, 1870–1950
Penny Sinanoglou, Wake Forest University
Britain and the Rise of Disaster Militarism
Tehila Sasson, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

Empire’s potential to function as a “laboratory of modernity” — a space for sometimes radical, often authoritarian experiments in governance beyond the constraints of the metropole — is a key concept in the historiography of French imperialism.  Historians of British imperialism, by comparison, have paid little attention to the circulation of “technologies of rule” across imperial arenas.  Studies of transimperial movement tend to focus on commodities and bodies rather than the less visible world of ideas and practices which governed both; perhaps as a result, they often overlook the frustrated aims, unexpected consequences, and points of friction which confront all globalizing projects.  This panel brings together legal, scientific, and military histories of empire to ask how techniques for making citizens into subjects migrated between Britain and its empire in the twentieth century — a process marked by discontinuities and mutations rather than the seamless projection of imperial power.  Penny Sinanoglou explores the fractured jurisprudence of marriage in the British Empire, demonstrating how local adaptations and evolving improvisations reflected the mutable status of an institution often seen as “traditional.”  Erik Linstrum traces the strange career of mental testing in the imperial context, highlighting the surprisingly limited influence of scientific racism among experts in psychology as well as their inability to translate meritocratic ideals into effective activism.  Tehila Sasson links the rise of “disaster militarism” in the 1970s to the ruptures of decolonization and détente; in seeking a new role, she argues, the British military refashioned the institutional memory of empire for humanitarian ends.   Against the backdrop of debates about the portability of expertise and the politics of knowledge, all three papers ask how imperial rule extended the domain of Western specialists while also taxing their ability to impose visions of order on the realities of difference.

See more of: AHA Sessions