The Circulation of Knowledge in the Age of Empires: New Perspectives on the “Transnationalization” of American History

AHA Session 47
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Room A602 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu, Rice University
Paul Kramer, Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

Over the past several decades, Americanists have sought ways to conceptualize America’s past as part of a growing scholarship on the history of empires. Whereas colonial American history has been absorbed into the history of early modern global empires, the modern U.S. empire appeals to the historians whose interests are directed to ways in which the United States exercised power and influence around the world.  Building upon this scholarship, this session contributes to the conference theme by exploring transnational circulations of knowledge that accompanied territorial and commercial ambitions of Anglo-American empires from the colonial period to World War II. The proposed panel offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between knowledge and empire in the history of Anglo-American empires in the following respects. First, it spans nearly three hundred years of history, enabling an observation of long-term changes and continuities. Second, it considers the impact of global currents on American society by bringing together both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific approaches, thus suggesting a new way to illuminate the multiple dimensions of America’s transnational past. Third, it foregrounds a wide range of historical agents, from grass-roots actors to federal policymakers in the fields of colonial-era agriculture, early-twentieth-century public health, and education in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, the papers collectively demonstrate how those transnational processes shaped policy making and institutional reform.

The three presenters of this session demonstrate various routes and channels through which the empires shaped and exploited certain forms of knowledge on trans-oceanic scales. Wanibuchi’s paper explores William Penn’s imperial vision by reconsidering his colonization project in Pennsylvania from the viewpoint of the trans-Atlantic circulation of natural knowledge in the early modern British empire. It argues how Penn formed his colonization schemes with the help of the contemporary discourses of political economy and agricultural improvement. The paper by Makita examines the transnational circulation of colonial ideas on health and hygiene at the turn of the twentieth century. By focusing on the transmission of knowledge from overseas territories to the U.S. mainland, Makita’s paper reveals colonial origins of the U.S. public health system. Finally, Hattori’s paper examines how American educators envisioned “democratic” youth mobilization policies on the eve of World War II to counter totalitarianism. It demonstrates how their imaginary of youth shifted from one that symbolized a Depression-era social problem to another that heralded a democratic postwar world.

To conclude, this session is an innovative attempt to break down existing scholarly boundaries, geographically, thematically, and chronologically, by suggesting new ways to use the concept of empire as a lense through which to transnationalize American history. The three papers will collectively reconsider methodological issues on the “transnationalization” of American history, by attending to how imperial power relations defined the seemingly organic transnational flows of knowledge. With three international presenters who have broad research experiences both in and outside the United States, the session also hopes to provide a venue for historians to discuss ways to further intellectual exchanges among scholars across the world.

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