The Politics of Colonial Comparison Workshop

All Souls College, Oxford, 29 September 2014.
In connection with the Oxford Transnational and Global History Seminar.

The British thought they were improving on the Spanish empire, French colonial theorists marveled at the Dutch, the Italians believed they could develop a ‘third way’ between the British and French imperial models, and the Portuguese thought their colonies were so different that they were no colonies at all. While historians often compare empires, they have ignored the ways in which people in the past did so as well. Colonial empires are perhaps the last frontier of transnational history: historians of the British, French, Russian or Spanish empires remain focused on their own imperial systems, exploring links between metropoles and colonies in ever greater depth, but ignoring the rich connections across imperial boundaries. The purpose of this workshop is to explore how participants in imperial projects, willing or otherwise, defined themselves through engagement with other contemporary empires. Heeding Ann Laura Stoler’s call to study the ‘politics of comparison’, it asks, in essence, what happens when empires look sideways?

Taking discourses of comparison as its object, the workshop will focus on the following conceptual questions:

  • Does modern imperialism always generate a particular form of comparative self-awareness?
  • How fundamental are cross-imperial comparisons to imperial self-definition?
  • Do these comparisons reinforce a sense of exceptionalism, or do they work to break down presumed barriers?
  • Why and how do they change over time?
  • How do they relate to the intra- and trans-imperial circulation of ideas, information, and actors?
  • How do they vary between administrators, travel writers, theorists, politicians, resistance movements, etc.?
  • How, and with what consequences, do these comparisons endure after the end of empire?

We are soliciting 200-word proposals for 20-minute papers which address any of these questions. With a view to achieving broad geographical coverage, abstracts which go beyond British and French imperialism will be particularly welcome, as will papers which challenge the distinction between imperial and nation states. Please send proposals, along with a short academic CV, to alexander.middleton@lmh.ox.ac.uk by 15 May 2014. Participants will be notified by 31 May 2014.

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