Beyond Data: Knowledge Production in Bureaucracies across Science, Commerce, and the State

Washington D.C.
German Historical Institute, 1607 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA
German Historical Institute Washington D.C. (GHI); Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin (MPIWG)
01.06.2017 - 03.06.2017
Christine von Oertzen

How do bureaucracies produce knowledge from the data they gather? This question has been raised not only in the history of science and technology, but also in colonial and postcolonial studies, business and administration history, media and organization studies.

This workshop aims to bring together scholars from different fields to explore how practices of making and using knowledge emerged and evolved within and across science, commerce and state administration. The papers will tackle the big question of knowledge production in bureaucracies through case studies and an emphasis on technologies and practices of knowledge making within larger frameworks such as governance, empire, and capitalism.

The workshop aims to expand existing scholarship by exploring the methods and tools to compile and process data in a broad range of settings – from local administrations to mining offices, from colonial trade companies to insurance firms, and from the early modern period to the recent past. By juxtaposing examples from different periods and contexts, the workshop will address questions that are difficult to answer through individual case studies alone: Did the need to know shared by government, commerce and science result in similar material practices of collecting and transforming large amounts of data? Or did the divergent internal logics of these domains produce idiosyncratic approaches and tools? In what ways did methods and tools to classify, order, and process information migrate from one institutional context to another and change? And do we have to specify – and possibly diversify – our notion of knowledge when the aim of information processing is not so much getting the facts straight but making decisions?


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Welcome and Introduction
Simone Lässig (GHI), Sebastian Felten, Philipp Lehmann, Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG)

Panel I: Antagonizing Logics
Chair: Richard Wetzell (GHI)

Beyond Neoliberalism: Bureaucracies, Machines, and People in an Economizing Age
Dan Bouk (Colgate University)

Image and imagination: Selling Saxon mining shares in Amsterdam, c. 1770
Sebastian Felten (MPIWG)

Data-gathering and Performance Monitoring in the British Army on the Western Front, 1916-18
Chris Phillips (Leeds Trinity University, U.K.)


Keynote Lecture

Introduction: Simone Lässig (GHI)
Moderator: Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG)

Funny Numbers: Unruly Outcomes of Data-Driven Management
Theodore Porter (University of California, Los Angeles)

Friday, 2 June 2017

Panel II: Laws of the Local
Chair: Sebastian Felten (MPIWG)

The Case against Law: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Local Disputes in the Qing Dynasty
Maura Dykstra (Caltech)

Know How on the Outskirts. Regional Officers and their Bureaucratic Measures in German New Guinea
Anna Echterhölter (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Schedule or Scrawl: Techniques and Politics of Ethnographic Documentation in Late 19th-Century New Mexico
Adam Fulton Johnson (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

10:45-11:00 Coffee Break

Panel III: Promise of the Pattern
Chair: Philipp Lehmann (MPIWG)

From Combating Crime to Analysis of Society? Computerization and Knowledge Production in East and West German (Secret-)Police Authorities, 1960–1990
Rüdiger Bergien (Zentrum Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam)

Something in the Air Puzzling Health Officials: Knowledge Production and Health Policy during a Global Influenza Epidemic, 1889-1890
Tom Ewing (Virginia Tech)

Microsoft’s Pivot
Martha Poon (Columbia University/New School)

12:45-14:15 Lunch

Panel III: Noise and Signal
Chair: Elizabeth Engel (GHI)

Bureaucratic Vision: Images and the Imperial Archive in Modern India
Anindita Nag (University of Calcutta, India; MPIWG)

Knowledge Production by a Propaganda Radio? Radio Free Europe as an “Epistemic Community” in the Early Cold War
Simon Ottersbach (Universität Gießen)

The Creation of the Qing “Open Archive”
Devin Fitzgerald (Harvard University)

16:00-16:15 Coffee Break

Panel IV: Keeping Track of the Field
Chair: Axel Jansen (GHI)

Africa in Narratives and Numbers: Colonial Data Collection Between Science and the State
Philipp Lehmann (MPIWG)

“The Making of Specimens Eloquent”: Anthropology, Documentation, and the United States National Museum
Hanna Turner (Simon Fraser University)

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Panel VI: Answers and Answerability
Chair: Anna Echterhölter (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Cultural Studies: The Rise and Fall of Public Opinion Polling in the Soviet Bloc
Kyrill Kunakhovich (University of Virginia)

Managing Mining Across Oceans: Paper Tools and (New) Potosí in the Age of Philip II
Rennée Raphael (University of California Irvine)

Seeing Like a State, or Feeling Like a Church? Questioning Thirteenth-Century Questionnaires
John Sabapathy (University College London)

10:45-11:00 Coffee Break

Panel VII: Finding a Common Language
Chair: Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG)

Technocracy in Translation: Administering the Russian Enlightenment
Maria Avxentevskaya (MPIWG)

The Information Order of the Prussian Frontier: Data Collection and the Remaking of the Polish Partitions, 1772-1806
Kathryn Olesko (Georgetown University)

Synchronizing Information in Premodern Bureaucracies: The Case of Imperial China
Chelsea Zi Wang (Claremont McKenna College)

12:45-13:45 Lunch

General Discussion and Wrap-Up


Philipp Lehmann, Sebastian Felten, Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG)
Simone Lässig (GHI)

Beyond Data: Knowledge Production in Bureaucracies across Science, Commerce, and the State, 01.06.2017 – 03.06.2017 Washington D.C., in: H-Soz-Kult, 19.05.2017, <>.