Sources of Decolonization: Interdisciplinary Approaches toward the End of Empires

Sources of Decolonization: Interdisciplinary Approaches toward the End of Empires

Lena Jur / Stephen Foose, Philipps-Universität Marburg
Vom - Bis
06.04.2022 - 08.04.2022
Jacob Kramer, Geschichte und Kulturwissenschaften, Philipps-Universität Marburg

In recent times, historians, especially those researching imperialism and decolonization, are asked to position themselves in relation to their work, whether it is thinking about the presence of colonial statues or street names, in debates around the legacy of colonial thought and structures taking place all around the world, or the influence of imperialism in more intimate spaces such as family structures or community engagement. The wide range of empire’s afterlife inspired this workshop’s goal of asking where, how and what sources of decolonization we can call on to better historicize it.

The workshop, supported by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung and Marburg University Research Academy (MARA), created a candid space for doctoral candidates and early career researchers to meet and discuss their experiences researching in the fields of decolonization and empire studies. As STEPHEN FOOSE and LENA JUR (Marburg) stated in their opening remarks, rather than focusing solely on research projects, the workshop centered on discussions about the sources used therein and the researcher’s personal interactions and experiences with them.

To support and deepen this approach, the workshop included insight and personal reflections by leading scholars in the field of decolonization studies on the inclusion and importance of “less common” sources. Therefore, a platform was created to exchange and discuss the challenges and possible benefits of their inclusion, not only for research purposes but also for the growing interactions between professional historians and the public on the topics of legacy and ongoing influence empires after decolonization.

With these ideas in mind, the workshop started with a keynote lecture by JORDANNA BAILKIN (Seattle, WA). She addressed the question in which ways, and where, historians can locate and acquire their knowledge and sources about decolonization. Sharing from her own experiences, the lecture focused on three main themes: locating sources in other academic disciplines, engaging with them, and confronting the challenges each type presents. Using her large body of work as a source, Bailkin discussed the sensitive nature of including personal data and the question of anonymization in the retelling of historical experiences, an issue that stood out in her research for her 2012 monograph “The Afterlife of Empire”. Further, she explored her own use of oral history and micro-histories, a recurring topic throughout the workshop, to expand and create new perspectives on decolonization. Here, she admitted that she had been reminded of the need to deeply question not only the source, especially considering the phenomenon of public amnesia and narrative traditions, but also oneself and her own positionality, when conducting research.

The first panel, centered on the topics of university and institutions. REBECCA ORR (Florence) presented her project on the presence of colonial actors, structures, and methods at post-colonial British universities. She focused on the influence former colonial staff had on the administration of the universities as well as the campus life itself, while also considering student responses to their hiring. Orr’s work centeres universities as direct sites of decolonization and emphasizes the role of new universities, founded in the post-1945 period, in comparison to those long established, while highlighting often overlooked returning British nationals.

In a very fitting addition to the first presentation, RILEY LINEBAUGH (Mainz) talked about her work on processes of Africaniztion at German, Irish and British universities, creating an inter-European and inter-imperial framework. Her research aims to historicize the role that different European universities played in the processes of decolonization in the postcolonial African administrations. In addition, Linebaugh extends the discussion on the impact of decolonization in Europe by showing how African students in Europe influenced the cities and societies they lived in.

In the second panel, focusing on architecture, ROBERT FLAHIVE (Blacksburg, VA) presented his interdisciplinary project connecting architecture, colonialism and agriculture. Flahive explored the Van Nelle Factory and the RCMC-Collections in the Netherlands to show how, despite its status as a symbol of modern architecture, its history is traced to peoples, locations, and processes of Dutch colonialism. Thus, he showed how colonialism remains influential in Dutch economy and culture as well as on modern European architecture more broadly.

FIONA MAGER (Marburg) followed with her project on the constant negotiation of national, colonial and imperial understanding that was manifested in the usage of public buildings in Ireland and Algeria. Her work focuses on the transformation of historical understanding and what role public buildings, as colonial as well as national symbols, had on the functional mechanics of political and social conflicts. Further, Mager aims to identify the ways in which former colonial buildings, such as the Dublin post office, changed their significance from a profane and practical building towards a symbol of national pride during decolonization.

The third panel tackled the topic of decolonial knowledge. MATTEO SATORI (Concepción) demonstrated his work on the colonial and postcolonial suppression of indigenous medicinal knowledge in 19th-century Chile. By using an interdisciplinary approach of biogeography and global history, he ascertained the persistence of colonial patterns of thought and the cultural hybridization in postcolonial states, depicted in the low importance given to native medicinal plants in medical manuscripts and publications during and after decolonization. Satori pointed out that despite formal independence, the domination of knowledge production against native knowledge underlines ongoing struggles for decolonization.

JULIUS HEISE (Marburg) retraced the independence movement by the Ewe-people in south Togo between the 1940s and 1960s. He looked at agency of the Ewe-people in the form of petitions to the UN Trusteeship and asked how the French and British colonial powers pushed against these decolonial movements of unification and independence. Heise showed that the colonial powers maintained their dominance even as their formal rule ended and demonstrated a lack of willingness to engage with indigenous people, pre-colonial history, and on the ground situations, while limiting the powers of the UN in decolonization processes.

The next panel turned to intellectuals and individuals, and their experiences of decolonization. DYLAN BAUN (Tuscaloosa, AL) asked how individuals from a colonial context perceived decolonization within the former colonial metropole. Based on the letters of Lebanese intellectual and activist Imad Nuwayhib, Baun showed how micro-biographical histories can identify experiences of colonial patterns within the metropole. These included the segregation of groups, racism, playing ethnic and cultural groups against one another, and how experiences in the “center” reframed critiques of western claims on civilization.

MENDEL KRANZ (Chicago, IL) focused on the Jewish community in Algeria during the phase of decolonization and on the Algerian War. He demonstrated the influences decolonization had on the lives and thoughts within the Jewish communities in Algeria and beyond, as well as on the relationship between colonialism and anti-Semitism. For Kranz, the Algerian War, which remains a touchpoint of discussion around colonialism and postcolonial theories, represented a point at which the Jewish community had to work out their own frame of reference on the issue of decolonization, liberation and inclusion.

The first day of the workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion. The debate aimed to tackle three areas relevant to the workshop: growing public engagement with decolonization and colonial history, the relevance of a generalized term of “decolonization” as a historical period, and the consideration of experiences and strategies to address the blind spots of archives. Other topics, including digitization and the relevance of a self-reflected geo-locational or biographical awareness by researchers, were also discussed. From the start, it became clear that multiple histories of decolonization can be and are told depending on location, audience, and personal background of both the historian and their audience. NEILISH BOSE (Victoria, BC) centered on issues of positionality – both geographical and biographical – of the historian and the source. This variability, he argued, leads to conflicting interpretation of process of decolonization at the local, national, transnational and global levels. Thus, to enable more perspectives to emerge, it is important to support research by individuals within and from the sources origin. Similarly, MATTHEW STANARD (Berry, GA) shared his experiences and challenges of working on topics that elicit highly emotional and political responses. He argued for a “professional distancing” from the subject and source in order to achieve a level of academic neutrality. BERNY SÈBE (Birmingham) told of his own personal experience as a rooting point in his understanding of decolonization and emphasized the ever evolving expansion of views on where, when and how decolonization and decolonial perspectives emerge. Nonetheless, he reasoned for the historicizing of decolonization as a specific post-1945 historical period, despite its broad temporal and geographic extension both before and after. This was to not exclude outlying examples but to note this period’s uniqueness.

The next day highlighted the innovative approach taken. Each participant brought and shared a source from their own work within small groups. This gave them the possibility to discuss practical, methodological, and theoretical problems with their peers.

The first group discussed a wide range of topics, including the issues of personal positionality debated in the roundtable. The participants discussed the issue of neutrality in response to their own research as well as within the highly contested field of decolonization. Further, personal experiences and challenges with finding, accessing, or interpreting sources – often of the more biographical variety – were shared in individual presentations. On the practical level, those with overlapping topics were able to provide support and suggestion of smaller, often regional, archives to include, while those from different areas of study broadened the view and made new connections to their own research, and thus new sources to consider. In sum, the group underlined that processes of decolonization are wide-ranging and require increasingly interdisciplinary and global consideration in both access and engagement

The second group dealt with a more interdisciplinary selection of sources, like buildings and non-historical handbooks. A lively discussion arose on the potential and limits of interdisciplinary in the context of decolonization, but also in the historical sciences in general. Mounting on this, more foundational points were debated by the participants, like the growing importance to include topic areas such as feminism, racism and class, which are deeply layered in discussing decolonization, as well as the question to rethink what it means to be a historian in modern times. Furthermore, a comprehensive exchange of thoughts developed about different indicators for fruitful sources, as well as dealing with the context of the sources one is working with.

Centering the personal, the workshop concluded with short individual reflections on each participant’s experience. While methodological and theoretical approaches were fruitful, the presenters and organizers alike praised the interactive and open personal exchange between colleagues and leading scholars as a key component of a better work. Being able to present not just their projects, but engage in source-work with other doctoral candidates and early career researchers resulted in a demonstration of shared global experiences and enthusiasm for their research.

The wide array of different topics covered during the course of the workshop underlined the breadth of perspectives concerning processes of decolonization. The contextualization of the sources reinforced the need to approach topics of decolonization from an interdisciplinary point of view. At the same time, personal experience demonstrated that a willingness to engage with a wider range of methodological and theoretical approaches was central to their work. Overall, the contested and broad experiences of decolonization lead to a most stimulating workshop.

Conference overview:

Keynote Lecture

Jordanna Bailkin (University of Washington, Seattle, WA): Archives of Decolonization: Problems and Possibilities

Panel 1

Rebecca Orr (European University Institute, Florence): Remodeling the Public and Private: an Institutional History of Decolonization

Riley Linebaugh (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz): Africanizing Europe: Decolonization and Higher Education in England, France and Ireland (1957–1973)

Panel 2

Robert Flahive (Virginia Tech University, Blacksburg, VA): Redefining the Van Nelle Factory: Modernist Site Entangled with the Histories of Dutch Colonialism

Fiona Mager (University of Marburg): The General Post Office – a Palimpsest of Identities

Panel 3

Matteo Satori (Universidad de Concepción): Decolonize Chilean Medicinal Plants. Scientific Texts as Sources for Decolonization and Decoloniality

Julius Heise (University of Marburg): Decolonization through Petitions? Archives of Nations Trusteeship

Panel 4

Dylan Baun (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL): Conceiving Decolonization Abroad: A Lebanese Radical in the Imperial Metropole

Kranz, Mendel (University of Chicago, IL): Decolonization and the Jews: Between Colonialism and Anti-Semitism

Roundtable Discussion

Neilesh Bose (University of Victoria, BC), Matthew Stanard (Berry College, GA), Berny Sèbe (University of Birmingham)

Source-work in two Groups

Closing Statements and Discussion