Roads as routes to modernity

Roads as routes to modernity

Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Vom - Bis
05.10.2012 - 05.10.2012
Nitin Sinha ZMO, Berlin

Roads as routes to modernity

We invite abstracts in not more than 500 words, together with a brief CV, for our workshop titled 'roads as routes to modernity'. The workshop will take place on 5th October 2012 at Zentrum Moderner Orient (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin).
The last date for abstract submission is 15 April 2012.

As a 'permanent way', roads are part of material infrastructure that have an important impact on many historical processes such as trade, mobility, circulation, migration, state formation, and, not least, empire building. They are as much the means of physical movement as a medium for social connections and contestations. Roads facilitate movement, establish connections and enable communication and therefore should be taken into consideration in any connected or trans-local history. In certain regional historiographical traditions, for instance in western Europe and the Mediterranean, roads are an established subject of research in the field of pre-modern history but the scholarly focus wanes away once we enter into the age of modernity. For some other regions like South Asia, the research focus is still poorer even for the pre-modern period. The idea of 'transport revolution' in the 19th century is over dominated by the fascination around modern communication, primarily the railways, telegraph, and later in the twentieth century, by motorised forms of movements. Historians have constructed elaborate histories of modernity around these examples while neglecting older and more mundane forms such as roads.

Retrieving the significance of roads from within the 'family' of modes of transport and infrastructures of mobility is one of the concerns of our workshop. The other significant aim is to produce independent histories of roads that integrate with and explain the social and political processes of state-formation and empire building. It is no surprise that in the late eighteenth century, for instance, one of the first concerns of the colonial rule in India was to accumulate knowledge about different routes that would help them strengthen their rule. Control over communication was and remains an integral part of governance in both colonial and post-colonial periods. In the Ottoman empire, railways were projected and constructed on a larger scale only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Before, road building was an important project of modernisation. In the background of this understanding, we seek to ask:

1. When and how did roads become important part of processes of control and consolidation of power, either by state or regional powerful elites?

2. What discourses ('opening up the interiors', 'moral and material advancement', 'civilizing mission', 'progress and modernity', for instance) were used to justify such a control and how did they manifest themselves?

3. What was the nature of finance and expenditure? What kinds of labour (forced, free, contracted, and so on) was used to make roads? What was the nature (temporary, seasonal, migrational, level of skill, etc.) of this labour market? What were the disciplining mechanisms applied on the group of workers?

4. How did roads relate to other forms of communication (river navigation and railways)? Is the nature of this interaction conflictual or complementary?

We invite papers that, on the basis of concrete case studies, will examine these or similar themes.

Please send in our abstracts to:

Nitin Sinha,
Florian Riedler,



Nitin Sinha

Zentrum Moderner Orient
33 Kirchweg
Berlin 14129

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