Uncertainty and Risk in America: (Un)Stable Histories from the Late Colonial Period to the “Gilded Age”

Uncertainty and Risk in America: (Un)Stable Histories from the Late Colonial Period to the “Gilded Age”

Elisabeth Engel (DHI Washington) & Sebastian Jobs (JFK-Institut, FU Berlin)
John F. Kennedy Institute for Northamerican Studies
Vom - Bis
30.06.2016 - 02.07.2016
Sebastian Jobs

Notions of uncertainty and risk have been constant companions of humans across time and space. People have associated these concepts with a wide variety of events ranging from natural disasters to violent revolts and from stock market crashes to the assassination of presidents. Whether constructed as God-given fate or human failure, the destruction of material infrastructure or the social cohesion of a community has always had a productive dimension. As the American economist Frank H. Knight has argued, the term risk describes the effort to govern uncertainties based on probability distributions that are known at the outset.

This workshop aims to trace the relationship of destruction and production in American history from the late colonial period to the “Gilded Age.” In this era, uncertainties increasingly translated into bodies of knowledge of what was likely to happen – and thus produced expectations and coping strategies that profoundly reshaped social realities. These formations could involve the development of emergency measures such as the ad-hoc creation of slave patrols to prevent uprisings. Or, they shaped longstanding structures and institutions such as fire brigades or insurance, which allowed people to make safety provisions that sometimes even exceeded their own lifetime. Acknowledging this variety, the workshop seeks to historicize the various ways in which people sought stability and thereby turned fears into opportunities for both innovation and self-empowerment as well as the suppression and domination of others.

By investigating the (un-)stable histories of Americans, the workshop attempts to address a three questions in particular. The first one concerns identifying concepts, institutions, and imaginations of risks and their agents in various periods in U.S. history from the late colonial period to the “Gilded Age.” How are uncertainties and risks conceptualized at different times and places? Who had the authority to declare a situation to be potentially risky? Who was trustworthy enough to make credible claims about a threat? How were new risks communicated, defined, or even “invented”? By addressing these questions, the workshop aims to show how perceptions of danger and risk changed historically.

Second, the workshop explores how people responded and dealt with risks and uncertainties from the late eighteenth century onwards. How did they prepare for times of uncertainty? How did situations of crisis or uncertainty provide chances for innovation and agency? Traders, for instance, sought to make a profit from the falling prices of slaves during an insurrection panic, and insurance agents drove their business by inventing ever-new scenarios of dangers and threats that need to be covered. Thus our workshop also addresses the ever-changing values and value-calculations that are involved in perceiving, taking, and managing risks.

Finally, the uncertainties and risks that historical actors experienced are directly related to the uncertainties and risks historians face when handling archival materials. How reliable are they? What questions can they answer? How can doubts and uncertainties that historical actors have raised both intentionally and unintentionally influence the interpretations historians produce? What is an appropriate way to represent and analyze polymorphous and multilayered interpretations and materials as they can be found in the archives? As the workshop focuses directly on traces (rather than evidence) and dynamic changes of knowledge (rather than its stability), it also aims to contribute to the ongoing discussion of epistemological conditions of doing history.

Possible topics include:

- Uncertainty and Violence
- (Natural/Environmental) Risks and Insurance
- The Gender of Risk/The Risk of Gender
- Political Crises and Uncertainty
- The Uncertainty of Racial Identity
- Securities, Risk, & Debt

The two-day workshop seeks to bring together advanced PhD students, young and senior scholars from the fields of Atlantic History and US History. The workshop will be held at the John F. Kennedy Institute at Freie Universität Berlin and will be conducted in English. The organizers will cover travel and lodging expenses.

Please submit paper proposals of no more than 300 words and a short bio in one document to engel@ghi-dc.org and sebastian.jobs@fu-berlin.de by December 15, 2015.



Sebastian Jobs

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