Towards a Global Intellectual History of an Unequal World, 1945-Today

Towards a Global Intellectual History of an Unequal World, 1945-Today

Christian Olaf Christiansen, Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Vom - Bis
10.06.2021 - 11.06.2021
Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists

This two-day symposium is designed to investigate the global intellectual history of inequality. It will do so through a double global lens: How have intellectuals from around the world thought about inequality in the world?

The aim of the symposium is to contribute with a new transnational intellectual history of inequality in different geographical and cultural contexts. The symposium will investigate links, differences and similarities between different intellectual traditions, as well as the circulation of inequality concepts and knowledge across countries. It aspires to facilitate a unique transcultural and multi-linguistic knowledge about inequality concepts, contributing to the fields of global conceptual and intellectual history. The symposium will aim at a special journal issue on the global intellectual history of inequality, exploring relationships between geographical anchoring (place) and thinking on inequality in history. We are delighted that the journal Global Intellectual History has kindly agreed to be the host of this special issue.

Critics of global intellectual history have rightfully pointed out that few connections are actually truly global (planetary), but can much more adequately be described as transnational or transcultural (or ‘transcolonial’ or ‘transimperial’) connections. Taking this criticism into account, we are interested both in learning more about the intellectual histories of inequality in non-western countries, including in non-English, indigenous languages. Secondly, we are interested in learning more about intellectual and conceptual histories of transnational connections between various parts of the world, such as North-South and South-South connections and intellectual biographies of key thinkers on inequality whose histories are linked to several countries and continents. How did intellectuals across the globe address inequalities in a post-world war II age of ‘development’, promises of universal human rights, new data on inequalities, and of the crucial historical dynamics of the Cold War and decolonization?


Global inequality is one of the major challenges facing the world community. In 2015, the United Nations adopted a new set of world goals, including bringing down inequality (both within and between nations). Studies of ‘global inequality’ have surged in the social sciences and the humanities in the last couple of decades. More broadly, inequality is more than just the simple negation of equality. Dating back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and up until Thomas Piketty among others, writings on inequality have constituted a separate field of inquiry. In intellectual history, studies on inequality have tended to focus on canonical works or a nation state setting. We do not yet have a global intellectual history of (global) inequality. There is a genuine need for a transnational and transcontinental perspective which not only compares different geographical spaces, but also studies the connectivity in important exchanges of ideas and concepts within the South (as in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement), and between North and South.

Themes: Space, Temporality, Legitimization

We are especially interested in contributions on the intellectual histories of inequality from ‘non-Western’ areas, cultures and languages, and in contributions that map out transnational and transcultural connections in the intellectual histories of inequality. The latter could be—but is not limited to—for example:

- South-North or South-South connections
- Intellectual biographies of (émigré) scholars
- International organizations as a transnational intellectual ‘inequality space’
- Knowledge asymmetries between Northern and Southern concepts of inequality
- Geographical experiences shaping the thoughts of key development economists or other prominent intellectuals on inequality
- How particular traditions of thinking on inequality—from dependency theory to modernization theory, from neoclassical trade theory to world systems theory—crossed continents and borders
- The role of indigenous concepts and political and natural languages on inequality
- Lesser known (marginal, women, indigenous) voices in the global intellectual history of inequality
- While this symposium is mainly devoted to the era from 1945 until the present day, we very much welcome proposals which go further back in history

Inequality is a multidimensional phenomenon, and many different terminologies exist, distinguishing between, for example, national, international and global inequality; inequalities of class, gender and race/ethnicity; horizontal vs. vertical inequalities; vital, resource and existential inequality; recognition vs. redistribution, etc. While we are especially interested in intellectual histories of global economic inequality, we also want to explore other aspect of the multiple global intellectual histories of inequality. Economic inequality very often intersects with other inequalities. Similarly, it is an empirical question what kinds of inequalities intellectuals addressed in the past, and what kind of ‘world’ they understood themselves to belong to. For some, being woman, being black or being part of a lower caste was even more defining for their world than living in particular places, be they nation states, centers or peripheries of empire, or being ‘a citizen of the world’. While we are very interested in histories of intellectuals reflecting on being part of an unequal world (e.g. defined as ‘South’ versus ‘North’ or ‘Periphery’ versus ‘Center’), we acknowledge that the historical experience of what constitutes a persons’ world is highly historically contingent.

We are especially keen on investigating three aspects of the global intellectual history of inequality: space, temporality, and legitimization.

First, as stated in the above, we need to know more about what role space has played in how global economic inequality has been conceptualized. Indeed, the call for a more inclusive intellectual history is especially urgent here. What were the main historical differences, similarities and connections between Northern (Western) and Southern concepts of global inequality in the postwar era?

Second, we need to know more about the role of temporality in historical discourse on inequality. In the context here, temporality can refer to past expectations about whether the world was moving towards more (or less) inequality. Similarly, the concept of ‘development’ is not just a temporal concept in itself, but also a term by which international economic inequalities can be conceptualized as differences in ‘development’. Which temporalities were embedded into discourses on global economic inequalities?

Third, we need to know more about how global economic inequalities are legitimized. Recent research has shown that economic inequality is extremely resilient. Which vocabularies have been used to legitimize high levels of economic inequality, both between and within nations? While some traditions of thought have evaluated inequality negatively, others have been more accepting of inequality (arguing that the real problem is poverty, not economic inequality), such as different varieties of neoclassical and neoliberal economics, theories of marginal productivity and of trickle-down. We need to know more about the historical and geographical dynamics of these different bodies of thought on inequality. How has postwar global economic inequality been legitimized and critiqued?


We are delighted to welcome Adom Getachew (author of Worldmaking After Empire, Princeton U.P. 2019) and Siep Stuurman (author of The Invention of Humanity, Harvard U.P. 2017) as our two keynote speakers. The key notes will be open to the public. We will organize the rest of the symposium around pre-circulated papers, brief paper presentations, followed by comments and discussion in a group of maximum 15-20 participants. Please note that the symposium will be open for digital presentations as well. We welcome proposals from—and on—any region of the world.

Deadline for proposals

Please send a title, a 500-word abstract and a brief (one-page) c.v., all in one document file, to by Monday 31st of August 2020. In your abstract, please make it clear how your paper relates to the theme(s) of the symposium. Please note in your submission whether you would like to present physically or digitally. While there will be no conference fee, please also let us know whether you will be needing financial help for your travel and accommodation (as we have some limited funds available for such assistance). Selected participants will be notified by 30th September 2020. Participants are expected to send a work-in-progress paper (max 4000 words) by January 31st 2021, and a full paper (max 8000 words) by 31st March 2021. Full papers will be distributed to and expected read by all participants before the symposium.

Queries can be directed to Learn more about the project hosting the symposium on

This symposium is sponsored by Independent Research Fund Denmark with the Sapere Aude Research Leader Grant ‘An Intellectual History of Global Inequality, 1960-2015’.