Is understanding the world a prerequisite to ruling it? In the course of expanding across continents and cultures, the British Empire generated a need for knowledge about unfamiliar territories and diverse populations. This seminar explores the politics of information in the imperial context, asking not only how information conveyed power but also, unexpectedly, how information could undermine and challenge it. We consider the informants and spies who worked with British authorities, the surveyors and cartographers who mapped the terrain, the anthropologists who crafted ethnic classifications, and the psychologists who tested abilities and probed emotions. We pay special attention to the fractious relationship between intellectuals and the state; the limits and failures of databases and networks; and the long history of what we now call “data visualization.”
Our texts include primary sources—novels, diaries, photographs, and government publications—as well as secondary works. Reading assignments average around 150 pages per week. The skills of historical research are emphasized as each student will write a substantial independent paper on a topic related to the theme of the seminar.