Empires: Thinking Colonial Studies Beyond Europe

Advanced Seminar

October 26–30, 2003

Although empire neither begins nor ends with the European colonial state, scholarship has focused overwhelmingly on European forms of empire. With their October advanced seminar, “Empires: Thinking Colonial Studies beyond Europe,” co-chairs Ann Laura Stoler (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) and Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado, Boulder) assembled seven historians and four anthropologists to explore a more nuanced approach to empire. “Empire is a term that is being deployed in new ways at present,” said McGranahan, “and yet at the same time there is an unreflective use of the term. We wanted to open up the concept for examination.”

The participants presented papers that included perspectives from Latin America, the Ottoman empire, Senegal and France, Russia and the Soviet Union, India and the United Kingdom, Japan, China, Tibet, and the United States. This geographic range created an exciting opportunity, McGranahan said, for scholars of colonialism and of empire to rethink their work both in reference to and beyond a European context. Constructing a time frame spanning empires from 1700 to the present, they began “the larger project of reconfiguring what we take as the prototype of empire.”

“One of our central questions was to think more critically about how to compare empires and what assumptions go into those comparisons,” said Stoler. “We aimed not only to compare different empires, historical moments, and ethnographic settings but also to consider the models against which agents of empire were comparing their own efforts.” Using the politics of comparison, the seminar addressed the question, What are the structures of dominance across empires?

Seeking new language for the evolving notions of empire, the scholars proffered imperial formations as a possible term to describe diverse forms of empires across time and place. This term could apply not only to familiar colonial polities but also to situations in which a macropolity exerts sovereignty over other areas—for example, through economic relationships such as banking and trade—but does not coalesce in a traditional geographic way or establish a formal “subject-and-ruler” structure. “We were seeking a way to describe and explore the ‘imperial orbit’ situation of, say, China, France, and Russia within the same analytical framework,” McGranahan said. The term imperial formations could also include “empires without colonization,” such as the United States, which for more than a century has resisted being identified as an empire.

A major issue that arose during the seminar concerned how imperial formations are always in tension between protecting and producing differences such as racial and religious categories. The observation that an ethos of interethnic tolerance within empires, handed down from one generation to the next, emerged not from European liberalism but from the Islamic code suggested that Europe needs to be decentralized from understandings of empire.

Boundaries and boundary making were also points of discussion, especially in relation to national projects. Empires, some seminar discussants contended, worry about boundaries, but because of scale and distance those issues are in fact not so important. Other participants argued that although the imperial reach of empire is always greater than its boundaries, great symbolic importance may be attached to boundaries. Historicizing the concept of the empire-state, as has been done for the nation-state, is one project that emerged from the seminar.

“Our focus at first was on other forms of empire,” said McGranahan, “but now it is shifting toward comparing not only structures of dominance but also structures of opportunity.” The preponderance of historians among the participants was both challenging and stimulating for the anthropologists, Stoler noted, and the “talk across disciplines” fostered questions that framed empire in new ways for both groups.

Carole McGranahan, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado, Boulder Out-of-Bounds Empire:Tibet and the Politics of the “Never Colonized”
Ann Stoler, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan
Jane Burbank Department of History, New York University The Rights of Difference: Law and Citizenship in the Russian Empire
Frederick Cooper Department of History, New York University Provincializing France
Fernando Coronil Departments of Anthropology and History, University of Michigan Colonial or Imperial Studies? Rethinking Imperialism from the Americas
Nicholas Dirks Department of Anthropology, Columbia University Imperial Sovereignty
Prasenjit Duara Department of History, University of Chicago Imperialism and Nationalism between the Wars: The Case of Manchukuo
Adeeb Khalid Department of History, Carleton College From Empire to Anticolonialism and Back? Central Asia in the Russian Orbit
Ussama Makdisi Department of History, Rice University Bringing America Back into the Middle East: A History of the First American Missionary Encounter with the Ottoman Arab World
Peter C. Perdue Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Erasing the Empire, Reracing the Nation: Classification and Control in China Past and Present
Patricia Seed Department of History, Rice University Aboriginal Sovereignty and Empire: The United States

Follow us: