Conference: ‘Imperial Comparison’, 8-9 July 2016 (Oxford)

Conference: Imperial Comparison
8-9 July 2016
All Souls College, Oxford

Paper presented by Miles Larmer on ‘Comparing copperbelts: Belgian and British colonial knowledge production and exchange in mid-20th century Central Africa’

Download programme>> Programme ‘Imperial Comparison’


Keynote speaker: Ann Laura Stoler (New School for Social Research, New York)

Convenors: Alex Middleton (Corpus Christi, Oxford) and Arthur Asseraf (All Souls, Oxford)

How have comparisons been used to establish, sustain, and resist empire? Empires, after all, have always compared themselves to other empires. Imperial officials consistently sought information on their competitors, and deployed strategic comparisons to justify techniques of imperial rule. But alternative comparisons could bring to light uncomfortable truths, and motivate networks of resistance to imperial authority. Comparisons, moreover, have been used to create imperial exceptionalisms, or in some cases to deny ‘imperial’ status altogether. This interdisciplinary conference will explore imperial comparisons holistically, covering both their employment by historical actors, and by academics studying empires.

Following an exploratory workshop in Oxford last year, the conference aims to explore three main interrelated areas:

– Official comparisons – how have comparisons been used for imperial statecraft? How do imperial administrators strategically collect and select information from other empires? How have comparisons been used to transfer techniques of imperial rule?

– Resistant comparisons – how have movements of resistance (nationalist or otherwise) used comparisons to undermine imperial rule? How have comparisons with other peoples under domination shaped political action by those resisting empire?

– Scholarly comparisons – how have academics used comparisons to study empires? What happens to imperial comparisons after empire formally ends? How can we be sensitive to the roles of comparisons in justifying imperial rule when conducting our own research?

Building on recent scholarship, the conference will move beyond distinctions between comparative and connective histories in order to construct a more thoroughly global history of empire. It will investigate how geographies of knowledge circulation limited the spectrum of available comparisons, and in turn, how this opened and closed intellectual and political possibilities. It will explore the relationship between comparison and power, up to and including the controversial use of historical analogies with empires in the present day.