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Paper 2: Sciences and Empires

Paper manager: Richard Staley (Michaelmas Term), Simon Schaffer (Lent and Easter Terms)

All lectures are held in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

Michaelmas Term
History of Anthropology
Richard Staley (6)
Thu 11am (weeks 3–8)
Empire, Nature and Evolution
Jim Secord (6)
Wed 11am (weeks 3–8)
Lent Term
Modern Sciences and Techniques
Simon Schaffer (4), Richard Staley (4), Staffan Müller-Wille (4)
Thu 11am (weeks 1–8)
Tue 11am (weeks 5–8)
Modern Science and Technology in East Asia
Mary Brazelton (8)
Wed 11am (weeks 1–8)

This paper surveys the history of science and technology from the early 19th century until the present day. The sciences in this decisive epoch were made for a world increasingly dominated by the industrializing economies of the West. New knowledges and technologies merged, extended their global reach, and were consolidated and challenged, both in the natural and the human sciences. Key institutions were established: teaching laboratories, research institutes, and professionally organised careers and qualifications. This was also the epoch of grand visions of natural and social order and their secular meanings, whether in thermodynamics and electromagnetism, in engineering and industrial sciences, in astrophysics and cosmology, or in evolutionary theory and racial science. Changes in sciences and technology also sparked human imaginations, inspiring dreams of solving global hunger or securing global communications, and fuelling nightmares of nuclear annihilation, racial conflict and catastrophic climate change.

Aims and learning outcomes

  • to acquaint students with fundamental issues in historical writing on the sciences from the early 19th century to the aftermath of the Cold War and the period of decolonisation;
  • to provide students with an understanding of the principal changes that created the scientific institutions, professionals and practices of the modern world;
  • to explore the modern imperial and colonial origins and uses of scientific knowledge;
  • to present students with a deeper understanding of how science and technology came to occupy a central place in modern societies and especially in the daily lives of peoples worldwide;
  • to encourage students to reflect critically on their own experiences of science, and technology now, informed by greater knowledge of its recent history.


History of Anthropology
Richard Staley (6 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course examines the history of anthropology, focusing on the period in which central methods of fieldwork and major features of the academic discipline were formed. Studies of Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski in particular will allow us to explore British and American traditions and the relations between 'scientific' and 'historicist' approaches, together with changing understandings of mind, social institutions, the market and culture. We focus in particular on the complex relations between anthropology and imperialism and the way understandings of these have changed over time. Three aims will underlie our work: to examine the legacy of methods and concepts of the natural sciences in the development of anthropology; to explore several examples of anthropologists as activists and public intellectuals; and to examine critically the diverse ways in which understandings of its past have continually been invoked in attempts to shape the future of anthropology.

Empire, Nature and Evolution
Jim Secord (6 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

The making of modern science depended upon empires that stretched across the globe. These lectures examine the role of imperial power in the production of scientific knowledge, from new methods of mapping and measuring the world to emerging natural histories and evolutionary theories. Focusing on Britain, these lectures pay particular attention to the role of empire in racial questions in public debate about empire and on the problem of human descent in the making of evolutionary theories both before and after Darwin's Origin of Species.

Modern Sciences and Techniques
Simon Schaffer, Richard Staley, Staffan Müller-Wille (12 lectures, Lent Term)

This course is about the transformation of the places and practices of the natural sciences since the early 19th century. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which changes in scientific organisation and technique emerged from this complex development. The sciences became central to notions of progress, investigated and prominently displayed in classrooms and clinics, museums and international exhibitions. Over the past two centuries, the sciences have had increasingly close links with the agency of the state, which found in it a promising way to achieve social and economic advantage as well as global prestige. Similarly, growing intersections between scientific research and technical development encouraged the sciences and scientists to respond more readily to economic and political priorities and to contribute decisively to the reorganisation of life.

Modern Science and Technology in East Asia
Mary Brazelton (8 lectures, Lent Term)

This course is about how people in modern East Asia sought to understand and organise knowledge about their world. These endeavours involved extensive exchanges of ideas, objects and people, as well as shifting definitions of what constituted science. Topics covered include China's Qing Dynasty and its officials' efforts to cultivate knowledge about their empire, as well as the Meiji Restoration in Japan and its projects of modernization and industrialization. In the 20th century, the rise of Communism in China and North Korea made the region a critical sphere in the Cold War, and led to novel exchanges in science, technology and medicine. The lectures connect narratives of science and technology in East Asia to themes that motivate other courses on the paper, such as the rise and spread of the university laboratory, the role of empire in the production of knowledge, and the relationships between science and industry.

Preliminary reading

Resources for Paper 2 on Moodle