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Paper 2: Sciences and Empires (1780–present)

Paper manager: Simon Schaffer

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

Michaelmas Term
Laboratories and Disciplines
Joseph Martin (2), Richard Staley (2), Simon Schaffer (2)
Tue 11am (weeks 1–6)
Science, Industry and the State
Joseph Martin (6)
Thu 11am (weeks 3–8)
History of Anthropology
Richard Staley (6)
Wed 11am (weeks 3–8)
Lent Term
Modern Science and Technology in East Asia and the World
Mary Brazelton (8)
Thu 11am (weeks 1–8)
Empire, Nature and Evolution
Jim Secord (6)
Tue 11am (weeks 3–8)

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.


Laboratories and Disciplines
Joseph Martin, Richard Staley, Simon Schaffer (6 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

This course is about the transformation of the places and spaces in which science was done from the early 19th to the early 20th century. Among the most significant developments was the rise of the university laboratory, which became (first in Germany and then elsewhere in the world) a key site for innovation in research and teaching. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which changes in scientific instrumentation and technique emerged from this development. Lectures also explain how laboratories and museums became powerful institutions from which scientists and their collaborators developed new practices, from which they multiplied scientific cultures beyond their walls. By the end of the period, the sciences had become central to notions of progress, investigated and prominently displayed in museums and international exhibitions.

Science, Industry and the State
Joseph Martin (6 lectures, Michaelmas Term)

Science, like all other arenas of human endeavour, gains social support because it speaks to social priorities. Over the past two centuries, science has conversed richly with the priorities of states, which found in it a promising way to achieve military and economic advantage, as well as global prestige. Similarly, growing intersections between scientific research and technical development encouraged science and scientists to respond more readily to industrial priorities. These lectures explore the interdependencies that have grown between science and technology on one hand, and commerce and governance on the other, since 1800.

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.

Modern Science and Technology in East Asia and the World
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.

Empire, Nature and Evolution
Jim Secord (6 lectures, Lent 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.

Preliminary reading

  • Agar, Jon, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012)
  • Browne, Janet, Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography (London: Atlantic Books, 2006)
  • Elman, Ben, A Cultural History of Modern Science in China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)
  • Hughes, Thomas, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, new ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
  • Krige, John, and Dominique Pestre (eds), Science in the Twentieth Century (London: Taylor & Francis, 1997)
  • Kuklick, Henrika (ed.), A New History of Anthropology (Oxford/Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008)
  • Marsden, Ben, and Crosbie Smith, Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in 19th-Century Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005)
  • Morris-Suzuki, Tessa, The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  • Morus, Iwan Rhys, When Physics Became King (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • Qureshi, Sadiah, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)
  • Stocking, George, Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987)

Resources for Paper 2 on Moodle