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Racial Knowledge and Practices in the 19th and 20th centuries: Interactions, Circulations, and Networks across Nations and Empires

This panel investigates racial knowledge and practices in the 19th and 20th centuries from a transnational and transimperial perspective. As it is well known, the concept of race played a crucial role within the naturalist thinking according to which humans were subjects to the laws of nature and therefore studied like any other species. Employed in various disciplinary fields such as anthropology, medicine, genetics or ethnology, the concept of race is a prime example that illustrates the naturalization of humans and its multiple social impacts from the mid-18th century until today.

Classification and discourses of racial difference took shape in the epistemic space of European imperialism. In the 20th century, various phenomena – the rise of eugenics and ethnic nationalism, the biopolitics in authoritarian and fascist states, the decline of empires, and processes of decolonization – transformed the political demand for racial knowledge and offered new theories and practices. In all these different contexts – and this is the point of departure for our panel – racial knowledge and practices were shaped by transnational and sometimes transimperial exchanges: scholars, ideas, concepts, methods, and data crossed disciplinary, national and imperial borders, and these circulations but also their limitations and discontinuations were decisive for the transformation of racial knowledge regimes.

The panel has two objectives. The first one is to highlight the circulations, collaborations and competitions that scholars maintained outside their national borders and to question their vision of human «nature». Correspondences, scientific expeditions and international congresses fostered these interactions, both between scholars and with representatives from administrations, politics or economics. The second objective is to shed light on the role played by traditions and places that are still under-studied in historiography. Compared to the British and French empires and Nazi Germany, much less is still known about the production and circulation of racial knowledge in other places like many small or medium-sized countries in continental and eastern Europe, Scandinavian countries, the Middle East, the Dutch empire or the (former) Portuguese colonies; just to mention some of the still underexplored contexts which, however, played significant roles in the shaping and transforming of racial discourses and practices.

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