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Global Entomologies in the Age of Empire

Scholars tend to address Nature-related histories generally in terms of environmental change, commodification of resources, and the legacy of natural history collections. Studies of deforestation, dam construction, the rubber boom and the colonial past of European museums are examples of this approach. In contradistinction to such popular topics, insects remain underrepresented in historical research, both as living creatures and metaphors. This panel aims to reconsider the role of the scientific study of insects (entomology) in shaping a particular conception of nature based on control anxieties and profit-maximizing land-uses during the Age of Empire. Although entomology was already a well-established field of research by the late nineteenth century, it was mainly oriented towards collecting and systematizing. Increasing circulation of products such as potatoes and its Colorado beetle, or the need to improve plantation crops, as in the case of cocoa and its black pod disease, created the demand for an ‹applied› entomology. Medical entomology was also crucial in responding to malaria in the early twentieth century. European migrants to Brazil or colonial settlers in German colonial Africa suffered tropical diseases vectored by insects. Economic entomology came to be a highly dynamic field connecting American and European research institutes with agricultural stations in Africa, Asia and Latin America in a variety of ways. As some scholars have demonstrated ― thereby contradicting diffusionist explanations in the history of science ―, pest control in tropical regions served to improve European agricultural production. This wide range of insect histories requires trans-disciplinary approaches that fuse animal studies, histories of medicine and environment, histories of empire, postcolonial theory and science and technology studies. Moreover, they call for ‹more-than-human› narratives that can expand our current ecological understanding with multi-species perspectives. This panel, therefore, proposes to explore the potential of global history approaches to insect-human interactions and to the formation of applied entomology as a tool of Empire.

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