Classification between nature and society since the late 19th century
With the passing of «traditional» society in Europe and the rise of liberal states, societies, and economies across the 19th c., the received order lost its ideological and legal underpinnings. These transformations opened space for new regimes of classification to envision and manage social life, reshaping the status of the individual and the group (however defined) in the process. Biologistic concepts were newly compelling in reference to diverse societies in an era of imperialism and global circulation. At the same time, the burgeoning natural and human sciences - especially those of collection such as natural history, anthropology, ethnology, and linguistics - raised a set of problems around classification and the proper gathering, ordering, and meaningful interpretation of voluminous data. Were types real or just useful constructions? Was it legitimate to speak of pure types or only gradations, mixture, or hybridity? What was the logical shape of classification (tableau, tree, mosaic)?
This panel examines the mutual shaping of natural and human/social classifications since the late 19th c. that arose through the circulation of concepts, practices, and persons between the natural and human sciences and within the public sphere. Thus, it cuts across conference themes of (a) the human as a natural being and (b) metaphorical and analogical transfers between human and natural realms.
Eric Hounshell’s paper concerns mapping of ethnographic attributes in Switzerland from the 1880s. Early classifiers, often with backgrounds in fields such as botany, modeled their data collection, arrangement, and interpretation on the natural sciences. Even 20th c. functionalist approaches purged of biologistic claims retained the typological and cartographic orientation. Classifications developed over scholarly generations, linking together several logical forms. The paper asks how scientific legitimation of «cultural heritage» has supported the cultural economy.
Ruth Amstutz’s paper deals with political and natural science discourses regarding the epistemic and emancipatory potential of «race» as analytical category in human genetics and critical theory. The dominant narrative holds that after the «UNESCO Statements on Race» (1950/52) natural scientists freed the study of human diversity from ideology and replaced the problematic notion of biological races with the methods of non-race-based, population-genetic sciences. Drawing on both historical and theoretical critiques of this narrative, the paper inquires into the revival of «race» as a concept of social-political and genetic analysis through the example of contemporary scientific and political debates on DNA phenotyping in the Swiss DNA Law and critical engagements with racial profiling by Swiss scientists and activists.