Big science – and small wars?

A fascinating review and preview by Alice Conklin of two books that promise to complicate the formation of ‘colonial science’: Helen Tilley‘s Africa as a living laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 (Chicago, 2011), and Pierre Singaravélou‘s Professer l’Empire: Les “sciences coloniales” en France sous la IIIe République (Sorbonne, 2011).

TILLEY Africa as a living laboratoryHelen Tilley will be known to most readers, I suspect, for her work on the history of ecology and the intersections between science, medicine and tropicality.  In Africa as a living laboratory, Conklin concludes,

‘Tilley’s case studies lead her to jettison the term “colonial science” altogether. The history of the African Survey [in the 1930s], she argues, proves that all scientific research circulates both locally and globally in ways that its producers cannot control – even when this research is sponsored by imperial governments seeking solutions to problems of colonial governance. From this perspective, defining any “science” as specifically “colonial” obscures more than it illuminates. Her point is not that “good” science triumphed over “bad” science in Britain’s African colonies, but that the outcome of the appeal to science was never absolutely predetermined by the fact of empire. Professionalizing scientists in the field could and often did maintain their distance from policy-making: their training encouraged them to they look for the very kind of complexity in human societies that overburdened administrators or their superiors did not have time to consider…’

Singaravelou Professer l'empireMost geographers will know Singaravélou’s edited collection, L’empire des géographes (which includes a characteristically incisive essay by Dan Clayton).  Conklin considers one of the most significant arguments in Professer l’Empire to be the claim that

‘…the world of teaching about the empire [in France] became a stimulating “place of encounters and exchanges between academics and administrators, politicians and advertisers”. Hovering on the fringes of the more orthodox disciplines of history, geography, law and political economy, and psychology, colonial scientists contributed new subjects (the comparative history of empires, legal anthropology, tropical geography) to their “parent” fields that would flourish after World War II; they were also among the first to practice interdisciplinarity, due to their long exiles in the field. As in Britain, their contributions have been lost from view because modern scholars have dismissed the “colonial sciences” as too tainted to be worth revisiting.

Taken together, Conklin concludes,

‘Singaravélou and Tilley make clear that without a complete picture of how all scientists functioned in the past, historians cannot understand – much less counter-act – the ideological and rhetorical power inherent in science itself. Considerable debate persists over the extent to which scientists facilitated colonialism, and colonialism facilitated science. While neither of these two richly contextualized books explores the question of how science translated into policy on the ground, they nevertheless remind us that there can be no foregone conclusion about the content of the scientific expertise promoted under colonialism. Both authors breathe new life into the history of dead white scientists attached to empire in the interwar era without in any way eulogizing or apologizing for them.’

My appreciation of these studies derives from my developing interest in the connections between scientific knowledges and military violence.  In my work on the metricisation of space on the Western Front in the First World War, for example, I’ve been impressed by Roy Macleod‘s studies of what he calls ‘the battlefield laboratory’ (in ‘Sight & Sound on the Western Front’, War & Society 18 (1) (2000)).  By early 1918, he writes, ‘the combined organisation of Field Survey Companies and “Maps, GHQ” had become almost an institute of advanced studies for cartographers, topographers, geographers and geologists’ and its ‘success in inter-disciplinary cooperation augured well for allied success in the last year of the war.’   It’s interesting to read this alongside Tilley’s opening, scene-setting chapter, ‘An Imperial Laboratory: Scientific Societies, Geopolitics, and Territorial Acquisitions’ – in which, of course, mapping is never far away – and then to think through the arc traced by what Steve Graham calls ‘Foucault’s boomerang’ across the killing fields of colonial Asia and Africa.  We know about the practices of counterinsurgency or colonial ‘air control’, to be sure, but we still need to know much more about the knowledges that are embedded within them.  And these two studies remind us that, on the field of Mars as elsewhere, the relations between knowledge and practice (or power) are rarely simple and never uni-directional.