Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts

In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the “knowledge society” (Wissensgesellschaft ) rapidly gained in popularity among social scientists and politicians in Western countries.[1] The concept referred to a socioeconomic system that was no longer organized around the manufacture of material—especially industrial—goods but instead around the production of knowledge, expertise, and highly specialized skills. The prominence of this perspective was strongly influenced by the experience of de-industrialization in Western Europe and North America in the last third of the twentieth century, with former sites of industrial production being dismantled and the so-called service sector rapidly gaining in importance. Closely linked to emphasis on the relevance of knowledge in the twenty-first century was concern with educational models that seemed to be outdated because they were rooted in the industrial paradigm of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was in this context that school and university curricula were revised and “modernized” so that they would match the technological demands of postindustrial societies. These efforts were driven by the understanding that the international standing of formerly industrial countries and regions depended on their ability to supply and apply the skills and expertise needed to compete in an increasingly global economy.

The ways in which contemporaries interpreted the importance of knowledge at a time when international relations were rapidly changing due to the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new global “players” like Brazil, China, and India are a worthy subject for historians. They offer insight into the political and intellectual self-understandings of societies, especially of their elites, and into how domestic debates about education and science responded to international and global developments. Studying the ways in which different forms of knowledge were characterized, labeled, and compared allows us to identify some of the key problems that politicians and experts believed they were facing. Such a view can help us to see how, for example, concerns about economic challenges influenced political decisions and in which ways older cultural norms were upheld, transformed, or discarded. In that sense, historical analysis of debates about the relevance of different types of knowledge and their translation into educational programs can provide insight into contemporaries’ interpretations of and reactions to changing political structures.

A good example of how different historical actors have perceived in knowledge both a potential threat to political rule and a possible solution to such problems can be seen in colonial history from the interwar and postwar periods. At the time, political activists in many of the colonies of the European empires in Africa and Asia were becoming increasingly outspoken in their protests against colonial rule and in their efforts to secure a higher degree of political self-determination for their societies. Among their demands was better access to higher education, which most colonial powers had treated very restrictively in an effort to maintain control over colonial societies. In the eyes of anticolonial activists, increasing educational opportunities for colonial subjects was central to overcoming dependence on the colonial powers and to preparing for self-determination. From the point of view of colonial administrators, responding to these demands meant walking a fine line. Granting “too much” access to education involved the risk of colonial subjects challenging and eventually overthrowing colonial rule. For that reason, colonial administrators closely monitored what kinds of education were available to colonial subjects.[2]

Attractive classroom scene
Young Africa Goes to School — Poster distributed by British Information Services (a governmental agency in New York City) with a glowing caption about Britain’s ostensibly positive impact in Africa: “These West African boys and girls go to school in the cool of the morning, bearing their books on their heads—as Africans carry most things. In the bright and airy classroom, children are at work under an African teacher; another class is having a lesson in the open air beside a tree. Africans are eager to learn, and increasing efforts are being made to meet their needs.” © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16136)

At the same time, officials realized that they would have to compromise, at least in part, if they wanted to curb the most radical anticolonial voices and stabilize colonial rule.[3] Also, they hoped that if the colonial populations’ level of formal education was higher, it would be easier to convince them that it was in their own interest to embrace more efficient agricultural techniques and a more “modern” work ethic.[4] Hence, from the 1920s onward colonial administrators slowly increased the number of schools and colleges in the colonies and granted stipends to students from the colonies to study at European universities. In the long run, some of them hoped, these measures would also decrease the administrative and financial burden that the colonies presented to the imperial powers—especially important, it seemed, in the context of the Great Depression. In many cases, however, the newly founded schools became centers of anticolonial thinking and educated those political actors who would later spearhead the political groups that won independence in the postwar period. Knowledge proved very difficult to control—something many of the postcolonial political leaders realized when they tried to use mass education and literacy campaigns to convey their own political messages to the populations of the newly independent countries as part of the nation-building process.[5]

As this brief example suggests, one of the advantages of using a history of knowledge perspective is that it offers a complex and differentiated understanding of colonial relations as they changed over time. Such a perspective can help historians to complement top-down accounts of colonialism based on official documents produced in the European metropoles by more actively integrating the perspective of the so-called colonial subjects.[6] Focusing on the appropriation and adaptation of knowledge in colonial settings does not mean rendering the history of colonialism (or any other field) apolitical, as it were. On the contrary, a history of knowledge approach can highlight the intensely political nature of social hierarchies by emphasizing the degree to which different actors considered control over and access to knowledge a political resource and made use of it. Such an approach also affords opportunities to identify important international or transnational connections not necessarily visible in more conventional, nation-centered historical sources, seeing that knowledge crosses borders relatively easily.

With regard to future research, it seems promising to think more systematically about how a history of knowledge approach could be combined with other historiographical approaches, depending on the topic at hand, to deal more effectively with problems like the distinction between “indigenous,” “local,” and “Western” knowledge, for example.[7] Specifically with regard to this last problem, historians of knowledge or with an interest in the history of knowledge could benefit from cooperating more closely with sociologists and anthropologists, who have long studied how different types of knowledge are produced, translated, and applied, their meanings changing in the process.[8]

Corinna R. Unger is Professor of History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where she holds the Chair in Global and Colonial History (19th and 20th Centuries). She is the author of Entwicklungspfade in Indien: Eine internationale Geschichte, 1947–1980 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2015), and her International Development: A Postwar History will be published by Bloomsbury next year.


  1. One of the most influential publications in this context was Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973). See also Gernot Böhme and Nico Stehr, eds., Knowledge Societies: The Growing Impact of Scientific Knowledge on Social Relations (Dordrecht: Springer, 1986).  ↩
  2. See, for example, Kate Skinner, “‘It brought some kind of neatness to mankind’: Mass Literacy, Community Development and Democracy in 1950s Asante,” Africa 79, no. 4 (2009): 479–99;  ↩
  3. See Walter Schicho, “‘Keystone of progress’ and mise en valeur d’ensemble: British and French Colonial Discourse on Education for Development in the Interwar Period,” in Joseph M. Hodge, Gerald Hödl, and Martina Kopf, eds., Developing Africa: Concepts and Practices in Twentieth-Century Colonialism (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), 222–250; and Uyilawa Usuanlele, “Development and Education in British Colonial Nigeria,” in Hodge et al., Developing Africa, 251–69.  ↩
  4. See Andreas Eckert, “Regulating the Social: Social Security, Social Welfare and the State in Late Colonial Tanzania,” Journal of African History 45, no. 3 (2004): 467–89, 486.  ↩
  5. See Kate Skinner, “Who Knew the Minds of the People? Specialist Knowledge and Developmentalist Authoritarianism in Postcolonial Ghana,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 2 (2011): 297–323; and Michael Jennings, “‘A Very Real War’: Popular Participation in Development in Tanzania During the 1950s and 1960s,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 40, no. 1 (2007): 71–95.  ↩
  6. Elisabeth Engel points to the related need for such a perspectival shift in research on “missionary knowledge”; see “Towards a History of Missionary Knowledge? Impressions from the Conference ‘Mapping Entanglements’,” History of Knowledge, March 2, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/03/02/towards-a-history-of-missionary-knowledge/.  ↩
  7. See Andrew Taylor, “Placing Indigenous and European Knowledge on Equal Footing in the Delgamuukw Land Claim,” History of Knowledge, September 14, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/09/14/placing-indigenous-and-european-knowledge-on-equal-footing/.  ↩
  8. See, for example, Roy Ellen, Peter Parkes, and Alan Bicker, eds., Indigenous Environmental Knowledge and Its Transformations: Critical Anthropological Perspectives (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000); and James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, “Desiccation and Domination: Science and Struggles over Environment and Development in Colonial Guinea,” The Journal of African History 41, no. 1 (2000): 34–54.  ↩
Suggested citation: Corinna R. Unger, “Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts,” History of Knowledge, September 28, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/09/28/political-interpretations-of-knowledge-in-colonial-contexts/.