Exploring Knowledge in Political History

A century ago, World War I brought devastation and violence to Europe and other regions of the world, in many cases upending previously dominant political, social, and cultural orders. For women in large parts of the Western world, the end of the war saw a historical achievement, the right to vote.1 Suffragist activists had fought for this right for the better part of the previous century. They employed a wide range of tools, organizing rallies and marches, founding political organizations, and even conducting hunger strikes and rare acts of violence. Newspapers and magazines such as The Suffragist in the United States were common tools for spreading information and knowledge, building networks, and encouraging and motivating readers. Part of a broader history of the politicization of women and their bodies, the history of the suffragist movement was local and global, national and transnational.2 Female political activism did not end with the right to vote or with standing for and holding office, however. It took up voter mobilization and women’s political and civic education.

Frances Pepper (typing) and Elizabeth Smith in the offices of The Suffragist in July 1916. The periodical appeared weekly for the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party between 1913 and 1921. Source: Library of Congress.

A photograph taken in 1916 in The Suffragist’s Washington, DC, bureau exemplifies not only the day-to-day business of political and social activism that shaped the women’s suffrage movement but reminds us of the knowledge work behind political engagement of all kinds. The photograph shows two staffers at work with clearly visible evidence of their information, knowledge, and distribution tools. This image evinces the many connections between politics, culture, and knowledge, the topic of a conference we are holding at the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) next month in cooperation with the Center “History of Knowledge” (Zurich) and The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge (at the University of Chicago).

Entitled Political Culture and the History of Knowledge: Actors, Institutions, Practices the conference aims to tease out the role of knowledge in a wide range of topics pertaining to politics and especially political culture. By applying a history of knowledge perspective to politics and political culture in the past, we seek to explore further the merits of using knowledge as a category of historical analysis. What does knowledge add to our understanding of history in general? What insights do we gain when we focus on the knowledge production and dissemination practices that shape political activities and culture? What could a history of political knowledge add to our understanding of politics and political culture?

The idea for this conference grew out of activities at the GHI, where the history of knowledge has been a core research focus over the past few years. The conference likewise serves the GHI’s broader mission to build bridges between scholars in Germany (and Europe) and their counterparts in North America. Whereas the history of knowledge gained prominence among German and European historians in a variety of fields over the last two decades, it has been less well known among North American scholars. Here it long seemed to gain attention mostly among historians of science, technology, and medicine, who have been a driving force behind the history of knowledge paradigm.3 Nonetheless, scholarship that engages with practices of knowing and knowledge production is very much present on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, as is evidenced in this blog. Through the lens of political culture, this conference aims to promote a transatlantic conversation in new circles about the potential and limits of the history of knowledge.

Mobilizing women voters and teaching them how to vote in English and Yiddish in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert H. Lehman, and the American Labor Party, 1935. Courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs Collection, via Flickr.

The history of political culture provides a fascinating test case for further exploring the value of knowledge as a category of analysis because it offers insights into a wide range of issues relating to practices of knowing and knowledge production. Most visibly, there are the roles of experts and expert knowledge in policy-making, the challenges that modern science and technology pose to societies and political systems, and practices of knowledge gathering and knowledge production in public administrations and bureaucracies,4 not to mention political activism and mobilization.

The field of political history has broadened its focus significantly in recent decades, integrating a wide range of new subjects, theoretical perspectives, and categories of inquiry. This does not mean that political historians have abandoned the state and politicians, political systems, and institutions as core subjects of their research, but rather that they have been broadening their understanding of what is political, who is a political actor, and who has agency in politics and political culture.5 Moreover, political history has turned its attention to the practices, rituals, and symbols that shape or comprise politics. By exploring knowledge as a category of political history and political culture, this conference seeks to build on these developments and thereby contribute to deepening our historical understanding of politics, political culture, and the political more generally.

As in the run-up to the Learning by the Book conference last year, we are publishing a blog series ahead of the conference in order to begin the exchange of ideas before participants arrive in Washington. Likewise, besides helping to enhance discussions at the conference, we again wish to reach beyond the circle of conference participants to a broader public. This blog series should also be understood as an open invitation to our readers to join the conversation. You can do so on Twitter with the hashtag #poliknow or by responding directly to to posts via Twitter or Facebook. Of course, we also encourage our readers to contribute a blog post of their own.

Kerstin von der Krone is a research fellow at the GHI Washington and an editor of this blog. Her Twitter handle is @kerstinvdkrone.

  1. Germany, for example, is celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage this year. See Hedwig Richter and Kerstin Wolff, eds., Frauenwahlrecht. Demokratisierung der Demokratie in Deutschland und Europa, ed. (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2018). The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920 and will be celebrated next year. ↩︎
  2. See Kathleen Canning, “Gender Order/Disorder and New Political Subjects in the Weimar Republic,” in Geschlechterordnung und Politik in der Weimarer Republik, ed. Gabriele Metzler and Dirk Schumann (Heidelberg: Dietz, 2016), 59–80. ↩︎
  3. Lorraine Daston, “The History of Science and the History of Knowledge,” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 1 (March 2017): 131–54, https://doi.org/10.1086/691678. ↩︎
  4. See the Working Group History of Bureaucratic Knowledge at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin), lead by Sebastion Felten and Christine von Oertzen. The GHI hosted a related exploratory conference in June 2017; a selection of articles stemming from that event will be published in an upcoming special issue of the Journal for the History of Knowledge. ↩︎
  5. U.S.-based historians speak of a “newest political history” or “new new political history” to distinguish the debate since the 1990s from the “new political history” of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself had already broadened the scope of the field by integrating perspectives from social history. See J. L. Pasley, A. Whitmore Robertson, and D. Waldstreicher, eds., Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Holitical History of the Early American Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). For the German debate on integrating cultural history into political history, see Ute Frevert and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, eds., Neue Politikgeschichte: Perspektiven einer Historischen Politikforschung (Frankfurt a.M., 2005); Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, ed., Was heißt Kulturgeschichte des Politischen? (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2005); and Thomas Mergel, “Kulturgeschichte der Politik,” Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, October 22, 2012 (ver. 2.0). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Kerstin von der Krone, “Exploring Knowledge in Political History,” History of Knowledge, May 13, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/13/exploring-knowledge-in-political-history/.

Series: Exploring Knowledge in Political History
Blogging before Conferencing
Discussion starters for the conference "Political Culture and the History of Knowledge: Actors, Institutions, Practices," June 6–8, 2019, GHI Washington. #poliknow #histknow @histknowledge