Online Seminar: Bureaucracy as Knowledge

History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University
“Bureaucracy as Knowledge” with Christine von Oertzen (MPIWG, Berlin) and Sebastian Felten (University of Vienna)

Thursday, June 10, 2021, 15:30-17:00 (CET)
Online via Microsoft Teams (registration not required)

Bureaucracy was a term of critique that in Europe around 1900 became an analytical concept for world-historical comparison, most prominently in the work of Max Weber. Against this background, the multi-authored publication Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge develops a non-Weberian approach of analysing bureaucratic procedures as knowledge processes, a method we term “bureaucracy as knowledge.” This approach builds on historical epistemology and aims to recover actors’ ways of organising social and natural world rather than to judge them by modernist, Western standards. We found surprising similarities across our cases, such as the use of questionnaires in the medieval Latin West and in colonial German New Guinea, or of calendars in the Ottoman Empire and Central Europe.

Could richly contextualised case studies such as the ones united in this volume show the way to a long-term and global history of bureaucracy? We suggest three potential ways of writing such a history: recovering genealogies of bureaucratic genres; tracing bureaucratic personae; and re-constructing cross-cultural entanglements. We end by placing Weber’s conceptual work in a wider context of transnational debate and reform.


Christine von Oertzen is Principal Investigator of the subject area ‘Data, Media, Mind’ at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and S-Professor for Media Practices at the Humboldt University Berlin. Sebastian Felten is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of History at the University of Vienna and was a Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin between 2015 and 2018. Together, von Oertzen and Felten edited the collective volume on Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge, which is the result of a working group at the MPIWG and was published in December 2020 as a Special Issue of the Journal for the History of Knowledge.


Featured image: “Jeannette Poirier looking at photographs in file cabinet drawer at the Washington office of the Overseas Branch of the U.S. Office of War information.” 1945. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress,