German migration in subtropical South America began in the early nineteenth century. It lasted for almost 150 years and shaped one of the most extensive projects of transnational forest colonization and global agricultural exchange in history. This experience catalyzed the formation of different bodies of knowledge, many of them currently either lost or “fugitive,” as Glenn Penny characterizes German migrant knowledge in Central America.
Crosspost from Migrant Knowledge
In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1
William Foote Whyte’s study of Italian immigrants in the North End of Boston was not particularly successful after its release in 1943. In the years after 1970, though, Street Corner Society garnered great success and became, in the words of its author, “the book that would not die.” Paradoxically, specialists in Italian American studies found little to love in the book. Here I argue that a hidden history of gender and ethnic dynamics in the academic production of knowledge can explain the paradox. . . .
Today we offer two examples of academic knowledge on the move in tandem with the Migrant Knowledge blog. Anna Corsten looks at the reception of two German-speaking refugee historians in West Germany, and Razak Khan discusses the place of certain travel experiences in Magnus Hirschfeld’s thought.
In Germany today, Hans Rosenberg (1904–1988) and Raul Hilberg (1926–2007) are viewed as important pioneers in the study of National Socialism and the Shoah. Because of their Jewish background, they had been threatened by Nazi persecution and had emigrated to the United States.1 In the postwar era, Rosenberg’s work was initially embraced in the United States and marginalized in West Germany, whereas Hilberg’s was both praised and attacked in the United States, and ignored in West Germany. How and why did these historians move from the margins to the mainstream of German historiography? How did migration figure in their work and its reception?
Magnus Hirschfield (1868–1935) was a world-renowned pioneer in sexology.1 Years of his modern scientific knowledge production on sexology were monumentalized with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in 1919. On May 10, 1933, the institute became an early target of violent Nazi attacks with its library ransacked and its books burned publicly.2 During these turbulent times in Germany, Hirschfeld was on a lecture tour in the Unites States, where he was lauded as a celebrity and his knowledge was embraced enthusiastically by many in the American academy, press, and public. Unable to return home because of the Nazi seizure of power, he decided to embark on a world tour to acquire and share the “treasures of serological knowledge.”3 In transit, he acquired new ideas.
Citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who moved to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the 1980s later incorporated their migration experience into their biographies as success stories. When they relocated, they were between thirty and forty years old and had families. They migrated at a point in their lives when they had already acquired a lot of practical knowledge, if through experience in a different context. Their relocation was about much more than a change of residence, however. GDR citizens also had to come to terms with a new political system, bureaucracy, and society. What practical knowledge could they use to master their new situation? How did they experience their initial encounters with the new system, their search for employment, and their children’s education?
We are members of knowledge societies, but we live in “an age of ignorance.” We are swimming in “oceans of ignorance” that have been consciously, unconsciously, and structurally produced “by neglect, forgetfulness, myopia, extinction, secrecy, or suppression.”1 Little wonder, then, that there is also a lot of ignorance about the persistence of racism as a structural phenomenon that orders society in discriminatory ways and racial knowledge as a normalized element of our knowledge societies.
What kind of knowledge are we addressing when we talk about folk culture? What can we extract from work songs, ballads, lullabies, and reels? What do stories of various kinds, relayed by word of mouth, tell us about the communities they sprang from? What do they reveal about how migrants organized themselves, how they navigated the socioeconomic and political currents affecting their lives?
Such questions speak not only to a history of knowledge in our own time but were important to WPA fieldworkers during the Great Depression. Under the auspices of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometimes with additional local funding, these men and women collected folk music and other oral traditions for the library, which supplied the requisite recording equipment and disks. The materials they collected went into the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, now the Archive of Folk Culture and part of the library’s American Folklife Center. The resulting collection comprises field recordings, photographs, drawings, and written documentation by the fieldworkers. But the Archive of American Folk Song did not just gather and preserve such material. It also enabled the dissemination of some of the songs and stories via songbooks, anthologies, and radio broadcasts.
Panel Series at the 41st Annual Conference of the German Studies Association in Atlanta, GA, October 5–8, 2017
In October 2017, Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg convened a panel series at the German Studies Association’s annual conference that focused on the roles of family and kinship, including children, in knowledge and migration processes. In her opening remarks, Lässig emphasized that knowledge travels with migrants and is transformed by their experiences in the new homeland. Further, family is a forum for teaching and learning, for sharing, evaluating, and preserving knowledge. Kinship itself entails knowledge-of who is who and how they are connected to other family members. Kinship networks can serve as networks for communicating and processing other kinds of knowledge. They often take on particular importance when individuals and families migrate. Migrants carry knowledge with them; they produce and acquire new knowledge with the experience of migration; and they usually need new knowledge to establish themselves in their new cities, towns, and countries. Family, both immediate and extended, often constitutes a crucial knowledge resource for migrants. The aim of the panel series, Lässig concluded, was to explore the interplay of kinship, knowledge, and migration more closely by examining the experiences of German speakers who left German-speaking Europe and non-German speakers who migrated there.
This post is part confession and part revelation.
When Simone Lässig approached me about collaborating on migration and the history of knowledge, I immediately agreed.1 I began writing about German scientists and the production of knowledge over twenty years ago, and much of my current work involves migrants.2 Taking part in the GHI effort offered me an opportunity to think more systematically about the production of migrant-oriented knowledge and its implications for my studies of German communities across Latin America.