Blogging Histories of Knowledge in the Context of Digital History

A little article about this blog that I wrote with Kerstin von der Krone is now open access. See “Blogging Histories of Knowledge in Washington, D.C.,” in “Digital History,” ed. Simone Lässig, special issue, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 47, no. 1 (2021): 163–74. The abstract reads:

The authors reflect on their experiences as the founding editors of the History of Knowledge blog. Situating the project in its specific institutional, geographical, and historiographical contexts, they highlight its role in scholarly communication and research alongside journals and books in a research domain that is still young, especially when viewed from an international perspective. At the same time, the authors discuss the blog’s role as a tool for classifying and structuring a corpus of work as it grows over time and as new themes and connections emerge from the contributions of its many authors.

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A Seminar about Information History: Why?

On May 18th, I hosted a seminar about information history, a topic that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. My interest in information as a historical phenomenon began as an attempt to inquire into the prehistory of the Danish public libraries.1 For some years, I have also had a strong interest in the history of knowledge. Framing things this way might cause readers to think that I assume clear and evident differences between the two. I am, however, much more interested in how they supplement each other than in how I can characterize each as a unique field. It is no secret that the history of knowledge has gained quite a different resonance within history than information history has experienced.

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Knowledge as an Object of Historical Research

Nearly two years ago, Shadi Bartsch tweeted five tenets for understanding knowledge that now appear the on website of the center she directs at the University of Chicago, namely the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. These tenets deserve further elucidation and discussion, a process I'd like to begin on this blog, starting at the end:

  1. Knowledge at any given time is exactly equal to what people think is true. As such, sub-knowledges, unauthoritative knowledges, and disputed knowledges can all exist simultaneously inasmuch as “people” is a plural concept.

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Historicizing Knowledge

Recently there has been a lot of chatter on academic Twitter reflecting on the need to decolonize various academic fields. Such impulses go to the heart of what histories of knowledge are: People produce, use, translate, and pass on knowledge in specific socio-cultural contexts. Knowledge has a history, and much of that history is bound up with the histories of fields and professions.

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The History of Knowledge: An Indispensable Perspective for Contemporary History

Even if scholars are no strangers to the history of knowledge, it sometimes feels as though some cultural and social historians are not very open to the subject, at least not in the case of contemporary history. Questions put forward by the history of knowledge are seen as sidetracking research from “real” work or “important” questions. Although I sympathize with this reaction, I cannot see any way around the history of knowledge. Without renewing the discussion on replacing the “society” in Gesellschafts­geschichte with “knowledge,”1 I agree with Simone Lässig’s inclusive position that the history of knowledge is “a form of social and cultural history that takes ‘knowledge’ as a phenomenon that touches on almost every sphere of human life, and … uses knowledge as a lens to take a new look at familiar historical developments and sources.”2 In some cases, such as when examining the history of the revolutions of 1989–91 from a longer-term perspective, studying knowledge can also offer historians the opportunity to analyze material never before subjected to historical analysis.

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Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts

Attractive classroom scene

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.

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Placing Indigenous and European Knowledge on Equal Footing in the Delgamuukw Land Claim

The s that is now often added to turn the history of knowledge into the history of knowledges marks a huge challenge. While scholars working within European academic traditions increasingly recognize in principle that there are many kinds of knowledges and endeavor to respect them, any attempt to bring fundamentally different kinds of knowledge into sustained contact is extremely difficult.

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