Kernfach: Wirtschafts- und Sozial­geschichte

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(Post)Colonialism, Infrastructures and the Environment


This Special Issue of the journal “NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin“ (issue 4/2016) explores the interrelation of (post)colonialism, infrastructures and the environment in variety of spatial and temporal settings. Case studies from leading authors in the field discuss topics as diverse as cremation and incineration in Modern India (David Arnold), German Water Infrastructures in Colonial Qingdao, China (Agnes Kneitz), Electricity and Empire in 1920s Palestine under British Rule (Ronen Shamir) as well as the question of how ideals of modernity might have undermined innovation in Africa’s urban water systems (David Nilsson). In addition, a comprehensive review essay from guest editors Ute Hasenöhrl and Jonas van der Straeten summarizes the current debate on infrastructures in the (post)colonial context.



In the academic debate on infrastructures in the Global South, there is broad consensus that (post)colonial legacies present a major challenge for a transition towards more inclusive, sustainable and adapted modes of providing services. Yet, relatively little is known about the emergence and evolution of infrastructures in former colonies. Until a decade ago, most historical studies followed Daniel Headrick’s “tools of empire” thesis (1981), painting—with broad brush strokes—a picture of infrastructures as instruments for advancing the colonial project of exploitation and subordination of non-European peoples and environments. This special issue explores new research perspectives beyond this straightforward, “diffusionist” perspective on technology transfer, focusing on interactive transfer processes as well as mechanisms of appropriation, and combining approaches from imperial history, environmental history, and history of technology. 

There is much to gain from unpacking the changing motives and ideologies behind technology transfer; tracing the often contested and negotiated flows of ideas, technologies and knowledge within multilayered global networks; investigating the manifold ways in which infrastructures reflected and (re)produced colonial spaces and identities; critically reflecting on the utility of large (socio)technical systems (LTS) for the Global South; and approaching infrastructures in the (post)colonial world through entangled histories of technology and the environment. Following David Arnold’s (2005) plea for a “more interactive, culturally-nuanced, multi-sited debate” on technology in the non-Western world, the special issue offers fresh insights for a broader debate about how infrastructures worked within specific parameters of time, place and culture.