PIIRS research community aims to deepen the study of empires

Oct. 1, 2012, 1:21 p.m.

An interdisciplinary group of Princeton University scholars working to enrich the study of empires has been selected by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) as its 2012-15 research community. The community, “Empires: Domination, Collaboration and Resistance,” is composed of nine core faculty members from six disciplines and is eligible for up to $750,000 in support from PIIRS over the three-year period.

The group’s founding members work in history, politics, French and Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and Near Eastern Studies. They intend to enhance the longstanding and vibrant study of empires by focusing, though multiple lenses, on less-examined aspects of domination, collaboration and resistance. Funding from PIIRS will support research, conferences and course development.

Jeremy Adelman, the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, professor of history, director of the Council for International Teaching and Research, and chair of the Fund for Canadian Studies; G. John Ikenberry, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs and co-director of both the Center for International Security and the Princeton Project on National Security; and Atul Kohli, the David K. E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs, professor of politics and international affairs, and co-director of the Project on Democracy and Development, are the group’s coordinators. Kohli will lead it in 2012-13, Adelman in 2013-14 and Ikenberry in 2014-15.

When announcing the selection, PIIRS Director Mark Beissinger said, “Princeton has a large group of outstanding scholars working on roughly analogous issues of empire across multiple disciplines.  The goal of PIIRS in sponsoring this research community is to bring these scholars into a common dialogue in order to push the study of empires forward in new and exciting ways."

The idea of engaging with colleagues in a variety of disciplines who are working on critical issues related to empires is central to the core group, which includes Molly Greene, professor of history and Hellenic studies and associate chair of the Department of History; Amaney Jamal, associate professor of politics and director of both the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the Workshop on Arab Political Development; Nick Nesbitt, professor and chair of the Department of French and Italian; Rachel Price, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures; Michael Reynolds, associate professor of Near Eastern studies; and Bradley Simpson, assistant professor of history and international affairs.

“We are convinced,” their proposal states, that the focus on empires “holds out a promise for building a vibrant scholarly community that will engage scholars across disciplines and geographic interests” and can “buoy sustained discussion and stimulate collaborative research and writing about this basic subject in global affairs.”

They point to the history department’s world history core group; the cluster in history that published "Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of Humankind from Its Beginning to the Present" (2011); a graduate seminar on empires taught by Ikenberry and Kohli; the Project on Democracy and Development’s workshop series; and the recently established Center for International Security Studies and the security studies cluster at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as examples of the ways in which faculty are already seeking interdisciplinary perspectives on issues of power, order, hierarchy and development.

“One of the challenges of ‘empire’ as a theme is that it can cover so much ground; the challenge for us was how to keep ourselves broad, as the title would suggest, and yet focus on some critical issues,” explained Adelman, a global historian who teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. “The concept and history of empires is really important. I need to be talking and learning from colleagues about this to improve my teaching.”

Focusing on how to think about empires in a larger context is also important, he said, for his current book project, a general history of Latin America, whose societies were colonies of Spain and Portugal — the largest European empires before 19th-century Britain.

“So when a community is really clicking,” he said, “it will help us as teachers and as researchers.”

Kohli’s interest is in the informal empires — situations short of colonialism but in which major powers have decisive influence over some key policy areas of weaker political economies — of Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries and of the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century through the present.

“I am hoping that, at minimum,” he said, “the research community will help the quality of research of each of the members as they interact regularly with a set of interdisciplinary colleagues and, at maximum, build a sense of community beyond the core members and also attract doctoral students to a vibrant area of research.”

Ikenberry’s interests focus on how empire has evolved into the contemporary era. The questions that concern him include how imperial structures of hierarchy have evolved in the face of the rise of liberalism and democracy and whether the spread of democracy and the liberal ascendency killed empire, or simply made it more informal and hidden.   

In 2012-13, the community will sponsor a public lecture series. Other events include one-day workshops: “Empires and Ideology” will be held on Oct. 5, 2012; “Empires and Violence” will be held on March 8, 2013; and “Informal Empires,” will be held on April 19, 2013. A schedule of events can be found on the group’s web page at www.princeton.edu/piirs/research-communities/piirs-empires-research-co.

In 2013-14 the community will support up to four visiting fellowships and postdoctoral associate positions. Activities planned for that year and for 2014-15 include a graduate student forum for doctoral candidates; a research symposium where colleagues present ongoing research findings and where group members undertake joint writing projects; a summer institute for advanced graduate students and assistant professors; and exploring the creation of a credit-bearing core course.

About PIIRS research communities

The PIIRS research community initiative was established in spring 2011. It provides funding over three years to groups of Princeton faculty in support of research, teaching, and scholarly dialogue on a common theme of broad interest within international studies that cuts across disciplines and world regions.

The annual deadline for Princeton faculty to submit research community preproposals is Feb. 15. Information is available at www.princeton.edu/piirs/funding/faculty/research-communities.

Visit the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies on the Web at www.pricneton.edu/piirs.