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Locality and the Production of Knowledge in the Long Nineteenth Century: Extending Connections Across Middle East Studies and History of Science

RoundTable I-1, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
This Roundtable introduces a variety of projects spanning a long nineteenth century in the Middle East and North Africa. Drawing particularly on work in the history of science, medicine, and science and technology studies (STS), the projects offer different ways to study the co-production of knowledge, politics, and social norms in the MENA. Bringing these case studies together, we invite discussion of what Middle East history, as a broad discipline, might take from disciplines such as the history of science and what our field has to contribute. For several decades, historians in many regions have highlighted connections between science and empire, the interdependence of imperial networks and certain forms of collecting and knowledge production, almost exclusively with European imperial models and centering European knowledge and knowledge systems. Although the global COVID pandemic underscores that scientific knowledge is neither produced nor received outside of politics and social norms, this is not a new challenge. The MENA region offers case studies that deepen the study of empire and knowledge production over the nineteenth century, with both Ottoman and European imperial powers figuring in this Roundtable. These complexities contribute to efforts to decenter and de-naturalize European experiences and chronologies. Individual contributions address medical education in the Middle East, natural history expeditions and Ottoman knowledge of the natural world, and re-examining questions of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth intellectual history and methodology. We are interested in these specific instances themselves, and also in how we might think together about the role of locality and mobility in shaping the bodies of knowledge that were produced in these cases—and shaping the narratives that we have received about these cases.
  • Despite notable elements connecting European and Ottoman projects to 'know nature' in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including ongoing intellectual exchange, examples of shared practices and textual patrimony, and, crucially, the role of exploration, trade, and imperial aspirations in both, these historiographies only recently and occasionally engage one another in meaningful ways. In this roundtable discussion, in dialogue with the other presentations, I reflect on some of the reasons for those separations, including the different place and scale of the history of science in European and Middle Eastern Studies, respectively, and challenges of accounting for unequal power relations both in the past and in scholarship today. Additionally, I suggest that given past power relations, both Ottoman and European primary sources had reasons to obscure some of these interconnections and these obscurations continue to be reflected in the secondary literature. Finally, I offer what I think might be gained in our understanding knowledge of the natural world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and implications for broader historical questions, by reexamining such moments of knowledge production comparatively. I will share my attempts to bring pieces of these histories together in the case of Egypt, including a small database of intellectual and social networks that I have created, and digitally mapping historical figures, texts, and expeditions to show shared spaces and concerns.
  • Historians have highlighted the intimate relationship between the field of natural history and associated methodologies (taxonomy), on one hand, and imperial conquest, global trade-networks, and inter-imperial rivalries, on another. The major focus of this work has been 16 th -18 th century European botanical collecting and natural history in the Atlantic World, which was largely driven by the desire to circumvent the Ottoman domains (the lands of the Middle East) in the search for herbal and medicinal plants by substituting them with a new pharmacopeia drawn from the New World. Despite the fact that several prominent figures in the history of natural history collecting—from Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) to Linnaeus’s students Fredrik Hasselquist (1722–52) and Peter Forskål (1732–63) to the comparative zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844)—all established their credentials as naturalists in the Ottoman lands of the eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea regions, only a handful of scholars have studied European scientific expeditions in these areas. Using my current research on PE Botta—a 19 th century French naturalist who conducted natural history expeditions in Ottoman lands—my presentation considers why this has been the case, how the source base and reliance on natural history archives (such as herbaria, etc.) have centered European knowledge-making practices in the history of natural history, and how we can approach writing the history of natural history in Ottoman lands in ways that de-center European naturalists and the institutions they represented and collected for as well as the state-building projects of rulers such as Mehmet Ali of Egypt.
  • "Positivism and its perceived limits in 18th century thought-an old problem, a contemporary problem." In the world at large outside of Anglo-America, positivism has long been greeted with muted enthusiasm. There has been for many a sense that man in controlling the machine is controlled by the machine and loses his spiritual philosophical quality, the attributes which distinguish him from the beast. The technology of the colonial period and how it was used is well discussed in Headrick's Tools of Empire. The bombing of Hiroshima is the theme of a famous book by the writer John Hersey. Rachel Carson, wrote Silent Spring on our environment is another, and now with computers getting out of control, finally some in the Anglo-American world are beginning to change their views on science and progress. With this as an assumption, I will argue in my presentation that there is some relevance for us today in studying the views of several figures of 18th century Egypt (Zabidi, Jabarti and `Attar) who had nuanced views on scientific and methodological issues although not directly involved in the workshops of that period. Muhammad Murtada Al-Zabidi’s approach to clarifying word meanings for his dictionary involved a certain kind of radical empiricism and a rejection of tradition, even tradition rooted in logic. His work although uniquely important was highly controversial as one can see from the attack on it made by Faris Shidyak. Al-Jabarti approached methodology in his history-writing in terms of coherence and consistency with less emphasis on the provenance of the source. Later writers could not ignore him but were obviously uncomfortable with the direction he went, e.g., his skepticism about the progress brought by Muhammad `Ali. Al-`Attar came close through life experience to the study of empirical anatomy. Initially the implication of dissecting bodies gave him problems, but these he gradually overcame. His relation to Avicenna however was not entirely severed as we find in a more recently discovered ms. Located in KSA. What the figures chosen here shared in common was a scholastic education of the sort found in Al-Azhar and elsewhere which made inquiry and truth-seeking a fairly complicated matter.
  • Histories of the modern medical profession in the Middle East have so far been mostly institutional. They concentrated on the establishment of medical schools in the region, and paid little attention to the history of medical students and professionals. Similarly, most of these histories concentrated on the nation-state as a unit of analysis, examining, for example, the Egyptian or Iraqi medical fields. My research examines the formation of the medical profession in the region by zooming out to region-wide processes and by looking at the community of students and medical professionals, rather than at the institutions in which they studied or worked. The presentation will concentrate on the methodology and conceptualization of such research. First, it will look at medium-size datasets as means for writing a long-term social history and historical sociology of the profession. Second, it will examine the region as a unit of analysis for examining the history of the profession. Finally, it will examine how sociological conceptualization of the professions adds an important layer to our understanding of the formation of the modern middle class in the Middle East.
  • In the past 20 years, historians of science have thoroughly deconstructed the Eurocentric historiography that originally defined the field; however, they remain divided over what kind of unifying narratives can, or should, form the core of a new historiography. So far, efforts to write “global” histories of science are often best characterized as imperial histories rooted in the archival holdings and languages of European metropoles. Yet in the process, the history of science field has created important models for questions of increasing interest to Middle East studies, such as processes of racialization and “South-South” networks of intellectual and technological exchange. Meanwhile, historians of the Middle East and other regions who trained in the area studies paradigm have been contributing important new critical perspectives for the history of science by drawing on a broader range of source material in diverse vernaculars. However, in my anecdotal experience, scholars of the modern Middle East (more than those of other regions) are often reluctant to identify themselves as historians of science, medicine, or technology even when these are central topics of their research. In the roundtable discussion, I will explore the possible reasons for the relatively limited engagement between historians of the modern Middle East and of science, and propose how these two fields can solve some of each other’s pressing questions. Reflecting on my own experience crossing the professional boundaries of one field to another, I will discuss how the historiographical challenges of both fields shape my teaching and research in the history of science.