Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Conference: The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, 17-18 May 2002.


The topic of the conference is important to readers of Imperium in two ways: firstly it deals with an important period in the history of the British Empire, and secondly, it covers a period in intellectual history in which the disciplinary pursuit of knowledge became a prominent feature in Europe and, through imperial influences, in other parts of the world.

The conference is a timely enquiry into the British experience of evolving disciplines in the Victorian period in academic and official discourses. Through an examination of the processes involved in the making of the disciplines one can relate in a more informed way to contemporary emphases on interdisciplinary pursuit of knowledge and institutional (re)organisation of the academy in different countries.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in mapping the historical and intellectual roots of the tension between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, as seen, for example, in the establishment of Centres of Intedisciplinary Studies in some North American universities – Duke, California and others – and (proposed) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. In Britain, the The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh (http://www.ed.ac.uk/iash/index.html) and the newly established (2001) Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge (http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk) which organised this conference, is currently concentrating on the theme The Organisation of Knowledge.

Professor Martin Daunton of the History Faculty of Cambridge University, the conference organiser, deserves credit for selecting panels to address the complexities of knowledge production, dissemination and consumption in one of the epochal periods of the most powerful imperia of the 19th century. Specifically: ‘Origins of the British Academy’, ‘Publishing and disseminating knowledge’, ‘Classifications’, ‘Institutions’, ‘Creating disciplines: the social sciences and mathematics’, ‘Creating disciplines: the humanities’, and ‘Metropole and Empire’.

About seventy participants attended the Conference from Cambridge and beyond. The international nature of the conference was evident not only by the institutional affiliation of participants but also by the discussion of international (especially of Europe, USA and the ‘old’ Commonwealth) dimensions of the topic. Papers were pre-circulated and this enhanced the depth and quality of discussion.

While discussing a chronologically demarcated period in history it is inevitable that some attention would be paid to continuities, discontinuities and changes in ideas and institutions that contextualise the period in focus. Thus, at the conference, the organisation of knowledge in the Victorian period was contexualised within pre-and post-Victorian developments. The papers largely concentrated on the birth and development of disciplinarity and a rather rigid taxonomical approach to knowledge in officially recognised and institutionally validated forms.

Although no particular paper at the conference focussed exclusively on alternative forms of knowledge, instances of exclusions, silences, un/under-recognised contributions located in regions such as Scotland, or the Empire, and social categories of class and gender were mentioned especially during panel discussions. Perhaps CRASSH could organise a follow-up conference focussed on the non-official /un-organised knowledge of the Victorian period.

The proceedings of the conference are to be published in a book form. The publication is likely to reflect the views of not only the paper presenters but also of the general participants, as Professor Daunton used the concluding discussion session explicitly to ascertain the views/comments of all the participants for incorporation into the book.

Finally, in the age of online journals and electronic communication one would hope that the organizers/publishers would make the contents available in a ‘post-Caxton’ format.

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan,
University of Luton

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