This graduate workshop seeks to explore how empires understand their territories. Specifically, we want to examine how empires (I) respond to changes in the physical extent of their territories, (II) conceptually organize (or even mythologize) their territories, and (III) modify their institutions and practices of governance to meet new challenges within their territories, or fail to do so.
We are particularly interested in the last of these questions, as it stresses the potential importance of atrophy in explaining empires’ decline. It is often difficult to satisfyingly identify the overarching causes of imperial decline; pinpointing the institutions or practices whose inflexibility might have exacerbated a new challenge may be even more elusive. Conversely, it might be quite difficult to trace the evolution of effective imperial mechanisms or to schematize them. However, where we are able to see such rigidity or adaptation, we have a window onto an empire's self-awareness and self-criticism, and perhaps also onto the cultural and political considerations for or against adaptation.
True to its Greek roots, “atrophy” is defined by Stedman’s Medical Dictionary as “a wasting of tissues, organs, or the entire body as from [inter alia] malnutrition [or] lessened function.” By employing this idea as a heuristic in our questioning of imperial territoriality, we seek to study exactly what methods became ineffectual, and whether empires responded either by correcting these now obsolete methods, or by intentionally or inadvertently continuing to operate as before. Are there similarities across time and space as to the types of institutions that prove suboptimal, and are these related to the characteristics of particular empires? How do such characteristics inform our appreciation of its response? Are there some challenges that overcome all empires? Finally, why and how are some institutions and practices, which in retrospect are so obviously flawed, perpetuated?
This workshop is operating in collaboration with the 15th Annual Graduate Conference on International History (ConIH), organized by the Department of History, Harvard University, and to be held on 12-13 March 2015. This year's topic, “Transitions: States & Empires in the Longue Durée," complements our approach to studying empires operating with apparent stability.