University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Historical time, primitive peoples and the abyss of race: conceptions of temporality in German anthropology and folklore studies (1850s–1930s)

Historical time, primitive peoples and the abyss of race: conceptions of temporality in German anthropology and folklore studies (1850s–1930s)

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The first society for folklore studies in Germany was established in 1890. The aim of the scholars who founded this society was to study the traditions and material culture of Germany’s domestic rural populations. It is less well known that the study of German folklore also had colonial roots. After the mid-19th century German anthropologists examined both domestic and colonial societies within one field of analysis. They were both deemed superstitious, unindustrialised and hence, in scholars’ eyes, living in a ‘primitive’ stage of civilisation. How did scholars and scientific bodies justify devoting themselves to the study of civilisations as far apart as the agrarian German hinterland and colonial possessions? Why did the two research trajectories separate after the turn of the century with the establishment of folklore studies as a scientific discipline? What was the impact of evolutionist theories and racial ideas? And why did domestic traditions become the foundation of national history, while overseas civilisations remained in the position of ‘peoples without history’? This paper will shed new light on such key topics as the role of temporality and progress in claims to territorial rule, the significance of scientific knowledge for the self-conception of modern societies, the establishment of middle class identity in relation to primitive cultures, home and abroad, and the rise of nationalism in the age of empire. It will also discuss the extent to which these notions shape our understanding of global societies today.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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