Understanding Power Relations in a Colonial Context: Top-Down, Bottom-Up, In-Between – LECTURE

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Date / time: 23 October, 5:00 pm

German Historical Institute, London

Understanding Power Relations in a Colonial Context: Top-Down, Bottom-Up, In-Between - LECTURE


Join us on 23 October 2023 for the third lecture of our series on ‘Science, Knowledge, and the Legacy of Empire’ in cooperation with the Fritz Thyssen Foundation given by Frederick Cooper, Professor Emeritus of History at New York University, at the German Historical Institute London. He will talk about ‘Understanding Power Relations in a Colonial Context: Top-Down, Bottom-Up, In-Between’.

Please sign up via our website: https://www.ghil.ac.uk/events/lectures/thyssen-lectures.

Some years ago, historians reacted to the elite bias of much historical writing by advocating a ‘bottom-up’ approach focusing on peasants, workers, the urban and rural poor, racial minorities, women, and others of subordinate status in their social contexts. To do so is not only to bring out the violence, exploitation, and suffering to which people at the bottom of a social order were subjected, but to look beyond the categories of knowledge through which dominant elements in society operate and to explore alternative conceptual schemes. The resulting scholarship has enriched different fields of history, not least my own field of African history and colonial and postcolonial studies more generally. Of course, some people are on the bottom because others are at the top, so bottom-up and top-down histories need each other. In this talk I will approach the study of power from a different angle, inspired by categories developed by the Senegalese politician, poet, and political thinker Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Starting in 1948, Senghor began in his writing and speeches to distinguish two forms of political solidarity: horizontal solidarity, defined by people sharing a common culture or position in the social order; and vertical solidarity, the relationship between top and bottom. As an African political leader challenging French colonial rule, Senghor used the concept of horizontal solidarity to call on Africans across the continent to act in unison to turn Africa’s vertical relationship with France into claims for resources. Horizontal solidarity by itself meant unity in poverty, vertical solidarity by itself the continuation of colonialism, but the two together could transform an exploitative but intimate relationship into a dynamic one. The vertical relationship would offer postcolonial France a continued existence as a great world power and postcolonial Africans the resources for social and economic development. One can contrast Senghor’s conjugation of vertical and horizontal solidarities with Frantz Fanon’s evocation of the biblical phrase, ‘the last shall be first’, an insistence that the only alternative to colonial domination was its complete reversal.

My talk uses the concepts of vertical and horizontal solidarities to explore ways in which one can conceptualize power relations in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Since decolonization, vertical solidarity has manifested itself on a global scale in the concept of ‘development’. States at the bottom of the global hierarchy have tried to develop solidarity among themselves to demand changes in the world order, as in the Afro-Asian movement of the 1950s or proposals for a New International Economic Order in the 1970s. A coalition of poorer states at the 2022 Climate Change Conference (COP 27) called for reparations from rich states for damage to their environment caused in part by imperial dominance and the exploitative extraction of resources. The talk will ask how we can think about power relations that are unequal, but still relations, pulled and pushed in different directions. It will thus challenge some of the most common frameworks used by historians and social scientists to understand colonial power relations and their postcolonial afterlives.

Frederick Cooper is Professor Emeritus of History at New York University. His research has focused on twentieth-century Africa, empires, colonization and decolonization, and citizenship. Among his books are Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (2005); Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (with Jane Burbank, 2010); Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (2014); Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State (2014); Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives (2018); and Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (2nd edn., 2019).