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Commonplace relativities of geography, anthropology and physics in the fin de siècle 
Emily Hayes (Oxford Brookes University)
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John Tresch (University of London)
History of Anthropology and Geography
Tuesday 15 September, 15:00-16:30

Short Abstract:

This session explores the history, distribution, and significance of multi-scalar relativising practices of perception, interpretation and valuation around 1900. Our guiding assumption is that anthropological and physical concepts of relativity have strong links to wider understandings of geography.

Long Abstract

Relativity was hotly discussed around 1900, particularly in relation to developments in anthropology and physics. But it was neither new nor limited to those fields and figures to whom the term has been attached. Being able to recognize that one’s spatial perceptions, linguistic expressions, affective understandings and sense of place are relative to one’s location, history, body, and group is part of being human. The session asks the following questions: How widely distributed were relativistic conceptions before the celebrated arrival of Franz Boas in anthropology and Albert Einstein in physics? How might we identify and define a “commonplace” language or toolkit of relativism? How did popular, institutional and increasingly academic historical geographical practices perform and practice relativity before the better-known relativist approaches of Boas and Einstein? How was a “commonplace relativism” instrumental in bringing Boas and Einstein to, and authorizing, their conclusions about relations between human beings, and time and space? How did strongly relativist geographical understandings shape peoples apprehension of special relativity’s philosophical consequences?


The session will explore the common and diverging concerns and relations between discourses in anthropology, geography and physics, in associated institutions and emergent academic disciplines in Britain, Germany, France, and beyond. Papers will trace the performance and reception of historical relativist knowledges and practices through publications, exhibitions, performances, and images mobilized in diverse knowledge-making spaces with international audiences. We will consider fin de siècle practitioners from geography, anthropology, physics, and related disciplines, including Ernst Mach, Halford Mackinder, Ellen Churchill Semple and Richard Andree.

Accepted papers: