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Stefan Poland joins the Vossius Center for three months in February 2021 as a Research Fellow with the project 'The ambiguity of race: The making of racial knowledge between cultural scholarship and natural science, 1770-1900'.

About the project

In contemporary debates the issue of race seems to be ubiquitous but also increasingly elusive. After a century of genocide and decolonization biological racism may have lost all credence, but conversely the emergence of new form of ethnic essentialism has been signalled, paradoxically marked by its reluctance to use explicit racial terminology.1 This so-called ‘new racism’ or ‘cultural racism’, would mostly insist on the essential and insurmountable nature of cultural, rather than biological, differences between civilizations or cultural traditions.2 This might at first sight seem a mere ‘dog-whistle’ strategy; but on closer scrutiny, it appears that this slippage between biological heredity and cultural tradition is characteristic of all discourse on ethnic identity. Both in the public and in the academic domain, the term ‘racism’ is generally used on the assumption that it is derived from a straightforward, strictly biological conception of race, and its historical lineage is therefore still mainly associated with evolutionary theories and the rise of so-called ‘race science’.3 This project takes a different view.

Recent discourse-historical research indicates that even in its nineteenth-century incipience, ‘race’ was never exclusively about physical, biological classifications (which, after all, could not but be taxonomically slipshod), and took its ‘scientific’ meaning in a formative interplay with notions of linguistic and sociocultural lineage.4 This project takes this insight towards a reassessment of the historical record of racial knowledge production as an interface between the ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ academic disciplines. By approaching race as an inherently ambiguous concept which continuously shifted its semantics between the fields of biological science and cultural reflection, this project throws fresh light, not only on the concept itself (as being inherently ambivalent and in fact rhetorically reliant on its ambiguity) but also on the conditions of nineteenth-century knowledge production and its political entanglements.

1 Bonilla-Silva (2003); Taguieff (1988).
2 On ‘cultural racism’, see: Blaut (1992); Alikhani & Rommel (2018).
3 See Gould (1981); Stepan (1982); Barkan (1993).
4 E.g. Stoler (2016); Morris-Reich & Rupnow (2017).

About the researcher

Stefan Poland completed a Research Master in History at the University of Amsterdam in 2018 with the MA thesis 'Mythology without myths. The construction of German mythology between nationalism and scholarship'. Before obaining his Vossius Research Fellowship he was a Junior Fellow at the Amsterdam School for Regional, Transnational and European Studies (ARTES). He is currently also Research Assistant for the Study Platform for Interlocking Nationalisms (SPIN) project led by Joep Leerssen.