Racial science, geopolitics, and empires: Paradoxes of power

Helen Tilley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Scholars interested in the history of racial science continue to puzzle over the ways in which such ideas endure. This essay takes up a variant on this theme by considering how critiques of ideas about racial purity and hierarchies, expressed at the Universal Races Congress of 1911, were part of a larger intellectual project that simultaneously under- mined ideas of fixed racial types and bolstered identity categories defined in racial terms. Efforts to destabilize racial science in the early decades of the twentieth century often went hand in glove with burgeoning critiques of “white” and European domination in different parts of the world. This essay shines the spotlight on the paradoxical nature of these processes. While anthropologists helped to spearhead attempts to deconstruct mainstream pillars of racial science, they also left the door open for its reconstitution by refusing to reject classificatory schemes by group. And though global conversations about race and science tended to generate more cosmopolitan and egalitarian views, the very act of bringing together people from different places had the unintended effect of reinforcing racial identities and idioms, especially in the context of challenges to colonial rule. Finally, even as state building within empires ensured that racial taxonomies proliferated on the ground, imperial bureaucrats often avoided promoting racial science and research because such endeavors were a divisive force in transnational management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)773-781
Number of pages9
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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