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Journal Article

Bureaucracy as Knowledge


Felten,  Sebastian
Department Ideals and Practices of Rationality, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Society;


Oertzen,  Christine von
Department Ideals and Practices of Rationality, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Society;

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Felten, S., & Oertzen, C. v. (2020). Bureaucracy as Knowledge. Journal for the History of Knowledge, 1(1): 8, pp. 1-16. doi:10.5334/jhk.18.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-9C95-1
In this introduction we explain the overall approach taken in this special issue. It is the collective result of a working group of historians who focus on very different periods and regions, such as the medieval Latin West, Spanish America, Qing China, and the Ottoman Empire. We show, firstly, how bureaucracy has worked as a term of critique and how, in fin-de-siècle Europe, it became an analytical concept used for world-historical comparison with a strong Western bias. Against this background, we then develop our group’s new approach to analyzing bureaucratic procedures as knowledge processes, a method we term “bureaucracy as knowledge.” This approach builds on the history of science and technology and aims to recover actors’ ways of organizing social and material worlds rather than judge them by modernist, Western standards. Third, we discuss if there is such a thing as “bureaucratic knowledge” sui generis and, based on the experience of our authors, suggest ways of studying plural knowledges that cut across different domains. Finally, we argue that historical bureaucracies merit close investigation because they have demonstrated the power to both make and break social and material worlds. The approach proposed in this issue can therefore help make better sense of the dynamics by which bureaucracies exert such power in situations otherwise studied by political, cultural, and social historians. This introduction is part of a special issue entitled “Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge,” edited by Sebastian Felten and Christine von Oertzen.