Lichtenberg-Kolleg - The Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study

Empires on the verge of a nervous breakdown (9th and 10th July 2012)

Belying the traditional image of an orderly and rational system, efficiently using limited resources to maximise control, recent histories of empires have highlighted the disjointed, non-hegemonic, arbitrary, contingent nature of colonial power and knowledge of the colonial subject. Historians have emphasised that the colonial states were unaware of how they lacked vital knowledge of the colonised, leading to irrational policy-making, prejudices and panic, resulting in unintended consequences for the colonial state. At other times, the colonial state was somewhat aware of its own ignorance (much like Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns”) and manipulated public or media ignorance in order to attempt to consolidate power. On the other side, the state of stress, anxiety or panic of the colonial subject in dealing with new regimes or attempting to negotiate new technologies of oppression or punishment are also of interest.
These instances of sweeping legal and social changes are often preceded by a period of unprecedented levels of concern and consensus on the dangers of not taking action. “Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic.”(Cohen, 1972) In 1972, sociologist Stanley Cohen formulated a framework for analysis of the stages of what he had identified as a ‘moral panic’ over competing youth subcultures in the UK. Cohen’s original definition of ‘moral panic’ was when a “condition, episode, person or groups emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests” (Cohen, 1972). The term’s original focus has since been expanded to encompass reactions to a variety of deviant and criminal behaviours, not just youth subcultures. In the 21st century, the apparent threat to world order presented by terrorist networks, ongoing civil wars and revolutionary movements, has provoked new debates on the issue of moral panic.
This workshop will use Cohen’s conception of ‘moral panic’ to analyse a variety of episodes in colonial history. Moral panics are not a new phenomenon, and this workshop will bring together a wide range of case studies from across the world which can be analysed as moral panics. Examples are sought which go beyond the idea of ‘information panic’ on the frontiers of an empire and instead look to the heart of the imperial project, in the metropolis or in strategic areas where a complex of local and international factors came together to precipitate panic. A variety of imperial contexts are sought, to allow for comparative discussion. Topics precipitating panic include (but are not restricted to):


  • Terrorism, counter-insurgency, anti-colonial movements

  • Medicine, disease, epidemics

  • Religion, spirituality, alternative ways of living

  • Reproduction, fertility and genetics



The workshop was initiated by Prof. Dr. Harald Fischer-Tiné (Fellow 2011/12) and Prof. Dr. Ravi Ahuja (Associate 2011/12).