Empires - Topical Survey

Course Description: 

Empires have been a prominent feature of world history: from the Assyrians to the Persians (Achaemenid), Athenians, Romans, Sasanians, and Chinese via the Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids and Mongols (not to mention the as yet ‘undiscovered’ empires of the Americas) to the Ottoman, Mughal, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British; to the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires. The current situation of the United States, the Russian Federation, China, or, indeed, the European Union serves as ample reminder that the age of nation-states is in question in our twenty first-century phase of globalism. Empires have: played a dominant role in what is today commonly labeled the international community; interacted with and influenced each other in profound ways; had a deep impact on the fates and fortunes of the overwhelming majority of the world’s populations; and have left deep marks on culture and civilization worldwide. Studying empires, therefore, is studying a core, shared dimension and tradition of world history.

Following a survey that compares the workings of empires in world history and introduces current theories of the study of empire after the “imperial turn,” this course seeks to study comparatively the workings of empires in history based on the following lines of inquiry: why is there now so much anxiety in the social sciences and humanities regarding empire, and what is the utility of studying them; what went into building and maintaining empires; what were the ideological underpinnings and legitimization strategies of empires; what kind of social networks did empires rely upon to govern and police their society, and what were the criteria (i.e., religion/sect, language, education, ethnicity) they used to include/exclude networks; what role did the gendering of imperial subjects play in creating polities according the patriarchal understanding of order; what was the role and who were the agents of coercive force necessary for maintaining vast territories and implementing monarchical prerogatives; what were the different kinds of legal regimes that mediated and legitimated different nodes of power in imperial settings; how did autocratic power structures and ideologies adapt to the reality of social and cultural developments “on the ground”, and finally, what kind of imperial legacies can we find today and what political uses does the study of empire play in different parts of the contemporary world?

Learning Outcomes: 

This course is designed so as to develop students’ knowledge and critical interrogation of the following large themes in empire studies:

  • The role of empires in world history;
  • key debates (past and present) in the study of the history of empires;
  • constitution and functioning of empires in different epochs and world-regions and the difference between empire and other types of socio-political organization;
  • the complex and highly variegated dynamics of (intra-empire) imperial difference, including but not limited to: mutual constitution of dominant and dominated; core and periphery; intersections between race, social and political status, and gender;
  • empires and post-empire as constitutive parts of border-crossing interaction and international relations.

 The exam questions will closely build on the themes and questions discussed in class and in the required reading but will also test the extent to which these learning goals have been achieved.




Discussion Leading Activity and Class Participation (40%):

Every student will be in charge of leading the discussions at least two or three times during the semester depending on class size.  This does not mean that the student simply gives a summary of the article or book chapter that everyone has already read. Rather, it means that the student should ask 5 questions about the article that will stimulate conversation in the classroom.  It is in this discussion of the questions that the presenter can offer her own opinion and answer to her questions, only after other students have attempted to answer them.  In this sense, the students will be evaluated on their ability to stimulate and sustain an intellectual conversation with her peers and professor.

Every student will be expected to come to every class and actively participate in the class discussions. Up to two excused absences are allowed, if professor is notified before the class. Any further absences will result in an automatic decrease of the final grade by half a letter grade.   Students should come to class on time and are not allowed to surf the internet during class.

Response Papers (60%—20% each):

Every student is required to submit three response papers (c. 1250-1500 words maximum); double spaced, 12 point font, 1 inch margins) based on weekly sets of readings of her choice. The first response paper has to be submitted by (including) Week 3, the second by Week 6, Week 9, and Week 12.  In the response paper, the student should not provide a mere summary of the readings’ contents  but is expected to write an analytical paper that has a thesis and a point, compares and contrasts different approaches in an intelligible manner, and offers the student’s personal opinion regarding the works compared.  The most successful papers will also make use of readings from previous weeks to further develop the student’s analysis of her chosen week.