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Empire Without a Centre?

Denys P. Leighton

Edited by Durba Ghosh and Dane Kennedy
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xi 406, Rs. 845.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 2 February 2007

2005 saw the publication of Forging the Raj, a collection of more than a dozen essays by Thomas R. Metcalf, now Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. That collection clearly indicated Metcalf’s participation during the later part of his career in a scholarly movement that has sought to reframe the object ‘British Empire’ first, by writing away—rather than merely outward—from the London-based colonial archive, and second, by directing attention to the epistemological frameworks within which texts, artifacts and social practices are created or enacted and interpreted. Some fruits of an attempt to de-centre the British Empire are evident in the collection of fourteen essays here under review, which resulted from a conference titled ‘How Empire Mattered: Imperial Structures and Globalization in the Era of British Imperialism’, held at Berkeley in 2003 to honour Metcalf’s career.   When Metcalf embarked upon his career in the late 1950s, comparativism and globalism in the study of British imperial history entailed mainly identifying ideas, attitudes and ruling strategies of colonial officials and their allies. Lived experience received rather less attention than ideas, policies and laws, and channels of communication linking London with the colonies were assumed to be more important than linkages between colonies. Focus on abstractions like the Imperial Idea and the Imperial Mind was only part of the compara-tive approach and did not preclude examina-tion of ways in which British colonialism manifested itself differently in different colonies. Still, the very conceptualization of metropole and periphery tended to create barriers between the scholars of imperial policies and those attuned to social experiences and the lives of colonial subjects. Members of the ‘Cambridge School’ of South Asian history also tacitly endorsed the metropole-periphery conceptualization by representing the modern history of the region in terms of actions of the colonizers and reactions of the colonized, of imposition and adaptation. To some practi-tioners in India since the 1970s of History from Below, the metropole-periphery relation-ship was of less significance than the relations between indigenous elites and subordinate social groups (or categories); the picture of imperialism as a dichotomous experience of colonizers and colonized turned into one of varied experiences. Many of these historians were alert to ‘The Linguistic Turn’, with its focus on discourse and representations, and this sensitivity, combined with historians’ wider adoption of anthropological methods or models, has served to define new agendas in imperial-colonial studies. The present genera-tion ...

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