Archives for category: empire


I’ve written a chapter (co-authored with Meng-Hsuan Chou) in a new book from Berghahn, edited by L. Tournès and G. Scott-Smith and titled Global Exchanges: Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World.

The book aims to examine the politics and efficacy of international scholarship schemes and our chapter focuses on the long history of the Rhodes scholarships. There’s a lot (a lot!) to say about that history, and our chapter is only the first attempt at a general analysis of the way in which the scheme shaped the lives of those who received it in the twentieth century. Beginning by placing the foundation of the scholarships in their historical context, we go on to examine three basic issues that underpin most international exchange programs: first, the geographic distribution of award; second, gender parity in award; and, third, the long-term geographic mobility of scholars. Working with publicly accessible data on Rhodes scholars as published in the Register of Rhodes Scholars, we bring together historical and quantitative methods to identify patterns of continuity, change, and regional diversity in the management and effect of the scheme.

Here is an excerpt from the section on geographic mobility:

Geographic mobility is at the heart of contemporary debate concerning knowledge exchange and generation. The assumption is that mobility enables scholars to make new contacts and acquire different knowledge that could lead to the acquisition of cultural and social capital, and opportunities for new collaboration and possible innovation. Hence, states encourage the mobility of scientists, scholars and students via funding support and through the reduction of administrative barriers to entry. The Rhodes scheme has traditionally brought selected participants to Oxford, envisioning that they would likely return to their countries of election and take up public positions of leadership.

However, how far this has actually been the pattern for scholars has not been systematically examined. In order to track the geographic mobility of Rhodes scholars across the twentieth century, we therefore developed three indicators: (a) those who made their careers at home; (b) those who made their careers both at home and abroad; and (c) those who principally made their careers outside their country of election.

Geographical Mobility of Rhodes Scholars 1913–1983 (in percentage)

Geographical Mobility of Rhodes Scholars 1913–1983 (in percentage)

As this table shows, the majority of scholars elected in the years analyzed established their careers in their countries of election, with limited mobility to some mobility (more than seventy-five percent of all cohorts for all coded years). Scholars with extensive mobility, who established their careers outside of their countries of election, have generally remained in the minority (around twenty to twenty-five percent of their cohorts). However, since 1913, it is evident that the percentage of scholars in this category has been steadily increasing. We believe that it is likely that more recent cohorts, especially those from the late 1990s onward, may have still greater geographic mobility patterns than earlier cohorts.

One of the difficulties of this data is that it collapses the particular local and cultural contexts that shape patterns of behavior in different countries. To provide more fine-grained differentiation between the election constituencies, we have therefore disaggregated the geographic mobility patterns of Rhodes scholars who have been elected from the United States (a dominant cohort for most years) in comparison to those who were from other election regions.

Geographical Mobility of US vs. non US Rhodes Scholars (in percentage)

Geographical Mobility of US vs. non US Rhodes Scholars (in percentage)

The above table reveals several striking patterns. First, Rhodes scholars from the United States have been more likely (about twice as likely) to spend part of their careers at home than their counterparts from other election regions. Second, while very few US scholars established their professional careers abroad, many more non-US scholars pursued this option (between twenty-two percent in 1913 and sixty-two percent in 1983). Third, the relatively high mobility (compared to other decades) of non-US scholars elected in 1923 points to the danger of telling a linear story of increasing mobility across the century. The opportunities and constraints of the interwar and World War II years, the period in which this cohort developed their careers, meant that more non-US scholars built their lives abroad than did so in later decades. This data clearly shows that awardees from different constituencies have used the Rhodes experience differently in the establishment and consolidation of their professional careers: while US scholars have utilized it as a platform to pursue a variety of careers principally at home, non-US scholars have employed the Rhodes program as a springboard to careers outside of their countries of election.

We caution, however, against making assumptions between these patterns and the notion of “brain drain.” As several recent studies in other contexts have shown, the notion of brain drain is likely to oversimplify the relationship that Rhodes scholars have had with their countries of election. Work by Tamson Pietsch suggests that Rhodes scholars who were academics maintained strong ties with their home countries, supervising the next generation of leaders and scholars from their countries of origin by hosting their stay abroad. The importance of such intergenerational networks might also be considered in other professional contexts, notably medicine or management consulting. In these instances, rather than acting as the source of brain drain, Rhodes scholars who have made their careers outside their countries of origin have nonetheless still contributed to knowledge mobility and circulation— factors that are usually considered to sit at the heart of national innovation.

The chapter is available electronically and in print as Tamson Pietsch & Meng-Hsuan Chou, ‘The politics of scholarly exchange: taking the long view on the Rhodes Scholarships’ in L. Tournès and G. Scott-Smith, Global Exchange: Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World (Berghahn Books, 2017).

You can read a pre-print version on here.


Way back in the far-away-world of 2010 I was invited to attend the tenth of a series of symposia on Knowledge and Space sponsored by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung in the Studio Villa Bosch, Heidelberg.

It was one of the most stimulating academic events I’ve yet attended. Although I had by then already begun to read outside the discipline of History, I had been doing so in a somewhat haphazard and unguided manner. It was the 2010 symposium in Heidelberg that really opened up my eyes to the conversations about knowledge, space, mobility and technology taking place in Science Studies and Geography. At it I met several scholars whose work has deeply influenced my own and encountered new horizons for my research.

Now some of the papers from this event have been published as Mobilities of Knowledge (volume 10 in the Klaus Tschira Knowledge and Space Book Series). Together they examine how the geographical mobility of people and (im)material things has impacted epistemic systems of knowledge in different historical and geographical contexts. Thanks to Springer and the Klaus Tschira Stiftung the volume is available online and as open access(Other volumes from the series are available here)

My piece considers the changing appointment practices of universities in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and its empire. It points to the importance of private knowledge and highlights the cultures of trust that shaped an academic geography that was both expansive and exclusionary.

But it should be the last thing you read. Check out this fantastic list of contributors! Read the rest of this entry »


In September 1926, 500 American university students left New York aboard the Floating University, on a journey around the world that involved stops at forty-seven ports and visits to foreign dignitaries including the King of Siam, the Sultan of Lahej, Mussolini and the Pope. Organised by New York University professor, James Edwin Lough, and promising a ‘world education’ to its students, the venture was influenced by new approaches to psychology and education, the internationalism of the period, as well as economic and social imperatives. But if its organisers thought the voyage would be a way for American students to know the world, it also became a laboratory for American imperial diplomacy, a stage for nationalist and anti-imperial politics, and a magnet for scandal.

For the last few years I’ve been chasing the Floating University and its 500 students in archives scattered across the United States and the world. I’ve found them in diaries and artwork and photographs and radio transcripts and legal records and newspaper articles. Much like the students on the ship, I’ve frequently found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, following leads down dark passageways and IT’S ALL SO INTERESTING. I mean who wouldn’t be diverted by the thrills and spills of what has often seemed the Great Gatsby version of a gap year?!

But more recently I’ve been trying to work out what the whole thing adds up to. There are so many possible angles of approach and there’s so many threads to the story that the project has sometimes seemed to me to be in danger of proliferating endlessly.  But for better of worse, I’ve got to begin. For the next few months, thanks to New College and the Rothermere American Institute, I have a desk in Oxford and my job is to put words on a page.

Which is obviously why I’m getting straight on with that task by writing this blog.