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Illustrated Report on "Networks in Times of Transition"

May 06, 2011

Under the title "Networks in Times of Transition", scholars from various disciplines discussed the transcultural history of international organisation at a conference organised by research project A3 "Networking the International System". Milena Guthörl summarizes the central issues in this illustrated report. The documentation includes a photo gallery with impressions of the conference as well as of the launch of a new extensive database, the "League of Nations Search Engine" (LONSEA).

"Toward a Transcultural History of International Organisations"

In research on twentieth century history, investigation of international organizations, ranging from transboundary terrorist networks to international relief organizations, has received widespread attention recently. Some organizations, e.g. the United Nations, have become major global players today. The conference "Networks in Times of Transition", organized in October 2010 by MADELEINE HERREN (University of Heidelberg) from the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context" of Heidelberg University, aimed to combine historical research with contemporary ideas on the role of international organizations in transboundary work and efforts of global understanding. The conference focused on three key issues in historical research on international organizations: 1) preservation and transfer of knowledge about international organization's history; 2) the border between constitutional networks and civil actors; 3) the role of border-transcending information processes in former and contemporary debates.[1]

Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch
Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch

Keynote Lecture

Prof. Kenchiro Hirano from the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records in Tokyo
Prof. Kenchiro Hirano from the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records in Tokyo

Keynote speaker KENCHIRO HIRANO (Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, Tokyo) opened the conference with a speech on Japan's role in the context of League of Nations policies at the eve of World War II. He argued that the effects of the Manchurian crisis on the League of Nations damaged its functioning more than any other conflict the League had ever been confronted with. Hirano also claimed that Japan's withdrawal from the League was a decisive "turning point" towards the outbreak of World War II.

Panel I: The Archival Materiality of International Organisations

Historical research on global history often requires documents and sources from archives throughout the world. Panel I, "The Archival Materiality of International Organizations" led by conference convener Madeleine Herren, focussed on preservation of international history, especially in times of war and crisis. JENS BOEL (UNESCO, Paris) gave insights into the role and workflows of UNESCO Archives. He stressed the importance of digitalization and online access to contents of traditional archives. In case of "lost archives" - for example German archives, which were moved for "scientific reasons" to the USA after World War II - digitalization could facilitate historical research. SIGRUN HABERMANN-BOX (UNOG Library and Universal Archives, Geneva) explained the complex process of document preservation of the UNOG Library and Archives in Geneva. Habermann-Box highlighted the power of registry and the fact that documents of organizations such as the United Nations are primarily kept for daily political business and secondarily for historical research. Both speakers, Habermann-Box and Boel, stressed that, without the preservation and selection of important documents, digitalization for historical research purposes will be difficult. Yet another angle was introduced by SACHA ZALA (University of Berne,Swiss Diplomatic Documents) who presented, by the example of the "dodis" database (Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland), perspectives on digitalization of Swiss and international source materials. Zala emphasized that in order to "materialize the networks of international organizations", it is not only important to present documents online, but also linking different databases to each other. He stated that besides diplomatic documents or personal files, religious documents, oral documents, videos and pictures should not be forgotten in the process of digitalization. In the discussions of the panel, it was agreed that on-going digitalization of international organizations material will facilitate international research on this field.

Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Cornelia Knab, and Sigrun Habermann-Box
Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Cornelia Knab, and Sigrun Habermann-Box

Panel II: Foreign Science Policy

What influences networks in international organizations, and what are the impacts of these networks on society or politics? The following conference panels highlighted these questions and offered insights into structure and function of international networks. Panel II on "Foreign Science Policy" began with the contribution of TOMOKO AKAMI (Australian National University, Canberra), who spoke about "'Pacific Science Networks in the Era of Empire and War (1920-39)". Akami presented the Pan-Pacific Congress as an example of international scientific collaboration in the age of the League of Nations. She investigated how scientific networks had been influenced by national politics, but also the impact personal contacts had on the networks' activities. ATSUSHI SHIBASAKI (Komazawa University) presented "Activities and International Cultural Relations in Modern Japan (1943-54)" by example of the Kokusai Bunka Shinko Kai (International Cultural Relations Society). Shibasaki concluded that the relatively small but very active organization did not aim to establish international cultural cooperation for better mutual understanding, but for promotion of a "superior" Japanese culture overseas. TAKASHI SAIKAWA (University of Heidelberg) presented research about the League of Nations' "International Committee on Intellectual Co-Operation (ICIC)" and hereby outlined yet another aspect on Asian cultural foreign politics. Saikawa focused on the role of Japan and China in the ICIC -the former being an enthused advocate, the latter an outspoken objector within the Committee. In her contribution "A Transcultural History of International Organisations" MAYA OKUDA (University of Heidelberg) focused on the League of Nations as a framework for Japan's national culture politics. All three contributions pointed out that international organizations and transnational cooperation served as a stage for promoting (own) national culture for governments and non-government organizations. Discussant RUDOLF WAGNER (University of Heidelberg) argued that cultural cooperation had mostly been cooperation of international patriots, and therefore it was a tool in winning the war by propagandistic means.

Audience Discussion
Audience Discussion

Panel III: Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Panel III, titled "Intangible Cultural Heritage", examined the role of culture in international contexts from the beginning of the 20th century to the 21st century. TIMOTHY D. TAYLOR (University of California, Los Angeles) talked about culture and its connection to identity. He argued that in the context of fundamental processes of change such as the ongoing digitalization and intensified use of the internet, a high amount of cultural influences were transferred from one part of the world to another. While this could be seen as a chance to increase cultural variation, these transfer processes could as well be interpreted as cultural imperialism. The role of UNESCO in this context, protecting "masterpieces of the intangible heritage of humanity", is thus both important and ambivalent. Taylor demonstrated this ambiguity by example of the Guqin: these traditional Chinese music instruments were suddenly sold overpriced after the Guqin had become a UNESCO masterpiece in 2003. This example shows that protection by UNESCO can result in cultural commercialization. In his talk "Folklore and International Cooperation in the 1930s. The Case of CIAP and the League of Nations" BJARNE ROGAN (University of Oslo) presented further insights on international organizations and culture in the years before the Second World War. Rogan showed the ambivalent attitude the League of Nations had towards popular or folkloristic culture. He argued that controversies on folk art within the League were stirred by national rivalries and how they were also seen as tools for cultural hegemony.

Panel: IV: Global Knowledge Economy

KATJA PATZEL-MATTERN (University of Heidelberg) opened Panel IV: "Global Knowledge Economy" with a lecture on "Dimensions of German Economic and Fiscal Politics during the Crises of the 1930s". She argued that, in order to explain German economic and fiscal policy of the early 1930s, international structures and transnational concepts had to be taken into account. SUNIL S. AMRITH (Birkbeck, University of London) also focused on the interwar period. In his contribution "Internationalizing Public Health in South and Southeast Asia, 1919-1939" he depicted the topic on the basis of trans-regional healthcare networks created by the League of Nations or the Rockefeller Foundation. According to Amrith, these networks played an important part in shaping ideas about healthcare in Asia. SANDRINE KOTT (University of Geneva) focussed in her contribution "Conflicting Views on Labour" on the role of international organizations during the Cold War. She emphasized that the examination of international organizations should be used as a vehicle to study global history. She also pointed out, that it is not adequate to speak of an organization as "the" League of Nations, or "the" ILO, because of the multiplicity of actors and influences in this area.

Panel V: Concepts of International Organisations

In Panel V, "Concepts of International Organizations", TOSHIKI MOGAMI (International Christian University, Tokyo) shared thoughts on the centralization of international organizations and the influence of their location on their policies in his speech "The Motor of Centralization or an Empty Center?" He emphasized that, while most international organizations were centralistically based in Europe or the US, modern international organizations could be constitutionalized anywhere without being centralized. CRAIG N. MURPHY (University of Massachusetts, Boston) spoke in his talk "Global Governance: from Organizations to Networks or not?" about the changing nature of international organizations from the 19th century on. According to Murphy, the change from a more hierarchical system to one based on personal networks has its roots both in the changing problems which today's society has to face and in a growing influence of non-European players in international networks with less hierarchical structures. In his contribution "The International Order in Disarray" PREM SHANKAR JHA (Author/Journalist, India) addressed some of these current problems of international organizations. Jha discussed the post-Cold War power shift and the efforts of the US and NATO to restore their power which led to the backlash of international networks like Al Qaida.

Audience Discussion
Audience Discussion

Panel VI: Practices of Networking

The following Panel VI, "Practices of Networking" was comprised of two sub-Panels of which Panel VIa "Large Dams and Small Germs" focused on international aspects on diseases and disease control, and Panel VIb "Global Curricula and Global Subjects" was dedicated to international concepts on social activities.

In Panel VIb KATJA NAUMANN (University of Leipzig) presented her research on the international commission for a "Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind (SCHM)" (1959-1969). She pointed out that while it was often assumed that impulses in developments of a global historiography came mainly from the US, the project of SCHM, which had been influenced by scholars from all over the world, teaches us otherwise. In her talk on the rescue of Polish children during the Second World War by bringing them into the Indian Princely States, ANURADHA BHATTACHARJEE (Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad) described hidden connections between European and Indian history. The role of the YMCA in China's search for a new national identity and internationalization was displayed by GUOQI XU (University of Hong Kong). Xu examined the influence the YMCA had on establishing modern sports in China, Chinese efforts to host the Olympic Games, and on the Chinese obsession with international recognition and the quest for a national identity.

Panel VII: Western Associations, Eastern Networks?

In Panel VII "Western Associations, Eastern Networks", SHIN KAWASHIMA (University of Tokyo) gave an insight into the Sino-Japanese diplomatic incidents over textbook contents after the outbreak of the Manchurian Crisis in 1931. This example shows how cultural or scientific subjects were turned into issues of international politics. LI CHANG (Academia Sinica, Taipei) spoke about the "United Nations Special Fund and Developing Country: A Case Study of Taiwan's Experience in the 1960s". He showed the impact of the newly established UN Special Fund on Taiwan's economy during the 1960s and 1970s and visualized which changes international organizations can bring on a national level. UDO SIMON (University of Heidelberg) turned the focus back on international networks by presenting findings about Islamic networks. The "umma", as the global community of believers is called, also organizes itself into international networks, some of which are partially government controlled NGOs. In her final remarks, convener Madeleine Herren presented desiderata in research on the history of international networks, such as the role of civil society in relation to international organizations, the history of social border crossing movements beginning in the late 1960s or a debate on the state model versus networks. She added that for examining networks in times of transition, it would be necessary to "observe the globe from below": investigating the influence of common civil servants on the workflows and character of international organizations.

Launch of Database LONSEA

Launch of the database LONSEA
Launch of the database LONSEA

Within the conference the organizers launched a new research database, the "League of Nations Search Engine" (LONSEA). The database is based upon on the League of Nations' Handbook of International Organisations and the League of Nations' Personal Files of Employees. LONSEA was built to facilitate research on personal networking within the context of international organizations. The database is therefore the beginning of the ongoing research process to investigate ninety years of global governance.[2]

Photo Gallery


[1] Cornelia Knab: Conference: Networks in Times of Transition. Towards a Transcultural History of International Organisations, in: <http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/termine/id=14731> (21.01.2011).
[2] League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA) <http://www.lonsea.de/> (21.01.2011).

Additional Information

About the conference:

The conference and the launch of the database LONSEA were organised by the Cluster's research project A3 "Networking the International System". The project aims at providing a systematic overview on international organisations in the first half of the twentieth century with a special focus on Asian participation. It is coordinated by Prof. Dr. Madeleine Herren-Oesch.

Prof. Madeleine Herren-Oesch is Co-Director of the Cluster "Asia and Europe". She is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre of European History and Culture, Heidelberg University.

About the authors:

Milena Guthörl is doctoral student at the Centre of European History and Culture, Heidelberg University.

All pictures were made by Dr. Kilian Schultes and Verena Vöckel.


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