Stefan Esselborn

Research Areas:

  • history of technology
  • history of science and knowledge
  • global history and (post-) colonial history
  • security and risk history

"How safe is safe enough?“ Practices of Evidence for Technical Safety in Times of Societal Uncertainty

(Together with Karin Zachmann.  Subproject 3 of the DFG Research Group 2448 "Practicing Evidence, Evidencing Practice"

The project will analyze practices of evidence concerning technical safety in both German states between the 1950s and the 1980s, using two specific technological fields – automobiles and nuclear power – as case studies. As key technologies of the atomic and the consumer age, both fields have had a substantial part in transforming the idea of safety/security into a societal core value.

We start from the assumption that within the context of German post war history and the Cold War ever more safety-relevant areas were identified. This process of ‘securitization’ was closely interlinked with a ‘scientification’ of technical safety. The project is conceptualized as an entangled history – taking into account not only these two different branches of technology, but also both German states – thus making it possible to examine how practices of evidence in the field of technical safety are entwined with political power, social structures and shared (engineering) traditions. Making use of the chiasmus “practicing evidence – evidencing practice”, the project aims to study discourses as well as concrete practices of technical safety as an increasingly important precondition for the societal acceptance of technology. Starting in the late 1960s, this acceptance has become increasingly fragile, turning the question of technical safety into a publicly contested and highly sensitive issue. The ensuing development of new practices of evidence in this field can neither be ascribed exclusively to technical experts, nor to public and political demands alone. Instead, we argue that various actors from both sides have negotiated new standards and practices in a shared “trading zone”.

To what extent this has resulted in the emergence of new methods and forms for presenting and legitimizing safety-relevant knowledge (e.g., accident statistics, crash tests, or test simulations), whether and how these have migrated between different fields and disciplines, and whether they have given rise to new forms of uncertainty, are some of the central questions to be addressed. The project does not intend to recount the history of technical safety per se. Rather, we will focus on the concrete actions and processes of negotiation, in which the knowledge demanded, accepted, or rejected for the identification of safety-relevant fields, and the preparation and implementation of decisions to minimize expected dangers qualifies as bona fide evidence.

The International African Institute (IIALC/IAI) and European African Studies, 1926-1976

The International African Institute (IIALC/IAI), founded in 1926 in London, was the first and for many years the most important inter-/transnational organization in the field of African Studies. While its origins lie primarily in the colonial reformist project of creating culturally "adapted" development policies for Africa, the Institute soon achieved substantial scientific relevance as well. By connecting scholars of different nationalities and disciplines, setting scholary trends and topics, and distributing funding, it played an important part in the development of African Studies from colonial amateurs' preserve to an academically institutionalized field of regional expertise in the context of Cold War Area Studies.

The history of the IAI not only illustrates the entanglements between African Studies and colonialism. It also highlights the circumstances as well as the consequences of the establishment of knowledge from the humanities and social sciences as (colonial) political expertise, the important role of transnational actors such as the missionary movement or the American philanthropical foundations, as wel as the topographic, disciplinary and intellectual changes and displacements brought forth by the onset of decolonisation and African independence.