Backstages of Globalization: New Perspectives on Infrastructure and Power in the 20th Century

Call for Papers, deadline 24 June 2024

Workshop at Leibniz Center for Contemporary History (ZZF) Potsdam, 28-29 November 2024

We invite proposals for a workshop dealing with the role of infrastructures, broadly conceived, in historical processes of globalization during the 20th century that will take place at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam from November 28–29, 2024. Monika Dommann (University of Zurich) will hold the keynote lecture.

“Backstages of Globalization: New Perspectives on Infrastructure and Power in the 20th Century”

Over the last decades, scholars have investigated the various ways in which the built environment functions as a form of governance by shaping how people work and live. It also codifies and coproduces ideas about authority and the role of the state (Star 1999; van Laak 2001; 2018). While an initial phase of interest centered on infrastructural projects in the United States and Europe (Hughes 1983; Nye 1996; White 2011), more recently historians have turned to studies of infrastructure in the Global South, with its experiences of colonial, imperial, and postcolonial governance and extractivism (Hecht 2012; Tischler 2013). This work has produced great insight into the changing political economies of capitalism and science, the reorganization of global and local interests, and increasingly transnational transfers of people, practices, and technology that challenge simplistic narratives about agents of the “West” as the bearers of modernity. Through these studies, a more differentiated understanding of the role of infrastructure in integrating markets, regions, and people across the globe has come into focus.

Historians of infrastructure have long demonstrated sensitivity to the materiality of technologies and the distinctive spaces they create. By tracing the construction of railroads, dams, and communications networks, scholars have demonstrated how these structures created privileged areas and communities while neglecting or destroying others, thereby contributing to the production of uneven spaces of racial, social, environmental and economic inequalities. While attention to space and place has long factored into how historians understand infrastructures, the role of time has often been underappreciated: the imposition of standardized time accompanied the construction and extension of major networks, like the railroad and telegraph, and brought with them their own regime of uniformity across far-flung areas (Schivelbusch 2014; Zimmer 2020; Ogle 2015). Further, as Jens Ivo Engels has argued, histories of infrastructure are almost impossible to think of in isolation from discourses of modernization, and thus invite normative questions of vanguard vs. late comers that are reflected in the logic of “catching up” that informed such twentieth-century modernization projects (Engels 2020). Taken together, these interventions have led to more sustained attention not only to the spaces, but also to the rhythms, of global processes.

More recently, historians have examined the interconnections between material constructions and human organization, including bureaucratic and legal frameworks. They have further specified their interest by exploring the development of systems of logistics in trade and shipping (Dommann 2023; Haller 2019; Mauch 2021). By focusing on materials, but also on the organizational-administrative practices that accompany them, these contributions have enhanced our understanding of globalizing dynamics and processes of hidden integration in the twentieth century. Such studies reveal how new artifacts, such as the standardized Europa pallet after World War II, became a norm between the two Cold War blocs and new spaces, such as warehouse districts, container terminals, and special customs areas, developed to heighten productivity and facilitate exchange between remote regions (Mauch 2021; Dommann 2023, Khalili 2020). Increasingly, the transnational and international nature of these arrangements has come into focus. In particular, the relationship of infrastructure projects to processes of decolonization and the struggles of postcolonial states has productively challenged understandings of international governance. Recent studies of the use of flags of convenience in international shipping or the establishment of tax havens, two practices that experienced a conjuncture in the latter half of the twentieth century, have demonstrated how these innovations often came at the expense of local communities, laborers, and existing organizations (Khalili 2023; Ogle 2020; Slobodian 2023). In fact, these histories seem to pose the question of whether infrastructure might not in fact better understood as a post-national category, leading to increasing misalignment between geographical units, cultural groups, and economic markets.

This workshop “Backstages of Globalization” takes these recent studies as a point of departure and aims to explore these disjunctions in the twentieth century through its “backstages”: that is to say, it welcomes contributions that foreground the invisible or out-of-sight infrastructures that developed to facilitate trans- and international exchange and cooperation. We will tease out histories of conflict and contest over whose interests and experiences counted in setting standards, and whose vision of a possible future was to be pursued in the development of systems of trade, commerce, and information exchange. We will consider these questions across and beyond national borders, during decades of Cold War rivalries and struggles for postcolonial independence. Globalization may well entail processes of increasing exchange and integration, but these are highly uneven. The contributions to the workshop will pay attention to this uneven quality. The workshop explicitly invites contributions from scholars working on invisible, hidden, or hitherto underappreciated processes of globalization, such as histories of shipping, temperature regulation, financial regulation, building materials, and/or computing. It aims to bring together scholars working in diverse fields, including global history, history of capitalism, the history of knowledge, science and technology studies. We will exchange perspectives related to ongoing research on infrastructure and processes of globalization in the twentieth century. Possible topics may include (but are in no way limited to) the following:

1. Transfer and mobility of expertise: How did plans and practices for construction and/or implementation change in different geographic, environmental, political, and cultural contexts? What types of preparation and knowledge was valued? What role did local or indigenous knowledge play in planning?

2. International governance and North-South relations: How did the planning and implementation of projects change according to priorities of decolonization, independence, or during structural adjustment programs? Which sorts of new geographies of power emerged? How were the concerns of different groups represented in national and international governing bodies? Who was tasked with this representation?

3. (Invisible) labor and infrastructures: What kind of challenges emerged regarding the recruitments of laborers, the sourcing building materials, and the implementation of maintenance work outside of Western Europe/USA? How might infrastructural disasters, failures or stoppages help us to understand histories of global processes?

Monika Dommann (University of Zurich) has agreed to give the keynote lecture.

The two-day workshop will take place from November 28–29, 2024 at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History (ZZF) Potsdam. The workshop will be structured around 20-minute presentations and discussions. Funding for travel and accommodation will be covered by the organizers.

To be considered, please submit the following documents:
- A CV (including a list of recent publications)
- A brief description of what you intend to present (ca. 300 words)
as a single PDF file to Carolyn Taratko (carolyn.taratko [at] by June 24, 2024. Participants will be contacted in the first week of July.

The workshop is organized by the “Cooling the Global South” DFG Emmy Noether-Research Group in collaboration with the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam.

Please contact the organizer for a list of references.


Dr. Carolyn Taratko
carolyn.taratko [at]