CFP: Precarious Racial Superiority: Imperial Prestige and Deviance in colonial Asia, ca. 1800-1940


The rhetoric of racial and/or civilizational superiority was unequivocally the basis on which imperialism and colonial rule were legitimised in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Difference between ‘colonisers’ and the ‘colonised’, and the incapability of the latter to rule themselves evidently provided the justification for colonial rule. Such difference was, however, unfixed, thus Ann Laura Stoler posited, in her formative essay, to examine the ‘coloniser’ and the ‘colonised’ as “an historically shifting pair of social categories”.

In colonial societies, concepts of whiteness intersected with not least ideas of race, class, gender, age, and respectability to determine membership in the colonising group. In British India for example, racial prestige could be tarnished, when ‘low and licentious Europeans’, exposed themselves to the colonised population. Thus warranted reactive measures from colonial authorities and social movement organisations to keep them in line or out of sight. While a focus on subalterns of the colonising group is instructive in delineating the internal boundaries within said community, an investigation into the processes underlying anxieties surrounding the presence of colonial subalterns in the colonies could prove useful in explaining seemingly contradictory narratives about ‘problematic’ behaviour.

Will Jackson and Emily J. Manktelow have shown how the approach of ‘thinking with deviance’ allows historians to re-evaluate the dynamics of colonial rule. Behaviours, situations or persons labelled as ‘deviant’ reiterated colonial expectations of what was considered acceptable while seemingly undermining them. Deviance as a lens, thus, allows the historian to examine how the proscription of some behaviours and persons was designed to reinforce the boundaries of the ‘coloniser’ category while revealing the fissures within which. It furthermore illustrates the precarity of imperial rhetoric; episodes of moral panic over ‘deviant’ behaviour or persons were reflective of a sense of insecurity that prompted vigilant maintenance of ostensible racial superiority. 

The transimperial approach, according to Daniel Hedinger and Nadin Heé, brings together multiple empires and focuses on “imperial competition, cooperation and connectivity” as “entangled processes”. Informed by this approach, this workshop invites scholars at all levels to consider how the interplay of concepts of deviance and whiteness reified and/or challenged the rhetoric of racial superiority in colonies across Asia, specifically East, South, and Southeast Asia, ca. 1800-1940. More broadly, the workshop aims to address the use of ‘deviance’ as a lens to understand imperial/colonial socio-political hierarchies. Topics might include:

  • Definitions and types of deviance e.g. intoxication, madness, prostitution
  • Experiences and agency of those labeled as deviant
  • Reading deviance in colonial archives
  • Functions of deviance in colonial societies
  • Inter- and/or intra-imperial circulation of knowledge of deviance
  • Effects of ‘deviance’ on relationships between the ‘coloniser’ and the ‘colonised’


This workshop will take place on 1-2 February 2024 at Villa Hatt (ETH Zürich) in Zürich, Switzerland. For individual paper proposals, please submit a title, 250-word abstract, and a short CV (max. 1 page) to Denise Lim ( by 20 June 2023. Confirmation of acceptance of papers will be sent by end July 2023.