“Analyzing the Social Life of Stereotypes” – Interview with Sören Urbansky

Picture by Nora Hilgert

We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Sören Urbansky, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Sören is a historian of Russia and China in the modern era, specializing in imperial and racial entanglements, emigration and the history of borders. Before he joined the GHI in 2018, Sören has taught Chinese and Russian history at the Universities of Munich and Freiburg and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge.

What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?

I recently embarked on a project that studies the correlation between negative stereotypes and conflicts between Chinese and Caucasians of European descent in urban settings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the period, in other words, when pejorative attitudes toward the Chinese were most widespread. In contrast to earlier studies, I go beyond discourse analysis of intellectual and political debates. Instead I am analyzing the social life of stereotypes from a perspective combining global history and micro-history. I study the three Pacific port cities of Singapore, Vladivostok, and San Francisco. Chinese made up a significant portion of the population of each city, and most Chinese immigrants resided in their own communities spatially separated from other residents. Despite the extensive contacts between dominant ethnic groups and Chinese immigrants, residents of the three cities saw the segregated Chinatowns as threatening, amorphous, alien bodies within the urban space. Many feared that those districts were breeding grounds for disease, that dangerously unhygienic conditions prevailed in them, and that, given the predominance of male residents, they were hotbeds of vice.

In my previous project, a book titled Beyond the Steppe Frontier that has just been published with Princeton University Press, I studied the history of the Sino-Russian border – once the world’s longest land border – from a vaguely marked frontier in the seventeenth century to its twentieth-century incarnation as a tightly patrolled barrier girded by watchtowers, barbed wire, and border guards. In this book I challenge top-down interpretations by stressing the significance of the local population in supporting, and undermining, border-making.

What both projects have in common is perhaps their micro-historical angle. I think one of the challenges historians face, especially those dealing with the micro level or with subaltern spheres, is that it’s all too easy to hide behind nuance. We must seek out the nuance, of course, for this is where we can study the interactions of individuals. But if it’s all nuance, then it becomes difficult to say what’s significant and what’s not. And only by balancing micro-historical research with the bigger picture of macro-history can we draw bold comparisons.

What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?

I’m still grappling with the history of knowledge as a concept and my current project will certainly not become a book titled History of Knowledge of XYZ. Yet I am interested in how people, ideas, laws, and institutions moved across the Pacific and within the wide universe of the Chinese diaspora to create the “Yellow Peril” as a global historical moment. Or, more broadly speaking, I am looking into the interdependence of the circular natures of knowledge transfer and migration. Today it is common knowledge that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 influenced not only U.S. immigration policy for decades, but also inspired immigration legislation in many other states. But who would have thought that members of the Chinese diaspora in San Francisco were in close contact with their compatriots across the Pacific and warned them of the coupling of xenophobia with health scares? When an epidemic of the bubonic plague hit San Francisco in 1900, municipal authorities quarantined Chinatown and widespread racism towards Chinese immigrants was socially accepted. When the plague was expected to hit Vladivostok, the Chinese community there was better prepared to fight against stigmatization.

Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?

I would have changed my profession long ago if there were no surprising moments. Archives are full of surprises, literature is full of surprises, and many of my colleagues are inspiring me in my thinking and writing. One thing that strikes me about my current project is how little we know about how Chinese migrants saw and responded to their dire situation. Their perspective has scarcely figured in historical studies thus far. As a historian you should obviously have an idea of what you are looking for when conducting research in an archive, but you should also be open for surprises. I guess you have to be a little crazy, to the point of obsession, about the subject you are writing about. In that sense being a historian is not an actual “job”. But that’s perhaps true for all disciplines, be it in the sciences or the humanities. Besides surprising moments, there are also rewarding moments. In the current coronavirus pandemic, we can definitely see that some traditional narratives against the Chinese are resurfacing – particularly in the way Chinese are depicted as medical scapegoats by some media outlets and speeches by some politicians or ordinary people. I was recently interviewed by the BBC and also wrote a piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the historical repercussions of the current pandemic. I find it quite rewarding when my own research leaves the laboratory of the mad scientist.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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