In June 2019, Måns Ahlstedt Åberg graduated from the master’s programme in history at Lund. His thesis, “The Circulating Race Knowledge: The Interaction between the State’s Institue for Race Biology and the Swedish General Public 1922—1935 from a history of knowledge perspective”, is the first one in Lund to adopt—and develop—history of knowledge perspectives. In this blog post, he presents his findings and reflects upon his way to the field.
The origin of my thesis was a thematic course on the history of knowledge, which I took in early 2018. Later that semester, while reading a biography over the Swedish race biologist Herman Lundborg, it occurred to me that the theoretical concept of circulation might be a suitable framework to probe certain aspects of this history, which hitherto had been overlooked. Moreover, I thought this empirical case could be useful to develop the concept of circulation further.
The reason for this was simple. A promising line of inquiry in circulation studies, which, strangely enough, so far had been neglected, seemed to me to be a more systematic approach towards the ways in which the traditional academic elites have cooperated with lay actors; that is how knowledge has been created and spread through interaction between professional and non-professional knowledge actors. Even though one of the main objectives of the history of knowledge is to focus on a broad range of actors, the role of non-professionals have played a rather marginal role in actual studies.
In order to test and possibly develop the theory along these lines, I looked into different forms of interaction between the Swedish general public and the State’s Institute for Race Biology—an institution, funded by the Swedish government, that carried out research on eugenics—that took place in the period 1922–1935. Prior research on the history of this institute had shown that its personnel regularly corresponded with amateurs interested in different aspects of eugenics. So far, though, this interaction had not been studied as a continuous phenomenon, nor had any theoretical implications of it been drawn. Thus, my study had two main objects: to test and develop the theory of the circulation of knowledge and, at the same time, to contribute to the research on the activities of the State’s Institute for Race Biology and on Swedish eugenics in a broader sense.
The results of my thesis show that two different kinds of interaction took place. Firstly, there were individuals who wanted to contribute to the institute’s research, through the acts of sending source material (genealogical or photographic), informing about families that were notable for hereditary diseases or sharing the results of private research (mainly of the genealogical kind). Secondly, there were those who sought to assist the institute in spreading the knowledge about eugenics in society; mainly through distributing the books that were published by the institute, but also by giving lectures on eugenics or related subjects—lectures to which the institute usually borrowed its own image projector slides.
These results can be seen as good examples of circulation of knowledge, since they all represent different ways in which knowledge about eugenics moved through Swedish society and became the subject of change because of it; how it was generated, negotiated and recreated in the meeting between the institute’s personnel and members of the general public. Knowledge about eugenics, therefore, was not something that only originated in the institute and then was spread out into society—to the contrary, as often as not, it was created somewhere in between, through joint efforts of professional and non-professional knowledge actors.
These findings, I would argue, have important implications for the theory of circulation. In effect, they show that putting emphasis on the interaction between professional and non-professional knowledge actors has great potential. By shifting emphasis, the inner dynamics of production and circulation of knowledge become visible, and at the same time, this focus on circulation processes gives individuals outside of the academic elites a kind of theoretical—and empirical—recognition that they have often lacked in the history of knowledge. What is more, it becomes clear that these circulation processes have a tendency of reinforcing and sustaining themselves—that circulation creates further circulation—a perspective of the theory which is worthy of more scholarly attention.
Thus, by applying the theory of the circulation of knowledge to a subject such as eugenics in Sweden—a topic on which, to put it mildly, there already exists quite a lot of research—I was able to present conclusions of two different kinds, both theoretical and empirical. On the one hand, I had managed to show new ways in which the theory can be applied on empirical source material; on the other hand, by this very application of the theory, new knowledge was gained from the source material in question. By applying it in this way, new knowledge was gained both about the theory itself—circulation of knowledge—and on the subject matter: eugenics in Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s.
Download Måns master’s thesis (in Swedish): http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=8989563&fileOId=8989576