Imperial afterlives: The crisis of nation and citizen in historical perspective

The end of colonial empires in the twentieth century defined the world in which we live, yet we are only beginning to understand its historical significance. While scholars have long treated decolonization as leading inevitably to a global regime of independent nation-states, ‘Imperial Afterlives’ pioneers an important shift which instead investigates the contingency and volatility of the nation-state system and the impact of alternative political orders—federations, commonwealths, transnational regimes, national incorporation— that have informed the struggles of the post-imperial age. Indeed, decolonization, rather than cementing the nation-state as the natural unit of international organisation, has opened new questions about nationhood, who belongs and who does not, and the relationship between local and global. These questions continue to shape lived experiences and national imaginaries in both former colonies and former metropoles. In short, decolonization has both reified the nation-state and destabilised it.

This project formally brings together White Rose historians whose research illuminates the roots and long-range implications of current global crises of nationhood made visible by, among other things, the rise of populist politics, transgressions of national sovereignty, declarations of supranational ‘states’, and rejections of inter-governmental cooperation (i.e. the EU). By refocusing on how the relationship between state and citizen was alternately conceptualized, rejected, and reformed during decolonization, this collaboration will generate new insights into the nature and stakes of current conflicts over political subject-hood, legitimate governance, even the idea of the nation.

‘Imperial afterlives’ presents an important opportunity to establish White Rose leadership in a significant emerging field, new approaches to decolonization. Drawing together research that spans regions, empires, and generations, its participants boast an exceptional breadth of expertise and a distinct capacity to parlay findings into academic research, postgraduate training, and public outreach. We propose the following activities for collaboration: a series of research- and feedback-based workshops for staff and postgraduate students; a mentorship program linking early-career staff and postgraduates with senior academics beyond their home universities; a reading group in theoretical and policy approaches across historical subfields; and three public talks that bring together community organizations and academics to discuss links between local issues, wider histories, and global problems. ‘Imperial afterlives’ will ultimately serve to launch a large funding bid for collaborative research and publication, international conferences, and doctoral studentships, making Leeds, York, and Sheffield the collective hub of dynamic, engaged historical research challenging existing narratives about the trajectory of global order, and providing clear-eyed insight to multiple constituencies.

Lead Academic
Elisabeth Leake – University of Leeds

Lead Academics at other two Universities:
Sarah Miller-Davenport – University of Sheffield
Amanda Behm – University York

Other staff associated with this project

Claire Eldridge (Leeds), Nir Arielli (Leeds), Will Jackson (Leeds), Gerard McCann (York), Sam Wetherell (York), Simon Toner (Sheffield); Emily Baughan (Sheffield)