Bureaucracy as Knowledge


  • Sebastian Felten
  • Christine von Oertzen




bureaucracy, knowledge, knowledge cultures, historical epistemology


In this introduction we explain the overall approach taken in this special issue. It is the collective result of a working group of historians who focus on very different periods and regions, such as the medieval Latin West, Spanish America, Qing China, and the Ottoman Empire. We show, firstly, how bureaucracy has worked as a term of critique and how, in fin-de-siècle Europe, it became an analytical concept used for world-historical comparison with a strong Western bias. Against this background, we then develop our group’s new approach to analyzing bureaucratic procedures as knowledge processes, a method we term “bureaucracy as knowledge.” This approach builds on the history of science and technology and aims to recover actors’ ways of organizing social and material worlds rather than judge them by modernist, Western standards. Third, we discuss if there is such a thing as “bureaucratic knowledge” sui generis and, based on the experience of our authors, suggest ways of studying plural knowledges that cut across different domains. Finally, we argue that historical bureaucracies merit close investigation because they have demonstrated the power to both make and break social and material worlds. The approach proposed in this issue can therefore help make better sense of the dynamics by which bureaucracies exert such power in situations otherwise studied by political, cultural, and social historians.

Author Biographies

Sebastian Felten

University of Vienna, AT

Christine von Oertzen

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, DE






Special Issue