Reference Cultures and Imagined Empires in Western History:
Global Perspectives, 1815‐2000
11‐13 June 2014
Utrecht University, Netherlands
Call for Papers
This conference explores the concept of reference culture as a way to approach the cultural
dimensions of territorial and non‐territorial power. By studying reference cultures we want to
draw attention to the fact that cultures may assume a role as benchmark or model, both positive
and negative, in the international circulation of ideas and practices.
Reference cultures offer a model that other cultures may imitate, adapt, or resist. In contrast to
essentialist and territorial concepts such as empire and nation, the idea of reference cultures
allows us to address the shifting subjectivities central to cultural encounters. We take reference
cultures to be mental constructs or “cognitive maps” that do not necessarily represent a
geopolitical reality with an internal hierarchy and recognizable borders. They may take the form of
imagined empires and may also be informed by utopian visions or mythological pasts. Such
reference societies are typically established and negotiated in public discourse over a long period
The academic discussion suggests that the interplay of political and economic supremacy with the
“soft power” of cultural attraction and reputation plays a crucial role in how certain cultures
establish guiding standards for other cultures. Historical examples such as the Dutch Republic in
the Golden Age, nineteenth‐century Great Britain, twentieth‐century America—and perhaps
twenty‐first‐century China—point to the importance of reference cultures.
This conference aims to open up this new field of historical inquiry by exploring the role of these
transcultural models within western history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This
includes transatlantic history as well as the complex cultural relations between the West and “the
Rest”. We encourage papers that explore and interrogate the concept of “reference cultures” by
investigating its theoretical and empirical validity, or by exploring concrete historical examples of
transnational or trans‐local referencing, cultural adaption/hybridization, or resistance.
The conference aspires to open an interdisciplinary exploration of “reference cultures”. We
warmly welcome a dialogue with ongoing debates in relevant academic fields such as European
studies, American studies, cultural history, empire studies, postcolonial studies, literary studies,
history of science, transfer studies, and comparative history. Methodologically, we are interested
both in conventional historical approaches and in approaches based on digital humanities.
Participants are encouraged to discuss the various manifestations of reference cultures during the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as:
- the hegemonic cultures of nineteenth and twentieth‐century empires as for example Great Britain,
the United States (“the American Century”), Austria‐Hungary, Soviet Union, and Germany;
- (post‐)colonial cultures, of both the colonizers (ranging from France to Japan) and the colonized (since the
periphery may well act as point of reference for the center);
- Historical reference cultures, such as ancient Rome, ancient India, or ancient China;
- Mythical and/or utopian cultures, as represented in the Promised Land, Atlantis, narrative utopias, or
dystopias in science fiction;
- Self‐declared models, including French universalité or laicité, American Exceptionalism, Indonesian Pancasila,
South American Bolivarianism.
Conference participants are expected to cover their own travel and hotel expenses, and the
conference fee of €75. Since a selection of the papers will be published in an edited volume, we
request that all papers are based on original work that has not been published previously. Those
interested in presenting a paper are kindly requested to submit a 250‐word abstract for 20‐minute
papers (indicating any equipment/technical requirements) and a brief biographical note by 16
February 2014 to dr. Pim Huijnen (firstname.lastname@example.org) or dr. Jaap Verheul (email@example.com), History
Department, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
Further information and updates will be posted on the conference website: www.translantis.nl.