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Period: 2006-2010

Following the decolonization movement, there has been an attempt to renew with criticism the historiography addressing the relations between social sciences and European imperialisms. At the end of the 1970s, E.W. Said underscored the importance of cultural domination within the imperial movement, describing imperialism as "an act of geographical violence, whereby the quasi-totality of the world space is explored, object of cartography and ultimately, annexed". This approach, which assimilates geography to an imperialist tool, eventually influenced many historians, mainly in the field of history of sciences and in the Anglo-Saxon world. In post-colonial studies, geographical science and European imperialism are therefore always considered as indissociable. These studies mainly concerned the British Empire. In the French case, one can only take note of the lack of such similar studies. The relations between social sciences and colonization have been addressed in France, but the links between geography and empire have been barely touched upon by French researchers, with some few exceptions (D. Lejeune, V. Berdoulay, O. Soubeyran). However, recent studies, emanating from a new generation of historians (H. Blais, M-A de Suremain, P. Singaravélou, I. Surun, F. Thomas) and geographers (C. d’Alessandro, F. Deprest) show a new interest in these matters. Our pluridisciplinary research group was constituted against this background.

There is no doubt the appropriation of space by geographical knowledge played a key role in the military conquest and political domination of colonized territories. This intention of domination ("divide and rule") has disqualified, as an object of epistemological reflection, the means developed to elaborate these regionalisation. However, it seems to us counter-productive to set this domination as a prerequisite for any possible knowledge on spaces. Thus, we think it might be more relevant to examine the knowledge construction process on colonial spaces, by privileging an analysis of the circulation process of concepts, methods, and modes of description and explanation - this circulation being induced by the moving of producers of knowledge (travels, missions, professional transfers) and by their networks of informal or institutional relations.

Within the timeframe of a 4-year long research project, we limited the scope of our study to French Africa and emphasized the state of knowledge concerning the limits and regions at various scales. How is the knowledge on the limitations of "large spaces "(continent, cultural area, bio-climatic region, etc) acquired, disseminated and transformed? How are the limits between Europe and Africa, "White Africa" and "Black Africa", steppes and deserts, forests and savannas, being traced? How does one elaborate the geographical knowledge on delimitations (map of tribes, atlas of soils, "recognition" of isolats, study of colonization frontier), on "ways of life", particularly with regards to the distinction between nomades and sedentary life, rural and urban populations? How did this knowledge interfere with the military or civil delimitations of territories, or with the discourse on the territorial continuity and unity of French Africa? Did this knowledge take into account socio and spatial changes generated by the colonization process?

Basing ourselves on a very diverse corpus, which includes geographical works (books, articles, atlases, memoirs, and personal archives), military archives and battle accounts, maps and pictures of colonized spaces, scientific journals, tourist guides, textbooks, we intend to put in common our working methods, analysing both texts and iconography, in order to answer these questions.

We envisage several stages for the conducting and promotion of this research: examination of sources, presentation of dossiers during an internal seminar focusing on common issues. Also, it seems necessary to set this project on French Africa in an international framework, in order to better confront our results with other researchers working in particular on other empires. These researchers would be invited in the course of our monthly seminar, of a one-day conference and of an international symposium.

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