Timothy Parsons – Current Research

Scholars have long recognized that colonial governments, Christian missions, and other non-state institutions drew inspiration from metropolitan bureaucratic, social welfare, and policing traditions in crafting imperial administrative and social welfare policy. However, much of the work on African nationalism and post-colonial history in general tends to assume that the concrete bureaucratic mechanisms of empire simply disappeared at independence. The question of how empires governed their colonies has also taken on new resonance in the years after the September 11th terrorist attacks when the French and British empires became models for strategists who argued that imperial-style direct rule of resistive regions like the Middle East was the best way to thwart international terrorism and promote global order. Yet, by strict definition, empires no longer exist. While critics frequently charge the United States and other global powers with having imperial intentions, no contemporary state will admit to actually being an empire any more. Lost in these policy debates over the merits of hard power is the more significant question of the actual legacy of the liberal European empires that gradually wound down in the mid-twentieth century. Much of the extensive literature on “development” suggests that the political insecurity and poverty that continues to afflict many former colonies is the result of mismanagement by the political elites who took power after independence. In reality, however, the actual nature of imperial administrative systems and their legacy for both the new post-colonial nation states and the former imperial metropole has remained largely unexplored in a comparative and trans-national context.

My research brings a fresh perspective to the study of the fundamental consequences of the end of empire by re-examining this seemingly old story “from the bottom up.” Much of the literature on post-colonial politics and development over the last half century is abstract and theoretical. Very little of it takes into consideration how key administrative and economic policies actually worked. As a social historian of East Africa, my primary concern to date has been understanding how ordinary people experienced foreign imperial rule. My current book project combines my interest in the intimate lives of ordinary people with my ambition to place their experiences in broader historical and global contexts by focusing on the fundamental question of what it actually meant for colonies to become nation states in the 1960s. In doing so I am pushing the boundaries of the conventional area studies model, which usually focuses on a single country or region, by expanding this comprehensive examination of the end of empire in East Africa to determine how it impacted the British metropole itself. This is not a tangential question, for the ideas and practices that constituted British imperial policy in Africa and the wider empire did not develop in a vacuum. Rather, they were the result of a feedback loop whereby imperial officials and missionaries based their administrative, economic, and social policies on metropolitan European (and to some extent American) models. Although Pan-Africanist intellectuals spoke passionately about the need to break with the imperial past by developing authentically African institutions, most African students studying in western universities and nation-building elites still took the imperial metropole as their inspiration for post-colonial administrative institutions and state structures. At the same time, a new generation of British policy makers and international development experts viewed the African colonies as sites of administrative experimentation, and their resulting hybrid policies served as models for local government, community development, and policing in post-imperial Britain and, by extension, the cold war era “west.” In this case, the mechanisms of empire have indeed continued on even though the imperial era is over.