The UIC Department of History is pleased to invite applications for its new Ph.D. concentration, “Encounters, Ethnographies, and Empires.” ENCOUNTERS draws upon the expertise of faculty with regional specializations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States. The concentration offers students specializing in any one of these areas the opportunity for comparative study and research on topics related to encounters between different peoples, cultures, and continents. Faculty participating in the concentration share common interests in how empires from Rome to the imperial nation-states of the twentieth century proclaimed the transformative power of universals such as religion, civilization, or democracy. At the same time empires produced ethnographies of difference, revealing and concealing more complex cultural transformations that affected both colonizers and the colonized. Course work will provide students working in different regions of the world a firm grounding in a common literature as well as a forum for lively intellectual debate.


Encounters between different peoples, cultures, and continents took many forms and played a formative role in world history. They occurred as a result of invasions and conquest, when new commercial connections were formed, or as part of a larger history of migration. Encounters between indigenous peoples and expanding empires often became wars of conquest, or led to conflicts between colonists and native peoples over land and resources, but they also frequently led to intermarriage, the development of trade, the exchange of diseases, plants, and animals, the reshaping of sacred cosmologies, and ultimately to the emergence of new languages, ways of life, and religions. Encounters could lead to devastating epidemics and brutal wars of conquest, but encounters were also dialogues with multiple participants, where exchanges of goods and services and translation and negotiation were paramount. Encounters created specialists and brokers who dealt with merchants and sailors, especially in world wide networks of maritime commerce.


Empires as diverse as Rome, China, or Russia produced ethnographies as they catalogued and classified the “barbarians” and “primitives” on their frontiers. Describing the “other” was central to defining the imperial self. When Muslim and Christian scholars wrote ethnographies they added new concerns with classifying infidel followers of false religions and pagan idolaters deemed to have no religion at all. The encounters between cultures and continents after 1400 produced a profusion of new ethnographies, long before ethnography became a field of study and research. By the mid-nineteenth century professional ethnographers were mapping the imperial nation from within and without, comparing women, children, and minorities to “primitives” and cataloguing subject peoples abroad. Ethnography still shapes thinking about the clash of civilizations. Ethnography is also a powerful tool for the recovery of the hidden transcripts of peoples without history, the oral traditions and indigenous faiths of decentralized and small scale societies too often seen simply as victims of history. The cacophonous dialogue of ethnographies from above and below is crucial to understanding the myriad new cultural forms that emerge from the history of encounters.


Empires played a crucial role in the history of encounters and ethnographies and in the creation and propagation of new cultural identities. Long vanished empires have left their cultural footprint on much of the world, as Rome did in Europe and as Islamic Caliphates did in territories across North Africa and much of Asia. Dynastic Empires that survived into the modern era, as in Russia, the Ottoman Empire or China, shaped the cultural identity of much of Eurasia. European overseas empires, in a first wave of expansion, gave birth to new societies in the Americas, tapestries woven with threads of American, European, and African origins, and in a second wave, colonized Africa and much of Asia. Imperial rule was never uniform and was always contested, but Empires ruled over most of humanity until the middle decades of the 20th century. Their imprints and legacies are still with us today.

Application/Information about the Encounters Graduate Concentration