The circulation and transmission of knowledge

The Circulation and transmission of knowledge research group has grown out of a previous group devoted to the history of education; itself the result of a partnership between the LARHRA research centre and the French Service d’Histoire de l’Éducation (SHE, INRP). This new research project aims to both build on and extend the work of the previous group, by situating issues relating to the history of education within a broader historical context which examines the production, circulation and diffusion of ideas, as part of Europe’s cultural and social history since the Renaissance.



The work of the Circulation and transmission of knowledge research group focuses on the study of forms of knowledge between the 15th and 21st centuries. The history of knowledge is considered here in its broadest sense to include the history of science, the history of abstract and theoretical knowledge, the history of practical knowledge and techniques, the history of administration, and the history of education and professional training. This history of knowledge examines not only the familiar major disciplines – including History in both its historiographical and epistemological dimensions – but also those which today are of little scientific interest, such as alchemy, astrology and theology, but which nevertheless were for many centuries considered vital for interpreting and describing the world. The history of knowledge is also a history of ignorance. It is concerned equally with the actors, processes and geographical spaces involved. This means approaching the history of knowledge not as part of a positivistic account of the onward march of “truth”, but rather from the perspective of cultural and social history, which aims to explore the role of particular forms of knowledge in particular places and times. It also means emphasising the importance of both the construction and transmission of knowledge. In this respect, the history of education continues to be of central importance in the new research project. The latter focuses in particular on the study of the complex historical relationships between knowledge on the one hand and education, belief, power and the written word on the other.



Research projects

The history of education
The history of knowledge is bound up closely with the history of education. As the product of socio-economic, political and cultural processes, education is firmly anchored in the specificities of a given historical period, while at the same time contributing to forces of change in society. In this respect, the history of education should not be seen (as was frequently the case in the past) as limited to the study of the classroom and pedagogical theory, but needs to be extended to include the history of educational institutions; the history of training for manual occupations and apprenticeships; in-house training in factories, shops and workshops; as well as other contexts where teaching takes place: on model farms, naval training vessels and so on. The field also concerns the study of education in the private sphere at different stages of life: in the family, in church, in evening classes, through self-help, etc.

The researchers in the group are also interested in the history of education in the Ottoman Empire and in the various independent territories which emerged from that empire’s decline. The aim here is to re-examine the varying educational systems in place during the Ottoman period; the changes, continuities and parallels; and the relationship between that history and the history of education in Europe.

Those involved in the History of education project continue to work closely with the French Service d’Histoire de l’Éducation, and aim to link research work and the production of resources for both the academic community and the wider public. These initiatives include for example the Digital resources for the history of education project (Ressources numériques en histoire de l’éducation) and the European Network on Digital Academic History. Several of the members of the group belong to the editorial committee of the journal, Histoire de l’éducation, the leading French academic journal in this field. LARHRA’s History of education team also works closely with the Laboratoire de l'Éducation research group, also based in the Lyon region, organising joint seminars and conferences.


Knowledge and belief
This research project involves studying the multiple and complex relationships between knowledge and belief, the known and the believed, and the varying claims to truth; sometimes competing with each other, sometimes contradicting each other. Studying these relationships involves examining the role of religious denominations in the elaboration of representations of knowledge, both learned and popular, throughout the world. Over and above their eschatological dimension, religious doctrine and belief also convey multiple forms of knowledge, including theological, zoological, medical, geographical and technical forms. The actors involved, whether individual, collective or institutional, along with the accompanying networks and doctrines and the links to political power, have structured forms of knowledge over time. The study of this interaction between knowledge and belief involves examining how forms of knowledge underlie belief systems and, conversely, how religious convictions can generate knowledge which thereby acquires legitimacy. In certain contexts, religions have also competed or been in opposition with other forms of knowledge. These sites of competition and conflict are also important objects of historical study. However, the study of beliefs is not restricted to the religious domain. These opinions, personal or collective, rational or irrational,  banishing doubt in favour of profound conviction, can also be found in other contexts. The history of the period since the Renaissance illustrates strikingly how actions and ideas, presented as “scientific”, are in fact underpinned by beliefs, more or less implicit, and more or less acknowledged (ideas of progress, including scientific progress, racialism, etc.). In short, it is important to move beyond a reductive, binary distinction between knowledge and faith, reason and religion, rationality and superstition, objectivity and irrationality. The histories of many subjects, including those of science, leisure, food and eating, and consumption, reveal subjective elements within processes that remain generally rational. This approach also allows the discipline of the history of religion to be itself conceptualised as an object of historical study.


Knowledge and power
Forms of knowledge are situated in particular historical contexts and are bound up with structures of power and power struggles. Research undertaken by the group is examining the role of institutions in the production and legitimisation of knowledge, both in sponsoring official inquiries and in establishing regulatory frameworks. Science and power structures also work in tandem; the State in the modern and contemporary periods draws on demographic, political, economic and biological forms of knowledge (among others), in order to govern and control particular populations and territories. The sciences thus become institutionalised; seeking official sanction, and creating within their fields mechanisms of legitimation and domination. In this respect, a crucial question relates to the question of the definition of, and border between, what is considered orthodox and legitimate knowledge on the one hand, and heterodox and illegitimate knowledge on the other.


Historiography and epistemology
This research project is interested in the history of historical knowledge. This approach is both historiographical – the history of history in the modern and contemporary periods – and epistemological, examining certain underlying assumptions that structure all historical research. The issue of time and temporality is naturally a crucial one, both for the way in which it reveals the rhythms of human history – which are halting, follow varying timescales, and are sometimes contradictory – and for what it can tell us about the underlying social and cultural forces at work in structuring this fundamental aspect of our existence. The study of these issues forms the basis of an international research project in comparative history (notably with the University of Shanghai, China), which is undertaking a comparative study of historical time in France and China. The group’s interest in the study of national historiographical traditions also extends to the Mediterranean world.