Twentieth Century Histories of Knowledge About Human Variation

Twentieth Century Histories of Knowledge About Human Variation

Veronika Lipphardt, Jenny Bangham, Samuel Coghe, Alexandra Widmer


From What is Race? Evidence from Scientists", p. 30-31. Illustrations by Jane Eakin Kleiman and text by Diana Tead, copyright UNESCO 1952.

Research Group Leader Veronika Lipphardt has taken up a new position at the University of Freiburg (June 2015) and the Research Group has ended. For inquiries in the group’s research projects, please contact Veronika Lipphardt by email:


The diversity of humankind is an abiding explosive political and moral issue.

The research group “Twentieth Century Histories of Knowledge about Human Variation” examines how life scientists, demographers and anthropologists imagined, researched, and described human biological diversity during the twentieth century. Questions that interest us include: How did scientists narrate the formation of diversity? Which classifications, practices, concepts, and tools did they employ in order to assess human variation? What kind of human variation did they consider to be “biological”, and how did they conceive of “nature” as the cause of human variation? How, if at all, did they bring those supposedly “biological” aspects of diversity in relation with those they perceived as “cultural”? Was human biological diversity primarily their epistemic object, or rather an indispensable epistemic instrument? And how were contemporary social and political valuations of diversity or unity of mankind reflected in their work?

The conceptual novelty of the project is that it understands “Knowledge about Human Variation” to mean knowledge not just about “race”, but more generally, about differences between populations that were considered to be “biological”, “hereditary” or “caused by nature” and geographically patterned.  To this end, projects within this group consider medical and demographic investigations, population genetics and epidemiological projects in European, colonial and postcolonial contexts, that might not have explicitly contributed to “race science” but did have human variation as a scholarly focus or epistemic premise.

With an emphasis on research practices and designs, members of the group explore the social contexts, historical moments and tacit cultural assumptions that shaped knowledge about human biological diversity. We pay special attention to the many ways in which contemporaries represented and visualized human variation (such as encyclopedic collecting projects, genealogical trees or world maps).

As an interdisciplinary group, we employ historical, anthropological and STS methods that recognize the relevance of both practices and narratives in knowledge production. These enable us to address epistemological questions and at the same time to reveal the political and ideological dimensions implicit in the creation of knowledge about human variation.

Applications to the group's guest program can be sent to the group's contact address and will be considered twice a year (deadlines 1 October or 1 March). Documents required are: a letter of motivation (max. 400 words in English); a research proposal (max. 750 words in English); CV; publication list (if applicable); up to two published or unpublished papers related to the research concept (if applicable); copies of undergraduate and postgraduate degree documents and certificates; a letter of recommendation from the PhD supervisor (if applicable) or a university professor.



Find a complete list of group members here.

Contact address:


Other persons related to this project: Birgitta von Mallinckrodt, Leon Kokkoliadis, Nina LudwigEric Llaveria Caselles