Working Group: Working with Paper

Working Group: Working with Paper: Gendered Practices in the History of Knowledge

Cooperation Partners: 

Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA


Paper model for medical students to visualize childbirth, from Shibata, K., Geburtshülfliche Taschen-Phantome (Munich, 1892)

Historians of science and medicine have been exploring the materials used for knowledge production by examining the tools of observation, data collection, and knowledge transmission. Paper, long considered a most basic object, is now being revisited to gain a deeper understanding of its role in epistemic practices. However, investigations of paper technologies and paper work rarely address issues of gender, despite ample evidence that many of such activities occurred in highly gendered spaces, such as the household, the office, or the laboratory. The working group builds on the growing interest in the materials of science by focusing on paper tools and paper technologies, and incorporates the fundamental analytical category of gender.  It will explore the gendered uses and meanings of paper, examining how notions of gender impacted paper practices, and how paper may have structured knowledge about gender. Thus, it will merge the analytical frameworks of material culture and gender to reveal how notions of masculinity and femininity became embedded in, and expressed through, uses of paper.

The working group will explore gender and paper in different contexts and examine multiple sites of paper practices, from the early modern period to the twentieth century, from the household to the marketplace. The group will analyze diverse purposes of paper use, from healing, to phrenological analysis, to model-making, to data processing. Ultimately, the group aims to show how notions of gender—gendered sites, skills, and characteristics—materialize through paper, shedding new light on the shaping of working cultures and their epistemic impact in the history of knowledge.

A preparatory conference was held in January 2016. From September through December 2016, the working group will be in residence at the MPI, aiming to produce a collective working group book.