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Toward A Transnational History of Turkish Studies (18th-20th Centuries)

Workshop held on 18-19 February 2016 at the Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes (Istanbul)
Convenors: Marie Bossaert (EPHE, Paris) and Emmanuel Szurek (Princeton University)
Deadline for abstracts: 15 May 2015

Editor’s notes

Version française également disponible:

Turkish studies, as a seemingly autonomous field of knowledge, has not been critically examined. Turkology is the subject of several handbooks and journal issues, as well as numerous articles, which are mostly the works of specialists who seek to retrace a tradition, reassess the state of the field, or pay tribute to their predecessors. With few exceptions, they generally provide a linear, internalist, if not hagiographic narrative centered on the “life-and-work” of a series of outstanding individuals. Moreover, conducted country by country, these bio-bibliographic surveys tend to neglect the circulation of ideas, men and artifacts, and rarely confront different traditions. Lastly, in Turkey, the history of Turkish studies is often conflated with that of Turkism, therefore conveying a strong nationalist imaginary. In sum, the available literature says little about the epistemological but also social, political, and economic dynamics behind the constitution of the field: these are the dynamics we wish to investigate.

Few and far between in their own countries, scholars of Turkish languages and peoples developed international networks early on. Thus the autonomization of Turkish studies needs to be assessed from a transnational perspective. It is often stated that, until the late 19th century, Turkology, as an institutionalized ethno-philological activity, was conducted mainly outside the Turkic world by scholars from European and Russian backgrounds. And yet, the knowledge produced by Turkish (speaking) scholars was essential for the constitution of the field: To what extent should this “indigenous” contribution be re-evaluated? We would argue that other non-Western inheritances (Japanese, Chinese, Arab) should be considered as well. More broadly, our goal is to canvass a history of Turkish studies in the long term. We wish to do so by bringing together case studies with different scales of analysis—local, national and international. Although the main focus of the workshop will be the years 1850 to 1950, papers considering the 18th century as well as the late 20th century are also welcome.

In the last decades many authors sought to recontextualize and sociologize the production of knowledge about Oriental cultures and societies (e.g. Vatin 1984; Valensi 1995; Irwin 2007; Lardinois 2007; Messaoudi 2008; Pouillon 2008; Marchand 2009 ; Mangold 2011; Tolz 2011; Burke III 2014; Pouillon and Vatin 2014). Their common point was their will to challenge the Saidian (re)construction of “Orientalism” as one undifferentiated discourse, ranging from the humanities to the fine arts through literature and architecture. Edward Said read orientalist scholarship as both the generator and the product of Western imperialism—at the expense of a monolithic, helpless, Orient. On the contrary, our goal is to take seriously the contribution of “Orientals” to the construction of orientalist, i.e. Turkological, scholarship. By doing so, we wish to partake in the renewal of the history of science and the humanities in the imperial/colonial context (Conklin 2013, for a reassessment).

Key Questions

Questioning the autonomization of Turkology is relevant both in terms of intellectual and social history. We propose to follow these two leads through three sets of questions focusing on (1) the definition, (2) the actors, and (3) the uses of Turkology.

1. What is Turkology?

Questions of vocabulary should come first. The meaning of “Turk” has been investigated in different periods, places and languages (English, French, Italian as well as Arabic, Persian and Western Turkish), but less so in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Kurdish, Hindi or other Turkic languages. Rather than isolated notions, it could be fruitful to examine the historicity of pairs of concepts, such as: Turks/Muslims (two terms synonymous for long in several European languages); Turks/Ottomans; Turks/Tatars; Turkish/Turkic; Türk/Türkiyeli. The same applies to epistemological labels: What was the field called—if existing at all—in different contexts? When did such conceits as “Turkology” or “Turkish Studies” appear in different languages? What practices did those word(s) cover in different countries? The problem also arises diachronically: did “Turkish Studies” designate a different set of educational activities than “good old Turkology”?

Second, one should consider how Turkish Studies fit in the broader history of orientalist scholarship. In other words: what makes an orientalist a Turkologist? Is there more to it than the oral and/or written mastery of a Turkic language? A figurehead of 16th-century French humanism, and mainly a scholar of Arabic and Hebrew, Guillaume Postel might readily be considered an early precursor of the field (Veinstein, 2000). Therefore, should we understand the development of “Turkology” in the 19th century as a dynamic of specialization and differentiation within “classical,” i.e. Islam-centered, orientalism? And yet we should not disregard the fact that it was the sinologists who, back in the 18th or early 19th century, laid the ground for the recognition, by its oriental margins, of a vast Turkish-Tatar “civilization.” How then should we think of the articulation of these two traditions of oriental studies, the one focused on the Arab-Muslim world, the other on the Far East?

Finally, where should Turkish studies be located in the history of humanities and the social sciences? What was the place of the Turkic languages in the development of philological thought in the 19th century, especially in the history of comparative linguistics? What was the impact of the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, political science, folklore) on the métier de turcologue? What was the influence of racial anthropology? Is such a distinction between “armchair Turkology” and “field Turkology” worth addressing? Obviously, by addressing one particular field or subfield of scholarship, we hope to pave the way for a larger questioning on the genealogy of our contemporary “area studies” and the specificities of existing divisions of academic knowledge and practice.

2. Who is a Turkologist?

Contributions may focus as well on the actors of Turkish studies in their diversity. Socio-intellectual approaches of academic scholars, both individual or collective, are welcome. Who is recognized as a specialist? What is the curriculum in each and every country? What is the actual academic activity (faculty, scientific) of those scholars? What is their geographic, religious and social background? Where and how did they learn Turkish (at home, at school, in university, in the office, in the army, on the job)? Which Turkish do they know (literary or vernacular, Eastern or Western)? What other language have they mastered? Do they think of themselves as Turkologists? In this perspective, one should consider the role of intellectual and professional parentage, of dynasties and other orientalist “silsiles”.

And yet, these academic scholars do not stand alone. We wish to bring to the fore the “subaltern of Turkish Studies”: adjuncts professors and teachers, assistants. The study of “native lecturers” or répétiteurs indigènes—that is, of teachers often from the Ottoman Empire, is crucial. Who are these people? In the early-modern era, and well into the 19th century, Armenians, for instance, played a major role in the teaching of Turkish in Western Europe: what about elsewhere? And yet, from the early 20th century, in France as well as in Italy, we see a growing anxiety to match language and ethnicity—to have Turkish taught by “real Turks,” ie by Muslim Ottomans. Thus one should consider how the rise of Turkish nationalism and the creation of the Turkish state transformed Turkish studies.

Other actors matter too. If the social history of students is thrilling, those of Oriental schools have not been much investigated. Who learns Turkish and why? What are the circulations of students between institutions, nation-wide or abroad? What kind of career do Turkish studies lead to? (Amateur practices—Turkology for Turkology’s sake—should not be neglected either.) What happens in the classroom? What methods and pedagogic tools are used (grammars, dictionaries, textbooks, maps)? Lastly, Turkologists are not always academics: diplomats, military, literati and jurists are much involved in the Turkish world, and elaborate knowledge about it. How do they fit in the field ? What is their legitimacy?

What are the local, national and international networks enacted by all these actors? One should also consider the circulations of individuals (scientific missions, lectures, conferences, educational exchanges, scholarships) as well as that of artifacts (books, manuscripts, archaeological items, archival material). The correspondence by letter is of particular interest to us. Last but not least, what kind of relations do the (Turkish or non-Turkish) scholars have with the “actual Turks” (from the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, or Russia)? How often do they go out “ into the field” and who are they acquainted with there? Conversely, what was the impact of the migrations of Turks on the development of Turkish studies in the different Western countries? What kind of Turkish studies are done by scholars with this background?

3. What use is Turkology?

Finally, the workshop will address the question of the social and political role of the Turkologist. What were the professional practices related to the development of Turkish studies? In what contexts and for what purpose do scholars in Turkish studies make use of their skills? How do these experiences influence their work in turn? Papers may deal with subjects such as the military, diplomacy, geopolitical or economical expertise, translation and interpreting. More broadly, the workshop will deal with the question of the political uses of Turkology. What is the incidence of local, national and international politics on the not-so-quiet realm of Turkish studies ?

As an invitation for further investigation, we propose the following speculative typology:

  • Nationalist Turkology: Turkish studies developed in connection with the construction of national identities and states (e.g. Turkey, Hungary). This raises the issue of “academic Turkism”—or of the porosity between the nationalist discourse and the scholarly one. We also want to examine how nation-states reshaped Turkish studies: Did the creation of Turkey, for instance, impact Turkish studies? Was there a “Kemalist Turkology”?

  • Colonial Turkology: The development of Turkish studies is related to that of empires, be it continental, direct (Russia) or embedded in “softer” forms of subjugation (as enacted by the French, the Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Italian in the Ottoman Empire…).

  • Auxiliary Turkology: Sometimes Turkology is developed by scholars driven by a strong ideological or cultural affinity toward their “object.” Does this type of Turkological scholarship contribute to Turkish nation-building (French Pro-Kemalist Turcology, for instance)?

  • Domestic Turkology: Does the presence of Turkish migrants in a country have an impact on Turkish studies? What is the link between the development of Turkology and the need to govern a large Turkish population in a predominantly non-Turkish context? For instance, what was the influence of Turkish immigration on German Turkology?

  • Post-Ottoman Turkology: Is there a Turkology peculiar to nations-states created from the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Balkans, Near East, Maghreb)?

  • War Turkology: What are the uses of Turkology during times of war? Is there a Nazi Turkology? A Soviet Turkology? A Cold War Turkology?

These categories are debatable. Of course, each case may partake in several types at the same time, or switch from one type to another in diachrony. But the above provides a preliminary outline for varieties of scholarship that would usefully shape the field. Other kinds of categorization will be welcome as well.

Submission Guidelines and Time Frame

The workshop will be held on 12-13 November 2015 at the Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes (Istanbul). The presentations will be in English or in French. Participants are expected to attend the entire workshop.

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences are invited to submit proposals with a short resume by 15 May 2015. Abstracts (up to 600 words) should be submitted in English or French. They should elaborate on sources, outline the key questions, the methodology, and provide bibliographical references. Accepted panelists will be notified by 15 June 2015.

Authors will be asked to submit a first draft of 10 pages by 30 September 2015. Selected papers will be expected on 30 January 2016 and will be considered for publication in a special issue of the European Journal of Turkish Studies. They shall not exceed 60,000 characters, including spaces, notes and bibliography (see

Travel and subsistence expenses will be covered through funding provided by the French National Research Agency [Agence Nationale de la Recherche] within the programme “Trans-acting Matters: Areas and Eras of a (Post-)Ottoman Globalization” [Matières à transfaire. Espaces-temps d’une globalisation (post-)ottomane] (ANR-12-GLOB-003). Also with the support of the Centre d’Études Turques, Ottomanes, Balkaniques et Centrasiatiques (Paris).

For further information: please contact Marie Bossaert (marie.bossaert[at] and Emmanuel Szurek (emmanuel.szurek[at]


List of references appended to French version of the call.

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