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Graduate conference 2020

"The Politics of Progress: Growth in and throughout History"

May 1, 2020 - cancelled due to pandemic

Harris Hall 108 

Keynote speaker: Lily Geismer (Claremont McKenna College)

Convener: T.H. Breen Graduate Fellow Sean HARVEY

CALL FOR PAPERS: deadline January 27, 2020

            A key feature of modernity is the belief that social and political progress is linked to economic growth or scientific and technological advancements. The philosophes who compiled the first Enyclopédie envisioned progress as a process of moral improvement as well as scientific advancement, but twentieth-century economists have increasingly tied progress to rising GDPs. Since the Enlightenment, “growth” in the number of goods, wealth, or in a store of knowledge has come to occupy an increasingly important place in our collective understanding of progress. Ultimately, this conference asks why do large segments of modern society view progress almost exclusively through the lens of material accumulation or “growth?”

            But definitions of progress and how it can be measured have also been sites of political contestation. Workers, consumers, environmentalists, civil rights activists, theologians and other actors have critiqued the fusion of material accumulation and its connotations of progress or have offered their own visions of progress and how to measure it. Recent scholarship has sought to unpack how progress and growth have become inextricably linked, but also how resistance to the formulation that “material growth is progress” have produced new understandings about important analytic categories, such as race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, the environment, the market, and even history itself.

            In order to uncover the historical connection between the ideas of “growth” and progress, this conference invites papers from different regional and temporal contexts that engage with some of the following questions:

1.) How can we begin to historicize the relationship between material “growth” and progress? How have these two ideas become so closely associated with one another? How have growth and progress been integral to our understanding of what constitutes “modernity”? How has the emphasis on material advancements erased or obscured alternative visions of progress?

2.) How have progress and growth been measured throughout time? Who has the power to set the parameters for measuring progress? How has this power been critiqued and contested throughout time and space? How has this power to measure progress influenced the way that we write history?

3.) How does the rhetoric of growth and progress reinforce structures of inequality? How does this grammar of progress also provide space for resistance, critique, or the mobilization of counterhegemonic formations?

 4.) How do ideas about growth and progress draw upon, reinforce, or create new social categories, such as gender, race, citizenship or the nation-state? Does the production of these new social categories reinvigorate or weaken the connection between growth and progress?

This conference will take place on May 1, 2020 on Northwestern University’s campus in Evanston, Illinois. The keynote speaker will be Dr. Lily Geismer, a historian at Claremont-McKenna College. Dr. Geismer is the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (2015) and is one of the co-editors of Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century (2018). For more on Dr. Geismer, please visit:

Please send a paper proposal of no more than 1 page (250 words) to conference convener Sean Parulian Harvey ( by Monday, January 27, 2020. Upon acceptance, conference papers of 10-12 pages will need to be submitted by Thursday, April 16, in time for review for faculty commentators. Conference presentations will be limited to 10 minutes to encourage discussion.



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