Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Awards
Aaron G. Jakes
New York University
2015 Winner (Social Sciences)
State of the Field: Agrarian Transformation, Colonial Rule, and the Politics of Material Wealth in Egypt, 1882-1914
New York University, History/Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies
Supervised by Zachary Lockman
The Social Sciences Category received 21 nominations this year. The Committee was impressed by the consistent high quality of submissions over a wide range of disciplines. The winner of the 2015 award is State of the Field: Agrarian Transformation, Colonial Rule, and the Politics of Material Wealth in Egypt, 1882-1914 by Aaron Jakes. His dissertation is from the joint PhD program in History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, under the supervision of Zachary Lockman.
Jakes’ dissertation is outstanding in the sheer scale of its scope and ambition. On the empirical level, it revisits the pre-WWI British occupation and the Egyptian countryside and reconsiders long-held views about both. Eschewing a simplistic view of the British occupation as purely extractive, Jakes argues there was a more complex relationship with both the metropole and the colonial state whereby the notion of public utility served the function of maximizing British success but also acknowledging the needs and interests of the Egyptian people. Nationalist aspirations for independence, and their vision of an independent state, Jakes argues, were shaped by the uneven impact of the financial bubble on Egypt’s economy and society.
What makes Jakes’ dissertation unique is that it does not fit in a single box. His work is not a simple economic history, nor is it a history of the countryside, nor is it a cultural history. Rather than prioritizing either the economy or culture, Jakes integrates the material and the ideational to study Egypt from the perspective of cultural political economy. The vast array of sources include peasant petitions, probate inventories, and records from multiple archives, as well as previously unmined reports from the Ministry of the Interior. Even Jakes’ use of the press - something that has been done and redone - is again unique: he examines the well-known discontent following Dinshawai and the financial crisis of 1907 and lesser-known discourses on caterpillar infestation to weave together a narrative on “crisis.” In this way Jakes takes us down a new path over old historical ground.
In addition to making a significant contribution to the historiography of British Egypt through his remarkable empirical analysis, Jakes’ dissertation speaks to a wider inter-disciplinary audience by addressing the emerging theoretical literature on state/space in historical sociology, geography, and critical international relations. This rich, detailed, and sophisticated dissertation will be of interest to scholars interested in colonialism, capitalism, and the state, in addition to British Egypt.
The 2015 Committee was comprised of Daniel Neep (chair) at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University; Mona Russell, Department of History, East Carolina University; Paul Silverstein, Department of Anthropology, Reed College; and Kathryn Spellman, Department of Sociology, Aga Khan University.