The Technology of Fields: The Politics of Agricultural “Science” in Late Ottoman and French Mandate Syria

By Elizabeth Williams
Submitted to Session P4926 (Circulating Science and Scaling Innovation: Science and Technology Studies in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines the processes and politics that characterized technological innovations pursued in the name of increasing “scientific” or “modern” agricultural practices in late Ottoman and interwar Syria. While scholarship has dealt with a number of the economic and social aspects of agricultural developments during this period, it has not examined in any detail the technological changes that accompanied these developments and their implications. Starting in the late nineteenth century, government administrators and officials, at first Ottoman and later French and Syrian, embarked on a range of activities to facilitate the introduction of new technologies into agricultural practice, albeit on different scales and with varied motives and goals. In so doing, they applied machines and translated practices that had often originated in other social, economic, and ecological spaces. These efforts confronted a number of challenges, which inspired, on the one hand, a variety of strategies to accommodate local practice to the exigencies of these technologies and, on the other, attempts to adapt technologies to local practice.

Using reports, periodicals, and correspondence from archives and libraries in Turkey, France, and Lebanon, this paper traces three aspects of this process. First, it highlights examples of the economic, social, and ecological challenges that confronted officials aiming to implement these new technologies and considers the solutions proposed and the resistances these at times provoked. Second, the paper demonstrates how the shift in imperial space precipitated by the imposition of the French mandate after World War I subjected the circulation of technology and the processes implicated in its adoption to a new set of political considerations. Finally, it traces how throughout both the late Ottoman and the interwar period, the rhetoric used to justify and promote these technologies worked to ensure a distinction between them and existing practice, obscuring these technologies’ dependence on local knowledge for effective adoption. I argue that the gradual and piecemeal adoption of technology during this period was not only a consequence of social, economic, and ecological obstacles, but was also a product of the highly politicized process its transfer and implementation involved, a politicization that only increased in the post-war period as the region transitioned from being Ottoman provinces to mandates within the French imperial sphere.