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Reframing craniometry: human exceptionalism and the production of racial knowledge

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Focusing on the nineteenth century practice of craniometry, this paper considers how strategies of producing racial ‘knowledge’ played a key role in the development of ideas about the human. Supplementing the familiar claim that nineteenth century racial craniometry was designed to biologise longstanding aesthetic prejudices about variations in human physical appearance, the paper offers a more specific understanding of the role of this practice in biologising race. Taking up the post-Linnaean context in which a biological conception of race was elaborated, it considers how early nineteenth century debates about the unique and exceptional status of the human – classically identified with the soul or mind – centred upon the head. The practice of craniometry, it is suggested, can be understood in this context, as its centrality in the emergence of a biological conception of race is traced to an effort to demonstrate the material existence of the mind. The possibility proposed in this paper, therefore, is that particular physical differences between various peoples came to be regarded as racially significant in the nineteenth century attempt to determine the exceptional status of the human.
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Keywords: craniometry; humanism; intelligence; mind; race; racism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Penrith, Australia

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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