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Concepts of Boundaries and the Construction of Sociocultural Difference in (Trans)Ottoman Contexts: Circulation of Knowledge, Conceptual Changes and Transfers, 16th-19th Centuries

Barbara Henning and Necati Alkan

The project documents and maps out the complex semantic field which underlies discourses about establishing, negotiating and transgressing social boundaries in the Ottoman context, adopting a broad time frame that spans from the 16th to the early 19th century. Delving into the subject of social boundaries in the Ottoman world comes with the realisation that to merely translate modern and Western concepts is of limited use: The direct translation of “boundary“, the Ottoman term ḥadd, can indeed be encountered in the Ottoman sources. However, other notions, e.g. the idea of an involuntary mixing or mingling (iḫtilāṭ) when talking about social boundaries, need to be taken into account to do justice to the complexities and internal dynamics of the Ottoman discourse. For theoretical support, the project draws on the field of conceptual history: Ottoman notions of boundaries will be read as complex semantic configurations, whose specific genealogies and trajectories can be traced. Changes over time in meaning, strategies of translation and appropriations, as well as differences between various genres and contexts in Ottoman usage will be recorded to explore two key hypotheses: First, Ottoman semantics pertaining to sociocultural boundaries are subject to changes which are related to broader transformations within Ottoman society. Second, the Ottoman semantics under scrutiny here do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are products of continuous exchanges and transfers of knowledge, thus reflecting epistemological entanglements and shedding light on frameworks of interactions that extend beyond the territorial borders of the Ottoman Empire. In terms of source material, the project puts normative texts in conversation with sources describing individual and concrete instances of negotiations of social boundaries. Moments in which social boundaries are being discussed are tracked down in a wide variety of sources, including legal discourse, advice literature and fictional texts, with a geographical focus on the Ottoman provincial centres of Trabzon and Diyarbekir.