Introducing: Sarah Nelson
Since 1 October 2022, Sarah Nelson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for History. Below she introduces herself.
I’m delighted to join the Institute for History and MAIR program as a postdoc on Alanna O’Malley’s ERC research grant, “Invisible Histories of the United Nations and the Global South” (INVISIHIST). Actually, “delighted” doesn’t quite cover it. I am overjoyed, and still often awed, to look around this city and the campus and find myself in such a beautiful place, working alongside colleagues who are posing important, fascinating questions about global affairs, in both the past and present.
I’ve come to Leiden from Texas, where I held a postdoctoral fellowship at Southern Methodist University. It’s the state where I was born, but not where I am “from.” When I was about three years old, my family moved from Texas to Columbia, South Carolina, close to the southeastern coast. But, three years later, my family moved again—this time, from the southeastern United States to southeast Asia. I spent the rest of my childhood in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the city I call home.
When I graduated from the International School of Kuala Lumpur in 2009, I headed back to the US for college. I’d chosen Belmont University, a small liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee, because it was an excellent music school, and I planned to be a music teacher. But after just one semester, I found myself enthralled less by my courses in piano and music theory, and more by the siren song of the humanities and social sciences. I promptly dropped my Music Education major, joined the honors program, and picked up a double major in history and Spanish. The dream of graduate school came into focus soon thereafter.
I completed my PhD in history, and a Joint-PhD in Comparative Media, at Vanderbilt University in 2021. My research focuses on the mechanisms and quality of US empire across the 20th century, looking particularly at how international organizations became vehicles but also sites of contestation of American power. My first book project analyzes these dynamics in the domain of global telecommunications governance and international debates over how to regulate the global flow of news and information.
Many of us will recognize “freedom of information” as a much-touted goal and ethos of the Internet age. It’s a platitude that suggests that information “wants” to be free: that the free flow of media, communications, and data across borders is an inherently liberatory force, encouraging freedom of speech, trade, and democratic politics. But this idea, in fact, has a long and highly contested history, given the role that telecommunications infrastructures and mass media industries played in facilitating imperial expansion and extending colonial domination across the Global South. My book traces this global history debates over what it would mean to make information truly “free” across the long arc of decolonization. It reveals that polemics over information freedom spurred new questions and controversies over the scope of American power abroad, the legacy of empire in international governance, and the possibilities of cultural sovereignty and economic equity amid decolonization.
As an interdisciplinary researcher, my interests branch widely, including the history of science and technology, decolonization and international law, media and cultural history as well as the history of multilateralism and the rise of “multistakeholder” paradigms in international governance. If any of these sound interesting (or if they don’t!), please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’m so looking forward to meeting more of my colleagues here at the university, and to be involved in the Leiden community.