Maria Birnbaum is a gloknos Visiting Fellow, and will be in Cambridge visiting gloknos, CRASSH and POLIS throughout the year 2021-22.

While at CRASSH I shall be developing my research project on the Histories and Hierarchies of Ignorance. In Western intellectual tradition knowledge has long been associated with progress, agency and freedom. The Enlightenment dictum taught us that knowledge is power and conversely a lack of knowledge is a lack of power. Not knowing is a problem. Either a problem to be solved or mitigated, but a problem nonetheless. The unknown looms large as a state to be alleviated. This unambiguous desire for knowledge has created barriers to understand situations where ignorance was viewed neutrally, or even positively, by those inhabiting it. It also misses out on the power of ignorance, of being ignored or being ignorant. The project at hand therefore looks at what goes missing when the unknown is seen as little more than a void to be filled or a problem to be solved. Guiding questions are:

  • What is the relationship between ignorance, power and order?
  • What are the political, social and conceptual histories of ignorance?
  • What techniques and practices produce ignorance?
  • What effects does a given form of ignorance give rise to and how are these related to its production?

Looking at the relationship between different regimes of ignorance, power and order the project builds on a detailed study of the conceptual history of the term and its cognates as well as a grounded analysis of the different techniques of unknowing, or ”agnogenesis”, i.e. active or passive destruction of available knowledge, selective amnesia and bureaucratic ignorance. While the project does not aim at a comprehensive epistemology of ignorance it does set out to improve our understanding about ignorance as a constructive force of modern social and political processes amounting to more than the null state when the flow of knowledge is interrupted. Rather, the project seeks to study ignorance as a productive force in itself, the twin and not the opposite of knowledge. The empirical focus during the visit at CRASSH is on the colonial formation of knowledge and ignorance of religion.


Maria Birnbaum is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bern. She received her PhD in International Relations from the European University Institute (EUI) and works in the fields of Global Politics, Religious Studies, and Colonial History. Her work studies the relationship between diversity and order with a particular focus on religion and global politics.

Maria Birnbaum is currently part of the project ‘Religious Conflicts and Coping Strategies’ at the University of Bern where she is working on a series of articles exploring

1) The conditions and limits of liberal diversity governance (“The costs of recognition“), and

2) The entangled history and politics of Israel and Pakistan.

She is also finalising a book manuscript titled “Becoming Recognizable” analysing arguments for the recognition of religion in global politics. Here she shows how attempts to conceptualise, institutionalise, and manage social and religious difference in South Asia and the Middle East shaped the state-making processes of Pakistan and Israel and the conflicts following them. She argues that recognition along the lines of religion – in terms of border making, representation, or demography – came with considerable costs.

In her new project, ”Histories and Hierarchies of Ignorance“, Maria Birnbaum studies cases where political and legal unintelligibility are conceived as forms of power rather than forms of suppression.

Her most recent publication ”Recognizing diversity: Establishing religious difference in Pakistan and Israel” analyses the conditions of epistemological change in the international politics of religion. It was published in the volume Culture and Order in World Politics with Cambridge University Press in 2020, the winner of the International Studies Association’s book award for the best-edited book in International Theory. Maria Birnbaum has co-edited the series Beyond Critique published with The Immanent Frame and a volume on Religious Pluralism.

In 2021-2022 she will be a visiting fellow at CRASSH and POLIS at Cambridge University and has previously held visiting fellowships at Northwestern University, USA, and Lund University, Sweden and positions at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität (LMU) in Munich, Germany; Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS), Florence, Italy; Oslo University (UiO), Norway; and Bern University, Switzerland. Her main archival work was conducted in New Delhi, India, Geneva, Switzerland, London, and Oxford, UK. Maria Birnbaum’s research has been funded by the European Research Council (ERC), as well as the Swedish, Norwegian, and Swiss Research Council.


Tel: +44 1223 766886