Tobias Harper

Assistant Professor
TEMPE Campus


Toby Harper is a historian of modern Britain and the British Empire. He is interested in how personal and communal experiences of curiosity, hope and vanity informed cultural and political life at a local, national and transnational level.

Harper has published on the social, political and cultural history of the modern British honours system, and on New Zealand history.


  • Ph.D. Columbia University 2014
  • M.A. University of Auckland, New Zealand 2007

Research Interests

At the moment Toby is finishing a book entitled From Servants of the Empire to Everyday Heroes: The British Honours System and the People in the Twentieth Century. It shows how a seemingly traditional, even archaic-looking institution  the British honours system  expanded and modernized in the twentieth century to serve imperial and domestic political priorities. It argues that one major consequence of the persistence and growth of honors in Britain and the British Empire was a connection between the expansion of the state through imperial and social democratic institutions and the expansion  or democratization  of hierarchy. As new groups were granted status in established power structures they also became invested in distinguishing themselves in an elaborate status system. The expansion of the state popularized hierarchy more than egalitarianism. At the same time, in parts of the decolonizing former empire, especially Ireland and India, nationalist governments reacted against the honours system, making it a symbol of what was wrong with the empire. In both cases the honours system offered a powerful set of symbols in debates about the relationship between the empire, government, the monarchy and social order.

In other words, the more the British Crown ranked people, the more the people cared about rank.


Peer Reviewed:

"Harold Wilson’s ‘Lavender List’ Scandal and the Shifting Moral Economy of Honour", Twentieth Century British History, advance copy available: hwy048,

“The Order of the British Empire after the British Empire”, Canadian Journal of History, 52, 3 (December 2017), 509-32.

“Voluntary Service and State Honours in Twentieth-Century Britain”, The Historical Journal, 48, 2 (June 2015), 641-61.

"Philanthropy and Honours in the British Empire", New Global Studies, 12, 2 (August 2018), 257-76.

“‘Amen, Amen!’ Christianity, Society and Visions of the Future in 1920s New Zealand”, New Zealand Journal of History, 42, 2, (2008) 133-53.

Other historical writing:

"The Shame of 'Sir': British honours and decolonization", Aeon, 29 October 2018, online at:

“‘Going Native’ with Dune’s Paul Atreides”, Imperial and Global Forum, 26 June 2018, online at:

“A Two-tier System”, History and Policy Opinion Article, 2 July 2015, online at:

“The BBC’s ‘Alternative Honours List’”, History News Network, 20 February 2012, online at:


Review of: Samuel Clark, Distributing Status, in Journal of Military History, 81, 2, April 2017, 549-51.

Review of: Angela Thompsell, Hunting Africa: British Sport, African Knowledge and the Nature of Empire, in H-Empire, 31 May 2016.

Review of: Dane Kennedy, The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia, in H-Empire, 6 November 2014.

Review of: Donald A. Yerxa, ed., British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History, in H-Empire, 22 July 2013.

Review of: Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson, eds, Seeds of Empire: The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, in H-Empire, 23 January 2012.

Review of: John Stenhouse with G.A. Wood, ed., Christianity, Modernity and Culture: New Perspectives on New Zealand History, in: New Zealand Journal of History, 40, 2, 2006, 283-4.


Spring 2019
Course Number Course Title
HST 130 The Historian's Craft
HST 426 The British Empire
Fall 2018
Course Number Course Title
HST 303 Studies in Asian History