Microhistory: The Debate

Micro history gained prominence as a school of historical thought during the 1960s and 70s. It essentially seeks to attribute worldwide historical events to smaller, seemingly insignificant occurrences on a micro level. There is a great debate surrounding the effectiveness of this approach, and whether it offers a new insight into transnational history, or whether it is simply a lottery in deciding whether factors are actually important.


However, there is a tendency to believe that macro and micro history work against one another, instead of towards the same goal. Both seek to understand global events but so from a different lense. Indeed, as was discussed in today’s tutorial ‘how much use is a small map without the context of a large map?’. This question is particularly poignant was analyzing the usefulness of micro and macro historical approaches. Rather than working against one another, they work in conjunction and the evidence gained from both schools can be combined to formulate a sophisticated analysis of global events.


Heather Streets-Salter analyses the Singapore Mutiny of 1915 and suggests that its apparent irrelevance on the historic stage has arisen from the historical context of the time. The First World War, argued by Streets-Salter, has overshadowed the Sepoy Mutiny and consequently only a handful of historians have further inquired into the causes and consequences of the Singapore Mutiny. My problem with micro history is therefore this, that if historians take into account small details and extrapolate them into the context of larger world debates, then surely, they run the risk of imagining, or over exaggerating the significance of said event. Peltonens argument does well to recognize that ‘individuals or small places are automatically assumed to represent a microelement’. The danger therefore is that micro historians selectively pick areas that correlate to their argument, and use evidence that supports their argument while ignoring the wider picture.

Furthermore, another issue arising from today’s seminar, which is true again when defining transnational history, is the parameters within which micro history operates. Initially, the definition seems rather narrow, microhistory analyses history from a local perspective. However, what are the geographical limits of this angle? When does micro history become macro? Arguably large cities, such as London, are micro in the context of Europe, opposing, towns are macro in the context of the individual. Perhaps then, microhistory is relative and dependent on the ‘lense’ through which is it seen.

Macro micro macro macro micro macro micro micro macro history

Does anyone else have a problem with the fact that these words are basically the same? And also like…so micro means small, right? Which means that macro means big? But then on a camera, right, there is a macro setting. And the macro setting is for taking photos of small things? So I don’t…like I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. Does anyone get this? Are camera manufacturers specifically out to mess with history under-grads?

I still don’t know.

I’m serious guys search the word ‘macro’ on any image search engine this is the kind of thing you’ll get TELL ME WHAT IS MACRO ABOUT THIS IT’S RAINDROPS IT LITERALLY DOESN’T GET ANY SMALLER!

‘Asking large questions in small places.’ Charles Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture, p. 1.

It’s a classic – the go-to definition for anyone looking for an introduction to micro-history. And I think it’s quite good. Mainly because it’s much easier to understand than those other two words.

It’s self-explanatory, right? Reduce the scale of analysis, in order to draw wide and far reaching conclusion. So look at something micro, and then use it to talk about something macro. Use the micro to look at the macro. Micro and macro.

Wait, so does that mean we’re doing micro-history or macro-history?

I’m getting confused again.


Why not both?

‘A marginal or extreme [historical] case is in some respects typical of a larger area or a group, but in its extremeness differs from the typical case in significant ways’. Matti Peltonen, Clues, Margina and Monads: The Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research, p. 357.

Matti Peltonen seems to think that both makes a lot of sense actually. Perhaps one of the best things about micro-history is its ability to provide a unique keyhole view in to certain ideas, institutions, structures etc. It allows us to connect with actual lived experience and understand historical phenomena from an entirely different angle.

Microhistory provides a level of precision understanding that most other historical techniques simply cannot – and broader historical studies can benefit greatly from this level of depth. Of course, on the flip-side, micro-history generally works to place its studies within a broader historical narrative.

Both. Both? Both is good.

But this is a Transnational history module…

I’m getting there, I’m getting there.

It doesn’t get much more macro than transnational history, right? This is as big as it gets – the movement of people, ideas, goods, and generally things across borders and around the globe. So how on earth can two things that seem so opposed work together.

Well the error is in the assumption. Micro and macro are set up in opposition, but in reality they’re not actually that opposite. Especially in history. I’ve already spoken about how the two are fairly inter-dependent when it comes to their place in history. And I think that can be especially pertinent in transnational history.

I briefly refer you to ‘A Chinese Farmer’ by Tonie Andrade – a great example of how focusing on one individual, confined to the margins of history, can lead to transnational conclusions about connections and interactions between Chinese and Dutch people in Taiwan. But just talking theoretically for a moment – it kind of seems like transnational history is already in the trade of focusing on individuals in this way. By it’s very nature, the primary actors in transnational history are the people who move across historical borders, and the effect that movement has. These people aren’t necessarily famous names, they themselves aren’t operating on a macro level. But they’re part of a macro trend. And that means that studying and understanding them will be invaluable in trying to understand that trend.

So okay, maybe these two words are far too similar to be opposites. But then, maybe they’re not really that opposite after all.

Microhistory: the irregular and the human

When reading about transnational and microhistories, two thoughts came predominantly to mind. The first was on how one could reconcile history on what is seemingly its grandest scale with its smallest (and often its most irregular). At first glance, perhaps, microhistory seems almost an antithesis to transnational history. Transnational history calls to mind forces that cross borders, wider movements, and nations themselves (as elaborated on in our previous discussion groups, the term ‘transnational’ implies the involvement of the nation as a key requisite, although we have debated the validity of that assumption).  Something that struck me when approaching this week and its readings on approaching microhistory from a transnational perspective is the fact that movement in rural and often even urban societies throughout much of human history was highly restricted: it seems almost silly at first glance to even think of applying the term ‘transnational’ to much of seventeenth-century England, for example. There may have been transnational forces at work, but the average farmer was surely unlikely to go or encounter anything beyond his borders. Anything else would have been a significant outlier. ‘Outliers’ do not at initially appear to work with transnational history. 


However, the readings this week – particularly Matti Peltonen’s ‘Clues, Margins, and Monads: The Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research’ centered on examples of microhistory that were ‘outliers’ in one sense or the other. For example, he examines Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and its focus on one villager who went against tradition and religion, as well as Michel De Certeau’s La Possession du Loudun and its interpretation of the ‘possession’ of Ursuline nuns in the 1630s. Neither of these cases were commonplace in their respective historical periods, yet both showed a common theme: their respective societies’ reaction to the unacceptable. In this, perhaps, more is revealed about the nature of said societies than a general examination of the ‘usual.’This, therefore, could be applied to the transnational outlier as well as the sub-national or national one. I think, for example, of an event close to my hometown: the revolt aboard the Amistad, a slave ship that came under control of its cargo while off the coast of New England. Unusually, after capture, the slaves underwent trial via the US Supreme Court and were declared free after it was decided that they were acting in self-defence. To my knowledge, the liberation of slaves post-revolt in pre-Civil War America – much less their return to Africa – was unusual. Yet its ‘outlier’ status does in no way diminish its relevance when studying the slave trade and its disputed legality; in fact, I think that it adds to it.


A second key aspect of microhistory in relation to transnational history to me is the fact that it adds a more ‘human’ dimension to history. History is my favorite subject; it always has been and likely will always be so. This has confused many of my friends, relatives, and perhaps most of all my classmates in high school. They have always cited the same factors in their hate of the field: it’s boring, it’s just a string of dates, or names of long-dead politicians, or laws that no longer exist. I agree with them to some extent: dates, names, and laws on their own often seem abstract to the point of dull. Great forces – modernization, globalization – are certainly impactful, but it is on a small scale that history begins to get interesting.


Any of the microhistory readings for this week are excellent examples of this: both Tonio Andrade’s ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’ and Heather Streets-Salter’s ‘The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915’ focus on relatively brief events placed against larger backgrounds of colonialism and war.. Both Andrade’s and Streets-Salter’s works are clear representations of how one can perceive more about the global situation by examining the local. Yet what remains the most striking to me about microhistory is how such a perspective characterizes the people with which it deals. History is about people, after all – this is what differentiates it from natural history or biology. Andrade’s and Streets-Salter’s works provide an excellent window into the different transnational forces of seventeenth-century Taiwan and twentieth-century colonial powers, but equally as importantly, they provide a fascinating window into human lives.


Review: In search of the Chinese Common Reader. Usable Knowledge and Wondrous Ignorance in the Age of Global Science, Joan Judge (York University Toronto)

A Chinese Common Reader reading a book at a book stand

I remember doing a module on twentieth century China in year 10 at high school and noted the strong emphasis that my teacher placed on how the state strongly influenced what people read and thought. The primary sources that we were given were taken from the book ‘Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ and mostly detailed the literature and posters that the state gave for the people to read.[1] Further, we were not encouraged to think about questions such as whether ordinary Chinese people chose to read the literature they were given. Instead, we were taught that we must assume that people thought and read what was in line with the state because most of our sources come from the state.

Doing a module last semester titled ‘Migrant South Asia’ helped me to challenge this assumption that I was brought up with at school which was that the non-state actors had no agency. I learned to realise that the subaltern can indeed speak! However, up until last Friday I did not quite know if or how this might apply to China.

It was for these reasons that I found Joan Judge’s talk at the Global History Seminar last Friday quite fascinating. She discussed the various ways in which historians can try and enter the minds of the Chinese common readers and what was ‘common knowledge’ at the time. According to Judge, there are three main sources that historians can use to do so.

The first is by looking at books as objects which historians can use to understand the materiality of texts. Often these books were just cheap, string bound books which were used for gaining generic information. For instance, many of these were manuals for how to manage a household or how to write a good letter. In particular, her discussion of the uses of 萬寶全書 by ordinary people was very interesting because they claimed to contain a comprehensive assortment of ‘treasures’ that ordinary Chinese people could use. Everything they needed was supposedly in this one book.

Secondly, historians can look at the information in the books themselves to try and understand what interested the Chinese common reader. There were a wide range of interests that ordinary Chinese people had, such as how to get off opium and how to prevent cholera. It seems that the Chinese common reader sought out important information that could relate to their lives. For instance, some books instruct merchants on how to detect fake currency when dealing with foreign traders. What we see in these manuals are drawings of real foreign coins, which merchants could then use as a guide to check if the coin they received from the foreign trader matched up with the picture in the book. Interestingly, we can also see that some of these merchant manuals show little knowledge of foreign languages because the texts on the coins in the manuals make no sense. In fact, some of the drawings of coins have just squiggles in place of actual writing! Moreover, there seems to be little knowledge of foreignness because they simply referred to all foreign languages as ‘ghost speak’. Everything that was outside was seen as being ‘other’ and ‘strange’ to the Chinese common reader.

And finally, we can analyse the physical space where reading material was consumed. Most of the Chinese common readers got their reading material from book stands which were in the open in public spaces. Here, Chinese common readers would pay to stand and read a book at the stand. If they wished to rent or buy the book, they could also do so. I also really liked the point about why Chinese common readers chose to read books at book stalls rather than in libraries, even though one could read a book for free at a library whereas one had to pay to read a book at a book stall. Often there would be a complex procedure to get admittance into libraries of signing documents. It was far more convenient for Chinese common readers to pick up a book that they found interesting on the street and pay a small fee to read it. The image presented by Judge was that books were accessible and people could, and did, read books regularly. People read on the street, standing or sitting, and it this was part of Chinese culture at the time.

I especially liked the third section of Judge’s talk because it particularly links the idea of agency to the Chinese common reader. They could choose to read whatever and whenever they wanted; it was not a case of the state deciding what people should read. This is a truly transnational approach because ordinary people outside of the state could think as they pleased based on what they decided to read at the book stalls. I also think that because there was such a wide range of literature available to the Chinese common reader, they had a large amount of choice in what they decided to read. They would pick things that were interesting or relevant to them, regardless of what the state might have thought as being important for the common reader.

[1] Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins, Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (San Fransisco, 2007).

The continuous discontinuity of history’s agent-strands

History is made up of microhistories. If you stand a distance from the tapestry, it might appear that the individual threads make up sweeping stripes –grand movements; irresistible forces— but upon closer inspection, it is apparent that each ‘thread’ has a story tangled with the stories of others. ‘Grand narrative’ is ultimately composed of a vast number of ‘small narratives’: history comprises the lives of individuals, their choices, their desires, their influences, their backgrounds, and nothing can remove that fact. To weave those threads together in such a way that the work produced by the historian matches the tapestry –of infinite complexity— of the past as it actually happened is the job of they who set out to historicise; it is an impossible task, but one whose original intent must not be forgotten. To lose sight of the micro is to ultimately find that one has a macro that is not history, but fantasy: it will inevitably be inaccurate.

Andrade, in his brief and very enjoyable microhistory of Dutch-Taiwanese espionage, concludes with the exhortation to his peers to ‘be mediums, to bring alive, just for a few pages, some of the people who inhabited [the past’s] structures and lived through those [historicised] processes’: ‘let’s bring the history of our interconnected world to life, one story at a time.’[1] Such an approach brings the past to life, but also to truth. The imagination that he acclaims and evinces in his work certainly injects into such a history a very winsome emotion, bringing it to life in the mind of the reader; the focus on the individual, and the attempt to reconstruct their pressures, responses, doubts and convictions, places back at the heart of history that of which it is ultimately comprised: actors. History historicises humanity; we must not forget that humanity is, after all, made up of humans. ‘A week is a long time in politics’, as the saying goes: equally, though, it can be ‘a long time’ for anybody, anywhere. The historian must recognise this— that actors are not ciphers.

Equally, however, its actors are not –are never— set apart from history. They are not subject to determinism— but they also make choices that are contingent: we must recognise that each actor has their reasons for choosing whatever it is that they do choose in any given instance. Walter Benjamin, Matti Peltonen comments, argued that a monad –that which, following Leibniz’s 1714 work, is a ‘living mirror of the universe’— can visibly fulfil such a function only when they have been ‘blasted out of the continuity of history’, at which point ‘their structure becomes obvious’.[2] I have to admit that I am not quite certain what Peltonen means by this. Leibniz, firstly, argued that a monad was the uniquely self-composed element of existence, such that its structure could never ‘become obvious’ due to the fact that it had no structure. Benjamin, meanwhile, would surely have been wrong to argue for something having been ‘blasted out of the continuity of history’; as outlined above, history is simultaneously a) composed of the ‘discontinuity’ consequent to multiple agencies (acting, I would however argue, according to the Hobbesian axiom of convenience), and b) the result of choices always contingent upon other occurrences: to look for elements discontinuous to a holistic historiography will result in either futile search or ahistorical fiction. This continuity/discontinuity tension is, so far as I understand it, the ‘double bind’ observed by Peltonen in his conclusion.

Whither, and indeed wherefore, microhistory, in that case? Peltonen, briefly surveying numerous practitioners of microhistory, comes to suggest that ‘the new microhistory’ could be ‘described as the study of the typical exception.’[3] If one is finding ‘typical exceptions’, I would suggest, one’s theory leaves something to be desired: it is either excessively specific and in its specificity inaccurate, or it does not pay sufficiently close attention to detail and thus leaves room for anomaly. There is, in other words, no such thing as a ‘typical exception’; or alternatively, everything is typically exceptional, recognising that there is also no such thing as either an ‘average individual’ from whom a microhistory can extrapolate grand conclusions on the macro level, or an ‘extraordinary individual’ ‘blasted’ from the contingencies of historical location. As a result, the sole ‘monad’ is, as Leibniz originally intended it, the individual actor.[4] Societies, and the other conceptual macro-constructs to which it is argued that microhistory ought (and is perhaps unable) to extrapolate, are made up of actors: actors are the strands of which the historical tapestry is comprised, and the anthropological flow of ideas, goods and all else would not exist without actors. Economists, Matti Peltonen notes, have the concept of the ‘microfoundations of macrotheory’.[5] So too must be the case for history. It is not easy –it may even be impossible— to weave together the necessary multiplicity of individual lives and choices to yield a full understanding of the near-infinite global flows omnipresent across humanity. Conceptually, however, it can be recognised to be at the very least highly advisable.


[1] Tonio Andrade, “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory”, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 4 (December 2010), pp. 573-591, p. 591

[2] Matti Peltonen, “Clues, Margins, and Monads: the Micro-Macro Link in Historical Research”, History and Theory, No. 40, October 2001, pp. 347-359, p. 356

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gottfried Leibniz, Monadology, § 63

[5] Peltonen, p. 357

Microhistory, and [Neglected] Histories?

The following blogpost will consider two aspects of our readings for Tuesday. First, I’ll be talking about utilising microhistory, and its many benefits in historical analysis. Second, I’ll consider the reading regarding the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, and will consider why certain histories are not studied in as much detail as others.

Microhistory in second-year Historiography was possibly one of the best units that came out of the module. We looked at differences between microhistory and historical fiction, and studying small individual cases (such as that of Martin Guerre) was absolutely riveting. As a result, I was rather excited to dive into the readings for this week. 

Two of the most famous micro-histories in the world, The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis and The Cheese and The Worms by Carlo Ginzburg.

In “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys and A Warlord: Towards a Global Microhistory”, Andrade makes an extremely interesting point. He notes that the story of the mentioned Chinese farmer was absolutely insignificant to history- he wasn’t rich, powerful, and his actions were of no consequence to history in the long run. However, the author notes that the stories of such individuals is vital in our study of history. He claims that as historians, we should use these stories in a wider, more global perspective. Naturally, by looking at this through a slightly transnational lens, the microhistory that was being referred to in the article was especially interesting in its explanation of relationships over time. Before the war, Andrade writes, the Dutch and Chinese lived as friends. Taiwan was able to import goods from around the world (ivory from Africa, cotton from India, pepper from Palembang, etc.). It’s interesting to note that the story of this one individual, reserved for 350 years, was able to tell us so much about the social history of not only Taiwan, but of the Chinese migrants in Taiwan at the time.

In a way, microhistory lies at the very heart of history, as a concept. Micro-historians tend to look at individual stories, cases and small, often seemingly insignificant moments, and broaden the themes that are considered. Through this one article that was focused on one Chinese farmer, we learnt a lot of Dutch-Chinese relations at the time, the African slave trade, Dutch prisoners, and trade with the rest of the world. As a result, we can see that such  a small tale was retold in a manner where readers were able to learn a lot more about the society, politics and cultures surrounding the Chinese man’s story.

In “The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915”, by Heather Streets-Salter, the author admits that the story- unlike that of the Chinese farmer- was documented well, and “has all the elements of a gripping human story, including intrigue, betrayal, passion, murder, racism, tragedy and panic (542).” The story was rather personal to me, as I’m from Singapore, but was a history that I had never read before. The author addresses the lack of attention, too, writing that it was not seen as crucial, when the event was considered against the world crises that were taking place at the time, during the First World War. I’m not sure if it’s fair to consider this history ‘neglected’, as I mentioned in my title (which was why I bracketed the word), but it definitely wasn’t studied in great detail as compared to the events of the First World War. Even schools in Singapore study international history, without delving into their own (relatively short) past as much. Our own school, for example, covered Hitler and Mao, but taught us nothing about Singapore during the wars. Of all the readings for this week, I found that this one was quite possibly my favourite. The author does not simply consider the causes of the mutiny in general, but she looks at international responses, spanning from British responses, to Russian and Dutch responses. Looking at it from a rather transnational perspective, this is particularly intriguing, to consider how news of the mutiny travelled across the world, and was received in different countries.

An Image of the World

Scale is a term that is intrinsically linked to the processes of transnational history. With close links to that of micro-history, scale in the transnational perspective – another crucial component of transnational history – is centred on an inherent fear of monocausal and unilinear macro-explanations. In a sense, transnational historians often look for a so-called narrative order of micro-macro developments by altering the scales of analysis; ranging from a single family, to international, or cross-continental, entities. This focus on the particular scale that a given historian might employ is explicitly shown in reference to transnational historians preference to not use the nation-state as the “primary scale of analysis” (Struck, Ferris). In this regard, I am definitely a proponent of the transnational perspective. However, I believe that too many questions arise when considering the transnational historian’s labelling of nations and nation-states as the same entities.

Clearly, it is a historians obligation to look at a nation-state and observe the people and customs as conjoined with the aspects of the state (actual borders, institutions, administration). Yet, I feel that to regard the nation – the wider community of compatriots with shared interests & history – as essentially the same as the nation-state does the transnational discipline a dis-service. This can be explained with the use of analytical tools called Monads. The usage of monads (miniatures of the world around them) might help explain why and how a certain group, village, or town engaged in transnational processes. However, monads also work to explain that nations and nation-states are separated by two important factors, or are at least faced with two significant objections to the view of nation=nation-state.

  1. Issues with scale – a nation and its people cannot be explicitly, or possibly even implicitly, defined by its borders and the institutions within the state boundary. Moreover, monads and their function as snippets of the larger issue (either regional, national, or global) often rely on the links between a community or nation. In turn, monads must be able to see beyond the nation-state if (as with the Jewish community) a peoples, or nation, is dispersed across borders. Conversely, monads must also be able to distinguish when nation-states, and all its real-life institutions, affect the transnational research. In essence, monads must be able to simultaneously use and ignore the functions of a state, not just disregard totally because of the distinction that nation=nation-state.
  2. Linked to issue #1, “Continuity is based on discontinuity”. As Peltonen states, a timeline of continuity is dependent on the “exceptional events in a given monad”; they operate as the incarnation of discontinuity which directly affects/ ensures continuity. However, as with the issue of monads’ scales, “continuity is based on discontinuity” encounters problems of boundaries/restrictions. In particular, Walter Benjamin’s aforementioned phrase does not adequately explain how monads should be interpreted in relation to the nation, which has previously been shown to have difficulties with borders. As such, the question of a monad and its apparent disregard of the ‘stately functions’ of a nation-state depicts how certain historians might have skewed analyses as result of the disregard for the ‘state’.

These are but a few of the objections to the distinction that nation=nation-state. I suppose it is possible that I have greater difficulty accepting this transnational doctrine for my view of the world was always closely linked to belief that a nation and a state are two completely separate entities that work in conjunction with one another, but not always for the same reasons. A state, and thus its institutions and borders, must always have a clarity to them that cannot be seen in the nation. Even further, a monad might explain the larger processes of a certain people within a nation, but it might never explain the larger process of state-building or governance. – To be honest, this is pretty strong conjecture – Do you think a monad and its use of scales can be a precursor to explaining a nation-state, or simply just processes between similar (and different) peoples/nations? For me, a nation-state cannot ever be solely homogeneous, or represented by a monad. Yet, a nation can.

The Return of Martin Guerre and Other Thoughts on Microhistory

First of all, I love microhistory. When I saw that one of our readings for this coming week was Tonio Andrade’s “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory” I was enthusiastic to see how transnational history could be applied to microhistory. My first foray in microhistory was working with Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre. If you haven’t read it and enjoyed reading Andrade in terms of his microhistorical approach, I would highly recommend it because it is wild, mostly in the sense that it’s so zany yet at the same time real; Natalie Zemon Davis goes into detail about how she engaged with her sources carefully in order to construct this seemingly minuscule historical narrative. For me this is the appeal to microhistory. Unfortunately, I don’t know that I can say The Return of Martin Guerre qualifies as a piece of transnational history (I’m inclined to say it doesn’t). But who doesn’t want to read about [spoiler alert] that one time in a French village where some guy ditched his family and then some other guy showed up and pretended to be him until the first guy comes back and they all go to court but also how did the wife not know the other guy was an imposter? #Drama. Here’s to the history gods for that court record.

What I would have been curious about is to see similarities between how Andrade and Davis do microhistory. As far as I can tell, the primary similarity between these two narratives is really a small number of fairly obscure sources. I would have loved to learn more about how Andrade found and worked with his sources, though this comes from an inherent interest in the crazy little-known stories from history like Sait’s or Martin Guerre’s. The ones that historians like Andrade can manage get their hands on and reconstruct for us. To me, the practice and process of doing microhistory is fascinating, especially the part that (as Andrade points out) requires some historical imagination.

Admittedly, I don’t know that I have the tightest grasp on what it means to do history (a discipline which, as far as I can tell, is very fact-based) and use your imagination, but still produce something credible. However, you can see how imagination played a pivotal role in showing us the Chinese farmer’s world. And it obviously took a little imagination to connect this story to the broader transnational theme Andrade is getting at between this exchange between the Chinese and Dutch. This didn’t make it less believable to me, it just made it more enjoyable to read. I suppose the merits of using some imagination are endless, no matter what you study.

The instance of the abstract: when accuracy is inconvenient

How accurate does history need to be in order to be valid? How accurate can it be? In the face of the concept of transnational history, and the implications that some of its wider-reaching premises bring to bear upon much of the rest of conventional history, these are two of the questions currently foremost in my mind.

Transnational history is ultimately an attempt to study flow: to look at the ways in which boxes previously deemed discrete are in fact contiguous, and to examine how what was previously thought to be contained within those boxes in fact sprawls and ebbs across and between those boxes. The issue is, of course, that what flows between does not exist solely in those liminal, hard-to-define spaces. Transnational history is not merely a study of borders. Such a study would produce a narrative of deep inaccuracy.

That which moves across borders starts moving while it is still within them. That’s the difficulty presented by this concept of flow. It’s accurate, so far as I can see; it’s also phenomenally difficult to actually write about. Transnational history conceptualises the past as a vast web of interrelated networks of constant movement on a scale both intra- and inter-national.

These networks are anthropological in nature. They are composed, as has already been observed, of actors. All actors form a part of a network; and as all networks, especially in the past centuries of increased globalization, are ultimately at the very least quasi-contiguous to a deep degree, that means that all actors could be said to be ‘transnational actors’, whether they move across borders or no. At the very least, their actions, though deemed by conventional history to be of importance perhaps solely as movement within a ‘class’ or similarly defined conceptual entities, will instead, as part of the great cloud of moving relationships, have transnational implication. Patricia Clavin references this in her mention of the idea of ‘glo-cal’ history (global/local).[1] Ian Tyrrell, too, recognises this to be the case. ‘The fates of Americans,’ he observes, was ‘intertwined with the wider world’.[2]

Those who lived in America –not, for most of 18th century, a nation, let alone a nation-state— were caught up in a network that undoubtedly contained the British; that was affected by the French and the Spanish; that was affected by the Russian Empire, an alliance with whom could have spared the British the unhappy sight of French ships in Chesapeake Bay; that was impacted by the Caribbean, India, China, and populations and events across the globe. To say other than Tyrrell does in the above quotation would be patently inaccurate.

But what do you say, in that case? Leaving aside ‘how do you argue’ –how do you amass an understanding of such vast networks and contingencies and present it without creating a conventional, narrow narrative— how do you phrase it? Tyrrell, for my money, isn’t sure, and is inconsistent. His history of America –a ‘Transnational Nation’— attempts to look at the interconnectivity formative of his chosen subject, and ranges its gaze across the globe, but nonetheless stumbles. Tyrrell frequently returns –tacitly; implicitly; sometimes inadvertently; sometimes explicitly— to a lexicon that accepts and adopts the conventional terminology of nation-based history. Take, for example, this sentence: ‘Badly bruised though the United States was in the military conflict with Britain, the war confirmed American independence’.[3] It appears, in fact, on the same page as the previous Tyrrell quotation. Such a statement is easy to read, and easy to write; it’s a convenient shorthand. It’s also simplistic and inaccurate: it makes the nation (or the word assigned to the concept) a metonymy for the networks and flows present within the geographical borders. Such statements are also near-constantly present throughout Tyrrell’s book: ‘Britain’ is ‘hurt’ by an economic tariff; an ‘organic metaphor of breathing in and out’ is posited in a discussion of migration into and out of the United States.[4]

But who can blame him? How, stylistically, do you write a history that is genuinely transnational? It’s a subject to which I expect I shall return. It’s also a subject to which I shall not, I suspect, find any easy answers.


[1]Patricia Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, Contemporary European History, Vol. 14, No. 4, (Nov., 2005), pp. 421-439, p. 437

[2] Ian Tyrrell, Transnational Nation. United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007), p. 19

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 50-51; p. 55

A little bit over-dramatic…

So in The Guest Worker Question in Post War Germany, Rita Chin focuses a lot on Aras Ören, a Turkish migrant to West Germany who created almost an entirely new category of writing through his literature. Obviously there were lots of other things that she spoke about but…I don’t know, this kind of caught my eye. I guess what’s interesting about it is the idea of an artist as a transnational actor and commentator, in a few ways.

Transnational Actor

‘Ören initially came to the Federal Republic during the early 1960s as part of a Turkish theatre troupe, which had been invited for an extended series of performances at the Frankfurt New Theatre…Influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s consciousness-raising theatre and conception of art as a tool for Marxist critique, he and several friends established a collective with the intention of performing plays for guest workers.’ Rita Chin, The Guest Worker Question in Post War Germany, p. 69.

So Ören was literally a transnational actor.

Your face when you get it.

What’s interesting about this is the way that dramatic theories moved across borders, and reached Ören in Turkey. But not just dramatic theory – political theory as well. Brecht, after all, is known for his connection to Marxism, and creating a performance style that aims at instigating socio-political action. Ören’s approach to making theatre is therefore inherently transnational.

And that idea is not limited to Ören – the field of drama theory is rife with transnationalism. Consider, for example, Frantic Assembly, one of the most important companies in theatrical education in the UK at the moment. Their work draws on such diverse influences as Augusto Boal (from Brazil), Jerzy Grotowski (Poland), and Jaques LeCoq (France). This example is not stand alone – theatre companies across the globe draw on transnational connections to make their work, and I don’t think it’s particularly big leap from there to suggest that in drawing on global ideas, artists are very important transnational actors.

Transnational Commentator

‘By directing Was will Niyazi to a German language readership, Ören had expanded the public’s consciousness of the migrant community, and initiated a collective rethinking of how this community was being represented in the public sphere.’ Rita Chin, The Guest Worker Question in Post War Germany, p. 80.

Of course, the continuation from that is the potential for artists to act as Transnational commentators. However, I think that is far less universal – artists essentially have to act transnationally, but that doesn’t meant that they have to talk about it.

Global art? Art all over the world? Get it? Nah it’s not worth it don’t worry.

Going back to the previous example, Frantic Assembly may have global influences, but the work that they make is essentially British. I would argue that they don’t act as commentators on any sort of transnational processes. Certainly, there are companies that do, but I think that this draws out an important point.

In the last seminar, I was thinking a lot about what makes a transnational historian, and we came to the conclusion that fundamentally it’s the intention – you have to want to be transnational to actually be transnational. I think this is a perfect example of that. Just because theatre companies are inherently transnational actors does not mean that they are necessarily concerned with transnationalism. They can be passive transnational actors, being effected by transnationalism without necessarily even being aware of that, and without addressing it in their work. The distinction between passive and active transnational actors is important because  it can help us to understand how transnational actors perceive themselves and position themselves within a transnational landscape.

Does transnational history require a nation state or does it simply refer to the ways in which networks interact?

Although transnational history, by its very name would suggest a nation is necessary in its premise, does it actually need a nation to provide a comprehensive historical narrative? Or instead, does it simply need a border within which to work. In this blog post, I will aim to explore just what ‘makes’ transnational history.

The 20th and 21st century was a particularly turbulent time for the nation state, with borders constantly being formed and then reformed. Global warfare was an omnipresent theme throughout the past two centuries, and has consequently had a dramatic effect on shaping the modern world.

Transnational history is closely linked to globalization, and the ways in which business, politics, economics etc. have burst beyond their regional borders and come into play on a global scale. The nation too is a central theme to transnational history; however I would argue that it does not indeed need a ‘nation state’ to exist. This is primarily because, transnational history is actually not the studying of nations per say. Instead, it is the study of what forms a nation, the people, business, networks and intellect that exist within the nation.

The Nation can be defined as a group of people linked together by some form of shared anthropological history, whether this be culture, religion, language or race. To explore how history operates across these borders therefore does not require a hard ‘national’ border. Instead, by recognizing soft borders, such as a difference in culture, transnational history can be explored on a much more local level. For example, this school of history could be employed in the Northern region of France where a dichotomy exists between the Bretons and French. The people that live in Brittany ‘nationally’ fall under the umbrella of being French, however they do have their own separate language and culture from their sovereign state. No hard border exists in the country, and arguably it is not a particularly evident cultural change, however it does exist and have a strong history. Thus, transnational history is un-reliant on a nation state to exist. It would be fair to assess that although useful to the study of history, it is not actually necessary when exploring transnational history.

The nation state is particularly complex, and has been constantly redrawn throughout history. It is this changing shape that makes studying transnational history so interesting, however there are many other factors which may be explored under the general term ‘transnational history’ that do not require such hard borders.

A Transnationalist Perspective: Spreading Ideas

Over the past couple of years, an interest towards studying about the American Revolution has skyrocketed, with the famed production of Hamilton at Broadway, which teaches American history through catchy tunes, or the presidency of Donald Trump, which encourages students to read into the history of politics behind the nation. 

The American Constitution

Ian Tyrell attempts to compare America’s relationship with the wider world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly during the years of American Independence and the French Revolutions. He does this by considering both Britain and France. What truly intrigued me, however, was Chapter 3, which focused on the fluidity of ideas across borders. While Chapter 4 does focus on migration, I emphasised on it in my last blog post (while writing of the South Asian diaspora). Chapter 3 links into Chapter 4 beautifully, as migration does lead to the spread and the divulgence of ideas across the world. Tyrell does seek to argue that people lead to the spread of ideas. While Chapter 4 focuses on the people, Chapter 3 focuses on the ideas.

As foreign travelers travelled west to take a look at a post-1815 America, readers learn of a spread of ideas that was radical. British newspapers broadcasted America’s progress as a nation, foreign travelers such as Tocqueville became aware of new societies. This suggests that it is ultimately people who carry ideas across the world. This brings me back to the discussion we were having during our last seminar, about the Silk Road. After reading a bit more of Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World”, I learned more about the ideas, diseases, plagues that seemed to cross the world through these borders. Frankopan makes interesting claims. One that particularly interested me was the notion that the Indian  legend of the Mahabharata influenced the Illiad. The spread of ideas through Asia, Europe and the Americas has been taking place for centuries, and makes the subject all the more intriguing to consider.

Tyrell also seems to focus on how connected America seemed to be with the rest of the world. He writes of how the Americans demonstrated to express solidarity with the Poles who were oppressed by the Tsar in 1831, thus revealing that the spread of ideas did not simply function one way. Americans who travelled abroad often took certain ideas with them, and brought other fresh concepts back. It might be quite interesting to look at how this was used in Japan, with the Meiji Restoration of the early 1900s. While China, in the early 1900s, had been through numerous reforms, Japan’s only Meiji Restoration seemed to strengthen the country. This was seen as being partly due to the notion that China was unwilling to look to the West for help. Japan, on the other hand, took inspiration from Germany (and their military, which was strong before WW1) and Great Britain, sending numerous students to study there. Such spread of ideas naturally enhanced the nation, proved by the fact that they grew into one of the strongest empires in the world until the Second World War. China believed that there was “no appreciable difference between merchants and governments. All were barbarians.”(1) Japan’s first prime minister, Ito Hirobumi, was one of the Choshu Five, who were chosen to go to University College London in 1863. He returned, convinced that Japan should adopt the western way of living. As this probably suggests, the spread of ideas across the world seems elemental to the grand decisions made by a government and a country, which is exactly what Tyrell attempts to argue in his chapter.

Further to this, Tyrell’s writings are riddled with case studies and examples of how ideas were spread as early as nineteenth century America. He looks at the Temperance Society in America, implemented by ship captains to abstain from liquor to Liverpool. Tyrell uses examples of pamphlets that were handed out, warning people of the dangers of drinking in America. He writes about the translation of certain pamphlets in foreign countries and new movements that were created in support of the Temperance Society. While moral reforms can be difficult to pin down, as they are commonly led to different scales around the world, it is interesting to note how swiftly these ideas spread across the world.

(1). Edwardes, M. (1973) ‘China and Japan’, in Johnson, D. (ed.) The World of Empires. (London: Benn), p. 298

On the Advantages of Transnational History

One of the main benefits of transnational history is that it encourages the historian to look outside national borders for their research. Indeed, as history developed as a subject in the nineteenth century alongside the rise of nation states in Europe, there has been a strong tendency for historical analysis to be confined within national borders. While global history tried to challenge the national histories by looking at history on a more global scale, often these works do not focus on global areas. Instead, as Sven Beckert points out in the AHR article, many global histories only cover small areas and so the term ‘global history’ does not seem fitting for them.[1] Now the term ‘transnational history’ is a much better fit for such histories because the term does not claim to be truly ‘global’ in scale. Rather, it aims to look at the interconnection and transfer of ideas between areas perhaps as large as continents or maybe between a few countries. That’s the idea, namely transnational history can undo the constraints of national borders without having the pressure to cover the whole world that comes as baggage with the term ‘global history’. If true, perhaps most historians claiming to write a global history were in fact doing a transnational history all along!

At the other extreme, there is a danger that because transnational history is more internationally focused than national histories, we could lose complexity at the local level. The surge in local and microhistories in the late twentieth century aimed to put the emphasis back onto individuals and local communities. Famous works include Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou which gave considerable agency to local villagers during the 14th century inquisition. So too, did Christopher Bayly fear that transnational history might lose sight of the realities of experience by ignoring the local.[2] Does this mean that transnational history is just another attempt to make history ‘big’ and ignore the ‘small’?

I would not be so hasty. As the example of OXO shows, transnational history can combine the local and the international. In the reading by Jan Ruger last week, we found out about its local origins with the industrialist Georg Christian Giebert backing the chemist Justus Liebig who invented the meat extract. And, we also found out about its international beginnings where cheap meat was found in Uruguay to produce the meat extract cheaply and was then shipped to Antwerp where it was packaged.[3] To me, this represents the advantage of transnational history, namely that it can combine the local and the global. By focusing on the movement of people across national boundaries, transnational historians can trace the local origins of these people and show their international impact! Without this transnational perspective, it might be tempting to think of the OXO cube as originating from the British company LEMCO and being a distinctly British product.

There is also the question of time and chronology that I found interesting in the reading last week. From a traditionally European perspective, it might be tempting to think of certain events having their origins in Europe. For example, we think of World War Two beginning with Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 or for the Black Death to have begun in 1348. However, if we think from a transnational perspective, we might challenge the chronologies that we were brought up with at high school. Dare we now think of World War Two as beginning in 1937 with Japan’s conflict beginning in China?[4] Could we also think of the Black Death as first starting in 1338 in Central Asia before slowly spreading to Europe ten years later? I should think so. Hopefully now I will start to question the rigid dates and broad general Eurocentric narratives that we were taught in MO1007 and MO1008.

[1] C. A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, The American Historical Review 111 (2006), pp. 1445-1446.

[2] Bayly, ‘AHR Conversation’, p. 1448.

[3] Jan Ruger, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’, European History Quarterly 40 (2010), pp. 657-662.

[4] Patricia Clavin, ‘Time, Manner, Place : Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’, European History Quarterly 40 (2010), p. 627.

Theseus’ ship’s in fact a sieve

Transnationalism, it is evident, is a tricky beast to pin down. Even those who optimistically declare themselves to be defining it seem to find themselves grasping at shadows and not quite managing to fulfil their original intent. Such a difficulty befalls Patricia Clavin, who proffers several aspects of a possible transnational history without quite tying it all together. ‘First and foremost’, Clavin declares at the outset, transnationalism is ‘about people: the social space that they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.’ I agree with this, and think it a valuable starting point- indeed, a fundamental premise. I agree, too, with her observation that ‘the influence and character of these networks defy easy categorisation’, a statement whose truth becomes uncomfortably apparent the more one looks at transnational history and what it seems it should best do.[1] To my mind, that being the case, Clavin does not go far enough in her assessment of the potential of transnational history; she attempts too much, in addition, to categorise networks, and to evaluate them as discrete series of links rather than parts of a contiguous whole. Although it’s quite clearly early on in the day, I outline below my initial thoughts— a summary, despite the length, and starting with two articles by Clavin as a springboard.

The transnational approach, I propose, ought to be a study of more than the ‘border crossings’ posited by Clavin.[2] Clavin ultimately argues for a heuristic that views ‘a transnational community… as a honeycomb, a structure which sustains and gives shapes to the identities of nation-states, institutions and particular social and geographic space’, a conceptualisation which I hesitate to accept.[3] The honeycomb, both for the sake of consistency within the chosen metaphor and for accuracy, must be recognised to be created by the human actors present in the creation of the entities contained within the bracket of ‘nation-states, institutions and particular social and geographic space’; instead, however, she appears to suggest that the honeycomb, rather than being the result of the interactions occurring within those spaces, functions in a role more akin to a mould. Such an interpretation of historical causality arises elsewhere in her work, such as when she proposes that the concept of ‘“Europe”… acted as an extrusive force’, or that ‘the forces of attraction and repulsion’ were often deeply intertwined.’[4]

I baulk at such a reduction in the role of the human in history at the expense of ‘historical forces’—  a conceptualisation that opens the door to a return to a history that places at its centre such conceptual monoliths as the unquestioned nation-state. I like rather more, by contrast, her argument from Boli and Thomas, that ‘local history becomes global history’ as the result of a relationship between the mindsets of individuals and the common cultural conceptions prevalent within any society.[5]

I find it a pity, that being the case, that Clavin does not develop that idea further in this essay: she notes that ‘cultural historians’ have, recognising this, sought to ‘“de-centre” the focus of attention away from governments and diplomacy towards society and culture as autonomous spheres of historical interest’, but in so doing she again slips towards a division between society, culture, and other areas as ‘autonomous spheres’.[6]

I find it intriguing that she would divide a nation up into ‘autonomous spheres’ while simultaneously arguing for the blending together of the nations themselves. I would like, therefore, to attempt an understanding of a term central to transnational history: that of the ‘nation’. Though difficult this must, I believe, be at the heart of transnational history. Without a strong understanding of what is meant at least conceptually by ‘nation’, any attempt to investigate that which goes ‘across’ them is doomed to fruitlessness. For one thing, it seems important that ‘nation’ be distinguished from ‘state’. One can find examples of a nation without a state (such as that of the Jews during the Diaspora, who continued, en masse but unilaterally, to identify themselves as members of a Jewish nation); nationless states, though perhaps rarer, could also be argued to have existed in the cases of composite monarchies or imposed empire. States are frequently deposed during revolutions, but in most instances the nation itself continues; indeed, it is often in the name of the nation that the revolution is said to take place. To differentiate properly between the two, however, is difficult, for reasons to be discussed.

Fundamentally, it must be recognised that a nation is an entity that comprises, and is constructed by, its constituent actors. This is an argument which follows that proposed by Ernest Renan in his 1882 lecture ‘What is a Nation?’, and which works with his concept of the nation as a ‘daily referendum’ or constantly ongoing plebiscite.[7] If a sufficiently large proportion of a nation woke up one morning to the realisation that they no longer wished to be a part of that nation, it could not continue. This seems conceptually true, but the infrequency with which nations wink out of existence in this way appears to belie its claim, or at least its utility as a theory: nations, generally speaking, are considered ‘fixed’ units, to the extent that the Realist School of International Relations –to my understanding: I have never studied them formally— would declare them the fundamental blocks in theory necessary for understanding global interactions.

The origin and continuation of nations, and their role as actors and composites, must be further examined. ‘How is it,’ Renan further asks, ‘that France continues to be a nation, when the principle which created it has disappeared?’ As Clavin remarks, too, it is far from ‘easy for historians to abandon the nation as, at the very least, a useful category’: it evidently continues to exist, and continues to be of relevance, well after its initial cause.[8] Renan, examining the ways in which nations usually begin, identifies the creation and consolidation of dynasties as a frequent cause, but also notes that in some cases –the USA and Switzerland, for instance— there are no dynasties involved; and in others, like that of France in 1882, a dynasty has come, gone, returned again and left once more, while the nation continues. Equally, he continues, attempts to synonymise nationhood and nationality with race or language founder.

Arising from my attempt to understand nations, and to attempt to create a model according to which transnational interactions could be theorised, I propose two very basic axioms from which to extrapolate further conclusions. This may seem an ambitious project, but the axioms themselves are uncontroversial and indeed hardly original; and both, when applied, invite a usefully pan-disciplinary approach. The first is that:

‘Any individual actor acts in an effort to navigate what it perceives to be the easiest route to what it perceives to be its end in any given situation.’

This may be called ‘the axiom of convenience’. It follows, to a certain extent, the egoistical (though not necessarily selfish) theoretical heuristics espoused by Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli. It may at first glance appear rather trite, but I believe that the implications of such an axiom, if allowed to serve as the lens through which history is examined, are significant.

Firstly, the axiom is of immediate direct utility in a re-assessment of the natures of the nation and nationality. Any human construct recognisably develops out of a consideration for its utility. Language, arguably that most necessary for the existence of interaction, adheres to this; so too, far further down the timeline, does, for instance, the construction of a railway network. In every instance, the act occurs because those undertaking it perceive it to be the most convenient route to the obtainment of their ends. Sometimes the ends perceived important may change, or the route initially deemed most expedient is later realised to be inefficient: this is, of course, not a theory intended to argue that actors, like water flowing down a hill, always navigate the most convenient path to a given end: it is only intended to make clear that the route perceived to be the most convenient is always taken to what is perceived to be the given end.

Robert Nozick, when theorising on the development from a theoretical state of nature of the basic state, argued that the state occurs as a response to the stateless anarchy, dangerous to the ends of most individual actors, of the state of nature. The state of nature, he argued, has unavoidable problems: individuals aren’t good judges of their own cases, and accordingly there will be inevitable arguments over perceived violations of rights, perhaps leading to violence. The inevitable outcome of this, Nozick continued, is that ‘protective associations’ of multiple actors will be created to ensure and ensure their rights. The most effective ‘protective association’ will eventually gain all the ‘customers’ –individual actors— and will function as a minimal state.[9] I find this analysis persuasive, setting aside the extrapolations to morality consequently undertaken by Nozick as irrelevant to the subsequent study of history, and find too that Nozick’s ideas on state formation accord with the proposed axiom of convenience.

John Rawls, against whose ideas Nozick was largely opposed, put forward a concept of a social contract which looked not at how society is, but how it ought to be. An understanding of this, paired with the ideas of Renan and Nozick, can serve to solidify the claim to legitimacy of the axiom of convenience. Rawls proposed that in order to theorise a just society, it was necessary to place oneself behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, imagining that one could be placed into any level of an unknown society. From there, the thinker is invited to imagine a society into which they would be happy to be placed: the just society is one into which one would be content to be placed at any level. This follows the minimax principle: he argues that everybody behind the veil would agree to a truly just society out of personal self-interest.[10]

What would be, according to Rawls, universally recognised as the ideal society as viewed from behind a veil of ignorance is thus one that allows individual actors to most conveniently obtain their perceived ends. Simultaneously, it is perhaps worth noting that the choice of those behind the veil to create such a society would also be a step on the ‘path’ perceived to be most convenient in obtaining those ends.

From the arguments of both Nozick and Rawls, it emerges that theorised society and the interactions contained therein are in accordance with the axiom of convenience. Any entity serves ultimately as a form of safety net: it is created and perpetuated because it, and the circumstances attending it, are perceived to be the most convenient route to the obtainment of the ends, often disparate, of the actors involved. This is the case for all entities of any size or nature. When they no longer appear, to a sufficiently large number of actors involved in their perpetuation, to be of use in the obtaining of their ends, they inevitably collapse— in support of Renan’s proposal of the concept of the ongoing plebiscite.

This produces a second axiom— that:

‘Because any actor is acting in an effort to navigate by what it perceives to be the most convenient route to what it perceives to be its end, all actions undertaken are unilateral.’

This may be called the ‘axiom of unilaterality’. Two or more actors may, for semantic convenience, be said to ‘collaborate’ or act ‘multilaterally’ on a given project; ultimately, however, this is, per the axiom of convenience, done in order to advance the obtainment of their perceived ends (although such an end may be, for instance, ‘to benefit others’— such as the actor’s kin). Because each individual ultimately has different ends, the project in which it could be said to collaborate with another actor is different for them than it is for their collaborator. This is most easily seen during complex events such as the French Revolution or the drafting of the American Constitution, in which multiple actors could be said to have ‘collaborated’, but with evidently different ends and with different routes perceived to be most convenient. Without this axiom, it is possible that the significance of the individual actor as a particle in flow could be forgotten, with harmful consequences for historicisation of events. Jan Rüger, in his very enjoyable article on the origins of OXO, notes that transnational historians emphasise ‘historical actors within international networks, rather than conceiving of individuals from the outset as national subjects’: that is the methodology; above, I would suggest, I have outlined a possible ideology.[11]

There are certain extrapolated results of the above axiom that must, as Rüger observes from a different starting point, be applied. Firstly, the state and all other anthropologically constructed entities are held to be networks of unilateral paths of convenience, established over time for the expedient obtainment of individuals’ ends and altered or left unaltered depending on the changing natures of historical individuals’ perceived ends and their perceptions of the methods best utilised for their obtainment. Over time, and in order to maximise the convenience with which actors are able to obtain their ends, certain norms (such as taxation, for instance) become prevalent, varying with geographic and temporal location. These are largely ‘calcified’: historically, it appears to have proven more convenient to actors to seek to obtain their ends within their constraints (constraints, in passing, that also bring attendant benefits) than to attempt to reject them. In addition, it is largely more convenient for other actors to resist attempts to break the web of convenience-maximising norms, and so the convenience in obtaining ends to be found in attempting to forego them would be limited.

The nation-state, far from being a fixed unit, is thus revealed to be a fluid entity composed of myriad individual actors, all of them acting in order to most conveniently obtain their ends, and acting unilaterally. Far from being ordered entities, accordingly, nations are best visualised as roiling clouds of particles. The norms that appear to delineate them can be ignored or remade if a sufficient number of paths of perceived convenience appear to require it, and the very existence of the nation itself could, theoretically, be declared null, as Renan argued, should it be deemed in accordance with a sufficiently large number of ends.

The nation, in addition, because it is formed of the relics left by past paths of convenience and perpetuated by its ongoing convenience to the actors comprising it at any time, can be recognised to be a construct ‘bought into’ by those considering it, whether thinkingly or blindly, to be convenient. It is the product of those individuals that it comprises at any given time. It is the product, too, of their consent, rather than of the abstract existing culture, rules, language, or other attributes associated with it—  such qualia exist so long as those individuals involved in their perpetuation deem them convenient; it is for this reason, for instance, that languages die out. The nation, accordingly, can be recognised to be an entity in a state of constant flow. It is formed of discrete particles constantly moving and constantly being replaced, operating within vast tapestries of interwoven networks. Despite this, it continues: the individual actors comprising it in any given generation tend to adopt ends that do not act in absolute dichotomy to those of the previous generations, and furthermore are constrained by the webs of convenience in which they must attain their ends. Jan Rüger, noting that historians now know ‘almost everything one could ever want to know’ about early 20th Century Anglo-German relations, declares that ‘one comes away from many of the transnational studies of the Anglo-German relationship wondering why the two nations should ever have gone to war with one another at all’, before observing that when one examines ‘the two countries in diplomatic, strategic and economic terms… one gets the opposite impression, namely that of rivalry and antagonism, at points amounting to a sense of inevitability’.[12] These two impressions, though, can be reconciled with relative ease within the posited framework of paths of convenience: in the case of the First World War, it was perceived to be more convenient for the mass of actors comprising Germany to consent to the demands made of them by the hierarchical structure atop which sat the Kaiser than it was for them to resist in favour of a continuation of Anglo-German collaboration. The individuals involved in these events, as Rüger notes, were sometimes part of overtly transnational networks (such as those caused by international gymnastics competitions, one of Rüger’s examples)— but these were not the only networks in which they were involved, and in which they had to navigate to obtain their ends.

A nation, evidently, can change in direction and opinion within a short space of time. To what extent, building on such a thought, can a nation in one century be regarded as the nation of three centuries previously— or, in some cases, far less time? The Greek philosopher Plutarch discussed the question of an entity’s continuity with regard to the ship of the hero Theseus. Theseus’ ship, he says, was preserved by a civilisation that revered him: as timbers decayed they were replaced, until after a significant amount of time none of the original timbers were left as part of the ship. To what extent, Plutarch asked, could this be regarded as Theseus’ ship?

The nation, similarly, could be viewed –and has been, though in a surprisingly small number of articles— as subject to the paradox explored in the question of Theseus’ ship. It is a construct; it is comprises multitudinous individuals; the atoms that comprise it –the individual actors— are replaced inevitably over time. Philosophy might attempt, when discussing changing constructs, to delineate between ‘Thing’ and ‘Thing1’; history could be said to tacitly attempt to do this by declaring the slice of time within which a given entity is to be examined— ‘France in 1939’, for example. There is an implicit and vital recognition that a nation, or any given entity, as assessed at one point in time is fundamentally different from an entity that shares the same name at a different point in time.

That is not to say, of course, that the nation as a concept is without importance, or that all networks (insofar as one can separate one network from its surroundings) are of equal significance.[13] Nations very clearly possess a great deal of conceptual importance; as entities comprising large numbers of individuals, similarly, they have a large amount of real influence in their ability to enable representatives to aid their constituents in their pursuit of their ends (it could be worth drawing a parallel between nations and trade unions in this regard). However, to make ‘the nation’ –a cloud of individual actors, shifting across time— a delineated and even quasi-permanent building block in the construction of a historical narrative is to take the path of intellectual least resistance. Any nation, as a concept, is ultimately a metonym for the actors contained therein and their attendant anthropological structures, and to make such declarations as –for instance— ‘Prussia responded firmly to the incursion’; or, ‘the West regarded the East avariciously’, often allows an easy shorthand, but inevitably reduces accuracy. Despite her recognition that ‘it is important for transnational history not to lose connection to the question of human agency’, this is at times the case, I would argue, in some of Clavin’s points: ‘Ireland sought to refashion and break free of one set of transnational connections’; ‘Norway look[ed] to internationalism as a means of defining a new identity.’[14]

Rather than Clavin’s honeycomb metaphor, which still necessitates a certain amount of imagined fixity, I therefore find it more accurate, but of still limited utility, to use as a metaphor for nations an image of multiple sieves of ice, buoyant on a closed and changing sea of sentient particles: currents from within and without the sieves eddy within and through them, melting them and reshaping them; at times the sieves may fuse together, or even collapse should conditions change. The challenge to the nation-builder has historically been to persuade the actors comprising the imagined nation to accept their part in the metonymy, and to identify with the metonym: it is here that we find another part of Renan’s argument, that ‘forgetting [differences]… is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation’, in evidence.[15] He who would preserve a ‘nation-sieve’, in other words, must convince the particles that make up the water of (simultaneously) the sieve’s existence, firstly, and utility, secondly, for the sieve to be created and maintained. If this cannot be done, a nation will either never come into being –despite being united under one state, as occurred under composite monarchies— or will fall apart, as is currently in danger of happening in the case of, among other examples, the Catalonia-Spain and Scotland-UK divergences.

That is an image of the interactions between nation-states; the same is even more the case within nations, in which an enormous number of interactions are constantly taking place, such that the whole is constantly changing. To delineate between the ‘spheres’ of culture, economy, and so on, as I noted at the start that Clavin attempts, thus becomes inaccurate to the point of meaninglessness, albeit convenient from a narratorial perspective.

Both within, and without, the masses of relationships and geographical spaces commonly referred to as ‘nations’, there is an eddy and flow of movement: of ideas, of actors, of goods—and all undertaken by the actors involved with the intention of unilaterally obtaining their perceived ends. To adopt anything other than a transnational history is therefore, though once again conducive to greater ease in constructing narrative, doomed to gross inaccuracy. Transnational history itself, meanwhile, becomes of vital necessity, while also itself doomed to struggle with irresolvable issues of scope. History cannot occur in a vacuum; the flow, central to transnational history, does not stop, and rejecting the arbitrary and the inaccurate, though courageous and forward-thinking, presents the historian with numerous difficulties.

[1] Patricia Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, Contemporary European History, Vol. 14, No. 4, (Nov., 2005), pp. 421-439, p. 422

[2] Ibid., p. 423

[3] Ibid., pp. 438-439

[4] Patricia Clavin, “Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts”, European History Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 624–640; p. 630; p. 631

[5] Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, p. 437

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ernest Renan, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”, lecture delivered 1882

[8] Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism”, p. 438

[9] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, Utopia, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001)

[10] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005)

[11] Jan Rüger, “OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History”, European History Quarterly, Vo. 40, No. 4, pp. 656–668, p. 659

[12] Ibid., p. 661

[13] Graeme S. Cumming and John Collier, “Change and Identity in Complex Systems”, Ecology and Society, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jun 2005), p. 4

[14] Clavin, “Time, Manner, Place”, p. 635; p. 633

[15] Renan

‘Loose-fitting Garments’

Patricia Clavin references transnational history as a historical approach that functions as a “loose-fitting garment.” She emphasizes that world history and globalization are ‘as much about fragmentation as unity.’ In my pursuit of developing an apt understanding of transnational history, these are two explanations that have stuck with me. I’m beginning to gather that in order to grasp transnational history, some rearrangement of priority might have to be done–you have to take the time to reevaluate aspects of history in terms of their relevance to a transnational perspective. As Clavin explains, for example, the distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy become more irrelevant within the framework of transnational history. Exploring transnational history as a concept and as a practice (and Clavin’s categorization of it as a social history) has gotten me thinking back to learning about Thucydides’ Tower in a history course last year. Thucydides was a Greek historian whose work been chastised as focusing too heavily on war and politics; thus, Thucydides was trapped in his tower, where he could only see ‘politics, war, and the actions of so-called great men.’ There are a lot of different ways in which people have tried to ‘combat’ entrapment in Thucydides’ Tower, such as with the development of social history as a field. Since discovering that the history rut I’d been stuck in for the last several years had a theory to go along with it, I’ve been determined to work harder to escape the tower I’ve found myself trapped in lately. For me, the most exciting (and relatively surprising) aspect of transnational history is that it has the potential to present itself as a valuable tool for this.