Now that we have had our last class for the module, and done our presentations it feels quite strange that we still have so far to go in terms of the work for this module. Having spent so many weeks defining and redefining what transnational history is it feels good to be able to let this more historiographical side go for a while and focus more on the practicalities of our own individual projects. From the wide variety of our projects it is clear that a transnational approach can be brought to almost any aspect of history, and with a variety of lenses, from the micro to the global. I have found my feelings about what the transnational means widely vary, from a strong sense that the transnational perspective is indispensable to the history of today, to a skepticism that almost all history is written from a transnational sense already, and thus our attempts to define it are almost futile. I have more recently felt more positive again though, as starting with something as broad as a transactional approach has given rise to such a dazzling array of projects. From purely our own perspectives, rather than those of professional historians, I’m not sure how many of us would have ended up writing a project on what we have ended up with without this fresh historiographical focus. I certainly didn’t imagine I would end up writing 5,000 words on a brewery! My other concluding thought is about learning techniques, and how this is the first module I have taken at St Andrews where this is discussed. It feels bizarre that this is the case as new learning and working techniques can have a huge impact on our ability to study. I have certainly found the pomodoro technique very useful, and will be continuing to use it as I battle my way through this project. Finally I’d just like to wish everyone good luck with completing their projects, I’m sure I’ll be seeing you all often in the library over the coming weeks.
(NB: By fish, I obviously mean the historiographical and methodological enlightenment that has happened over the past eleven or so weeks. However, that doesn’t make for a particularly catchy title.)
Like the two or three posts below mine on the blog, I’m just going to come out and say it – I still don’t have a better definition of what transnational history is, even after twelve weeks of classes. I know that it’s attempting to close gaps previous historical writing, which, when confined to the nation-state, ignores networks and connections that could enlighten our understanding of historical events. The enormous diversity of what can be considered ‘transnational’ is staggering – this is something that we have all seen in our readings, looking at soup cubes or Taiwanese peasant farmers, as well as our presentations, which have covered everything from beer to ovens to maps. This diversity is, in all likelihood, due to the sheer novelty of transnational history as a an approach to history.
Beyond the new approaches to history that I’ve picked up this semester, I’ve also had the chance to learn some other skills too. These classes were far more discussion-based than other tutorials, which was interesting both because it gave us all a chance to engage more with the material, as well as putting us on the spot if we hadn’t done our reading. (I was certainly periodically guilty of this.) The emphasis on using new software, such as QGIS and Gephi, in our historical practice was also something novel for me. I think the best part of this module, however, was the passion and interest (and occasional confusion) that everyone brought to this module. It made such a difference in how we engaged with the material, and I think that the fact that people were able to pursue research projects based on their own interests also brought a spark to class discussions. I’d like to just say thank you to everyone in the class for an excellent semester.
As we wrap up this semester, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learned in this class, since I’ve had more fun and amassed more research skills with this course than any other I’ve ever taken. Besides a profound appreciation for the fantastic people in class with me every week (you guys are amazing!), I think I’ve grown as an historian in 3 different ways.
(1) Confidence in my own ability to ask and answer meaningful questions
Whenever a past tutor asked me to question the articles we read, I felt as though I was ill-qualified to judge the work of professional historians and that I would always come to the wrong (or least imaginative) conclusion. Under our lovely tutors, however, I felt much more able to question the assumptions of the authors we read (except of course Patricia Clavin). I am better able to identify bias in the articles I choose, and I am less afraid to take chances in my own interpretations.
(2) Comfort working with primary sources
This research project has forced me to work with sources that are more nuanced and to some extent less accessible than the translated medieval texts I’m used to. I’ve watched hours of interviews and spent entire days listening to religious chants; it has certainly been immersive, and as a result I feel a more personal connection to this work than to the standard coursework that we do for other modules. Since I was able to sort the sources myself, I get to play around with my own authorial bias and sort out the aspects of writing history that appeal most to me. Basically, the freedom to wade through historical sources at my leisure has reinvigorated my passion for the past, and I cannot thank this course, my classmates and our tutors enough for that.
(3) Appreciation for collaboration
Full disclosure: I used to dread group projects, so I was incredibly wary about the pair-writing exercises. Yet they ended up being some of the best work I feel I’ve done thus far. Special thanks must go to Rachael for forcing me to stay on topic and write a specific thesis; I am a rambler, but she kept me on the straight and narrow. Along the same vein, receiving feedback from classmates can sometimes be, at best, useless and, at worst, dismissive or overly harsh. Yet we never had to fear that in this class; everyone was so keen to support each other, and the constructive criticism I received helped me refine my process in ways that I know I could not have done without the objective evaluation of our class.
This module has given me so much, and I hope I’ve contributed to my classmates’ experiences as well. It has been an enjoyable, sometimes confusing, mostly amazing ride this semester, and I am so excited to hear about everyone’s final project. I hope you guys are proud of yourselves, because we’ve done incredible work. To our fourth years, I hope this was a great way to end your last year. To my fellow third years, I hope we can chat, chuckle and collaborate next year as well! To our marvelous tutors, thank you so much for everything you’ve given us.
In the beginning we wanted to know what transnational history was and to pin down a definition; then we realised that we shouldn’t seek a rigid definition and instead should keep what transnational history was as a fluid concept; now I think we are beginning to understand why that was necessary.
For me transnational history is filling in the gaps and cracks left by more established forms of historiography. Transnational history builds spider webs of connections between different historical concepts and ideas and between national histories. I think that part of the reason transnational history is so hard to define is that its strength is in its malleability, it can fit wherever you need it to; wherever previous historiography has overlooked. It can give a voice to the voiceless and grant individuals agency and importance in narratives they may have otherwise been excluded from. Transnational history can call into question the barriers and limits we impose on ourselves as historians and on the subject matter we study; it reminds us to question everything from the words we use when writing to why we are studying something in the first place.
One thing that occurred to me right at the start of this course is how the discipline will look years from now when transnational historians come to study our present time period. With so many of us living our lives online will connections become easier to trace or will important ones be obscured simply because there is so much ‘noise’ now?
A related thought is the fact that there seems to be this perception that human connectivity has been continually increasing until the present day, albeit with some bumps along the way, and I am beginning to wonder if this is actually true. Perhaps by the time the early 21st century is studied the connections of previous centuries will have been traced and mapped and historians will find that our globalising world was actually encouraging people to retreat back into national boxes both conceptually in terms of identity formation and physically as the world beyond our borders is portrayed as ever more hostile.
I think this idea of increasing connectivity in later modern history also has the side effect of implying a time period for transnational history in a similar way to the term itself; transnational implies that we should not look beyond the start of the importance of the nation on the world stage. I think if anything this module has taught me, it is not to underestimate the past. Human beings have always been connected and ideas will always flow across artificial boundaries. Human life has never fitted into the neat little boxes that we employ for analytical purposes and historians would do well to always remember this.
Admittedly, after two and a half months of studying this module, I still would not be able to give a clear definition of what ‘transnational history’ is. However, unlike when I started this module, I think now I actually find this liberating rather than terrifying. After watching everyone presenting their projects on Tuesday, it struck me how broadly the term ‘transnational’ could be interpreted, from histories dealing with inherently transnational organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross on the one hand, to a much more microhistorical approach such as the history of a particular brewery on the other. That has been the most enjoyable part of this entire course for me personally. Seeing how each person approached transnational history so differently has been really enlightening, as people have picked up on links that I have never even considered before. And that, I think, is the strength of this particular approach.
Despite how different all of our topics were, I also think there is one thing they all have in common – people. Each one of us brought agency to people and particular connections who would be difficult into more traditional narratives. Even in my own case, where the specific actor I chose to focus on appears in countless histories (no surprise given that he is a British prime minister), the certain connections and networks of his that form the basis of my work are somehow completely under-represented in existing historiography. Even those of us whose projects deal with the movement of ideas or objects (of which mine is one), their importance always appears to be in the way people interact with these ideas and objects. For example, my initial idea for a project was to simply look at the way in which ideas about state-funded welfare became popular across the world from the nineteenth century onwards. However, it quickly became clear that the only way to look at how ideas crossed borders was to look for interactions between individuals.
I think, then, if transnational history has taught me one thing it is that agency is everywhere in history, and that the more we look at individuals and their interactions with one another, the more we realise they do not fit neatly into the boxes imposed by national historiographies. Beyond that, my own personal opinion of what a transnational history should be keeps evolving, but I actually now think that is actually part of the subject’s appeal. No other history module has made me question the relevance or the goals of my work anywhere near has much as this one has, and although this has been a huge challenge at times, it is one that I am grateful for.
With the presentations complete, and now on the home stretch for this module, I’m attempting to think once again about the age old question of what is transnational history. Way back in Week 1 we read Patricia Clavin’s ‘Defining Transnationalism’ and this has gone on to become our unofficial module Bible. One thing about this article that became very apparent after Tuesday was the idea that Transnational History is a perspective which allows networks to be traced and for the development of concepts without a focus on the nation-state. With presentations concerning the religion of Regla de Ocha to nomads in France to the condom, the vast array of projects really promoted this idea. Whether to focus upon a product, (the AGA), and how it moved, or an institution, (the Red Cross), and its impact or work within many countries, or even an idea, (welfare state), and its progress, does not make it easy to properly define transnational history.
However, this is one of the great aspects of transnational history; that it can cover so many areas/years/themes. To say that you are a transnational historian describes how you study history rather than what you study. It does not matter whether this is a micro history of one person or product or a more general overview but to view the interconnectedness of something throughout the globe means that a transnational perspective is being taken. When Clavin spoke of the multi-textured forces which shape the destines of individuals, institutions and countries, I underestimated to what extent this is true. To get an accurate representation of the history of anything, all angles, sides and connections in between need to be viewed and this is something that transnational history attempts to do. Transnational (and its value) lies in its openness as a historical concept.
And while I have offered no real definition of what transnational history is, that is the important idea, that it can cover so many areas and is not refined to a set time period or geographic location. But it is how you look at your region of study that makes it transnational.
Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History 14/4 (2005), 421-439
My final post about my 18th century transnational sailor clothing project involves the topic of collaboration, something which I believe will increasingly become (and should be) the norm for historical research, and without which my own project would have been impossible. Even if ones fellow researchers are separated geographically, by experience, age, or the specific focus of their studies, they can offer essential content and perspective on one’s own personal study. I would argue that sharing fluency in the same language, and similar methodological approaches are necessary to this end, but outside perspective of any kind can only be valuable in challenging and adding to one’s own work. For instance, I have found myself frequently sending off pieces of my writing to peers who study science, to make sure that my writing is avoiding excessive jargon, and is intelligible to the ‘NPR’ audience that we’ve been advised to write for in class.
In the course of my recent work for this module, several people have played the part of academic co-conspirators. Matthew Brenckle, a friend and Historian at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown Massachusetts, has been one invaluable mentor who has been able to push me forward with a variety of primary material and secondary sources. Another colleague has been Kyle Dalton, who works as Public Programs Administrator at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater Maryland, and runs a blog called ‘British Tars, 1740-1790’ (http://britishtars.blogspot.co.uk/ ) where he has compiled a searchable library of hundreds of primary visual sources depicting Anglo-American seamen. This has allowed my own project to enjoy far greater scope, given me images I would have otherwise lacked, and allowed me to focus on exploring French sources, while putting them in comparative perspective. Other specialists I’ve consulted for various subsets of my paper have included a historians of tattoos named Anna Felicity Friedman (https://independent.academia.edu/AnnaFelicityFriedman), the leading traditional English pipe-maker Heather Coleman (http://www.dawnmist.org/pipesale.htm), various 18th century tradespeople and material culture experts working at Colonial Williamsburg, and Laura Auger, a French friend and historical linguistic specialist who has helped me with translation issues in 18th century French. These individuals have filled my own shortcomings in specific topics where I lacked the necessary experience or time, and my own understanding has benefitted greatly from their help.
What then are the obstacles to collaboration, on this project or others? One is tradition and education, where a historian is seen as a lone researcher somewhere deep in an archive and group work is not stressed enough in higher-level academic training. One issue has been until recently technology, for instance if one considers how entirely recent advances in digital media now make sharing content and communicating across distance far faster and more comprehensive than in prior decades (for instance, Skype and Dropbox via telegraphs or letters). Another potential obstacle, and perhaps the most powerful is ego; historians are eager as anyone to claim ownership over the content they unearth, especially (if like friends who are antique dealers), their livelihood depends on their intellectual property. Yet all these obstacles can be overcome if there are the tools in place to work together and a common vision – and when collaboration happens, the study and writing of history can only benefit from it.
It’s weird to think that this is the last blog post of the semester. It’s all gone so quick. I have been researching my project for several weeks now and have a fair amount of source material to work from, but it still feels odd that tomorrow we’re all giving a presentation on our work. I have only really started to pull all my separate pieces of information together in the last week or so, so to present this in front of everyone tomorrow feels slightly daunting. However, I am really grateful for this, as it has forced me to think about the conclusions I have drawn from my research far earlier than I otherwise might have.
Only last week I had lots of ideas in my head but no real idea of how to pull them together. For example, I had detailed accounts of how David Lloyd George had visited Germany in 1908 in the hope of bringing back ideas he could put to use in the formation of British social reform. I also had lots of information on his infamous later visit to Berchtesgaden in 1936, where he had very similar intentions, wanting to see first-hand Hitler’s economic ‘miracle’, achieved largely through his public works programmes. However, what I did not have was a clear idea of how these linked to the larger, macro picture of the rise of the welfare state as a whole across Europe and the rest of the world.
This is something that I have been thinking constantly about for the last week. I spent all my time reading about the wider context of both Bismarck and Lloyd George’s social reforms in their respective states, and also went much further afield, looking at how they were both linked to other examples in Scandinavia, America and New Zealand. After narrowing in my focus so much in order to see more detail, it had now become necessary to zoom out and examine the larger picture once more. Through this, I could really start to chart the development of what we refer to today as ‘the welfare state’. I found it had its political origins in the French Revolution and had influenced several states across the world in different ways. However, it was in Germany where the term ‘welfare state’ (or ‘Sozialstaat’) was coined, and from there the idea that welfare should be comprehensive and universal began to spread first across Europe, and then to other corners of the world.
Once I had this idea of the macro-level, it became much easier to see the significance of the micro-level experiences I was dealing with. Britain, following Lloyd George’s visit, was the first nation not linked by culture or language to Germany to start adopting Bismarckian social reforms. It was also taking a huge step by introducing universal reforms that, whilst were commonplace in an autocratic state where the government had much greater control over its citizens, were a radical idea in a country such as Britain where the government (especially the Liberals) had always preached about individuality and laissez faire.
Today, we see democracy and the welfare state as intertwined, but as I have discovered in this project, this is definitely not the case. This becomes even clearer when examining Lloyd George’s second visit to Germany in 1936. The motivation behind this second visit was his frustration at the National Government’s refusal to accept his Keynesian-style programme for economic recovery through increased public spending and public works programmes. Dismayed that this idea had been rejected in Britain, Lloyd George was keen to return to Germany, where this was a reality. I personally found it incredible that the figure most often associated with the creation of the welfare state in Britain, a system that British people are so proud of, found himself turning to Adolf Hitler for inspiration. Whilst we may see the welfare state as the ultimate symbol of democracy in today’s society, aspects of its history such as this reveal a very different side.
These are my main thoughts so far, and whilst I’m sure they will change between now and the final project, I am really grateful that tomorrow’s conference has made me sit down and think so deeply about what my project is really trying to say.
In this post, since we have had the last of our normal classes, I thought I would reflect on the ways in which my project has changed since I made my proposal. We were certainly warned that this would be the case yet it has still be a little surprising to deal with.
I think the biggest thing that has changed is the scope of the project. It took a long time for me to decide on a topic for this project as I came up with, then rejected idea after idea. One of the problems I was having was thinking that the other ideas I had were too narrow and would not yield enough information. That is why, when I finally settled on the project I have, my approach to it was so broad. I initially intended to focus on a large number of African national liberation leaders from all over the continent in order to chart their migration process and how they were influenced by the places they went. By the time of my proposal I had realised that this may be ambitious as though there are a number of people who followed a very similar migration trajectory, they also had their own individual contexts that could not be ignored. Therefore, I decided to focus on two figures, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. I chose these figures as I felt the differences in their backgrounds made their similar migrant trajectories more interesting. They were both from British colonies yet on opposite sides of Africa and with different administration systems. Also they did not personally know each other beyond a brief meeting in 1945, though they were involved with similar organisations. Thus, I went from a broad examination of numerous figures (with no real idea of how to attempt this examination) to the comparison of just two, with a view to finding out how these separate transnational experiences led both to being figureheads of independence. I still worry that perhaps my choosing of these two figures was too arbitrary yet I think the comparison can yield an interesting argument if I can do it right.
Also in my proposal, I promised that my work would illustrate a network of African intellectual elites across the world who shaped the ideas behind national liberation. This meant that as well as looking at Nkrumah and Kenyatta, I would also focus on people who were not eventual African leaders. This was somewhat naive, and also based on a misunderstanding of the way in which this network functioned. While there are many very prominent individuals associated with the two, such as George Padmore, C.L.R. James, Ladipo Solanke etc, yet these associations were formed through many political organisations. These organisations operated on many levels. Some were just for students, some were national, some were international. In addition, over the course of Nkrumah and Kenyatta’s involvement with these organisations, many of them changed as they split up and merged with others. Encountering organisation after organisation was overwhelming and keeping track of all of them was very difficult. Thus, it was necessary to narrow my scope and focus on what the point of exploring these connections is. In other words, how did their migration experience shape the way in which they negotiated independence from the British? How did it affect the position they were in at the transition from colonial rule?
As the final post for this module, and partly (well, mostly) due to a lack of time to scour through journals for interesting articles, I decide to situate it within the present, letting my mind roam free in search for anything remotely relevant to transnationalism in my life, resulting in a miscellaneous bag of fragmented thoughts.
Last week, the story of the Panama Papers broke out, as well over 10,000 documents from the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonsaka were leaked. The Guardian calls it “history’s biggest data leak”, and my hometown, Hong Kong, occupied a rather prominent place in the whole unfolding story. Hong Kong has the highest number of intermediaries – banks, accountants, law firms – which serve the clients of this Panama-based firm. The world’s richest people are almost all implicated, many of whom set up offshore companies with the help of nominees so that their names don’t even have to appear. These companies exploit the loopholes in the international system to their own benefits, as being registered in tax havens helps the real owners to save millions worth of taxes. Journalists are still ploughing through the mountain of files, but well-recognised names are already spilling out.
This treasure trove of scandalous materials for a hungry world exposes in concrete details a suspicion that has to have floated at the back of many people’s minds. Rich people hide their wealth, Mossack Fonsaka shows exactly how, and the extent to which they do it. For a student in transnational history too, this case exemplifies the interconnectivity of the modern world, how institutions and companies collaborate to form an intricate web of linkages to serve the interests of the world’s ultra-rich and powerful. Our discussions previously in class about how transnationalism doesn’t always have to be ‘progressive’ or ‘rosy’ couldn’t have found a better example. Since the story broke, I have been discussing with my family whether this should shake our faith in Hong Kong as an international financial centre, forcing us to ask ourselves the question ‘to what end?’ if we know it only facilitates a minority bent on duping the system. Nonetheless, Hong Kong has been an important node in the international system since the West started trading in the East, as this former British colony carved out a tiny space in the southeast corner of the world’s most populous country that abides by a set of rules set down by the West. It is the place where secret societies traded gunpowder and dynamites to be smuggled into the mainland, but it is also a place that showcased the superiority of the Western governance and the capitalist system, acting as both an inspiration and a sanctuary for revolutionaries.
Before I get too excited about Hong Kong, I should move on to the other fragment that comes from a family friend who is a surgeon based in Hong Kong, but often travels to parts of the world that are in the most dire need for medical assistance. I was sent a message which he wrote when he was still in Aden, Yemen, over two weeks ago. This has allowed me a glimpse into the global exchanges promoted by organisations such as ICRC and MSF, as surgeons from around the world use their expertise to help places that have a shortage of personnel and train local surgeons. Dr Au mentions that he would be replaced in a week’s time from his time of writing by a Japanese lady surgeon, who had replaced him twice before in Hangu, Pakistan. They had also met in Gaza in 2014 during the war. He also wrote about mentoring a local lady surgeon, Dr Samar, who lacked the chance to practice on her own because for most part she had to assist senior male surgeons. So he decided to give her more opportunities to operate, and also assisted her to ‘repair a torn radial artery’, which was her first time. I have much admiration for the work that he does, as he has to risk his own personal safety, has a lot of patience and does a world of good.
I certainly think that our outlook on the world is inevitably influenced by all that is happening around us. Whereas a dominant view in history has focused on tensions or outright conflicts, transnationalism is more invested in discovering how people make connections and form networks, and how these in turn shape the world as we know it. In a way, I feel more empowered by this perspective on history, and I think others will too, because it is centered around individuals, showing us the microcosm of history and the agency of people, veering away from a mypoic fascination with the actions and decisions of powerful figures.
For me, life is about people. This goes for my interests in history as well as in life. This post is a brief reflection on my ‘Learning Outcomes’ from the MO3351 module. Reading the ‘Learning Outcomes’ section of any handbook usually makes me switch off, but let me outline some of the very real learning experiences that this module has given me. Hopefully, my classmates will agree.
The structure of the MO3351 course has been original in that we only had assigned tutorial readings for the first few weeks, and after that the teaching has been focused on our own work or skill sessions. For me, this course has been an eye-opener to what it feels like to be a practicing historian at a university. Being a historian means scouring yourself to find out what your research interests are. It involves teamwork with other people across institutions, archives and disciplines. With regards to Transnational and Global History in particular, the ‘Introduction. Space and Scale in Transnational History’ by Struck, Ferris and Revel comes to mind. They included a brief reflection on how transnational history had brought together three historians from very different historical fields to write an introduction together, which might not have happened under any other circumstances. This, above all else, is what I have loved the most about this course. The whole class is a melting pot of different cultures, interests, ideas and approaches, but we are all brought together as a group and a team through the concepts of networks and border crossings. Making such a diverse environment work can be difficult, for each individual student as well as for the tutor(s). Our tutors have treated us as students, but also as friends. They have taken a personal interest in our projects, and been encouraging and enthusiastic when we were sometimes unable to see where we were going (for the record, I’m still not 100% sure where I am going). The class itself has sorted out questions through the Facebook group we created, which also included frantic posts about how we could not find the books we needed, or that we had no clue how to get an essay together in a day(!) Thus, as part of this post I want to say a big THANK YOU to the whole class, and to our encouraging, challenging, supportive and wonderful tutors. This is, without a doubt, the most stimulating module I have taken. I cannot stress enough that its experience has been shaped first and foremost by the people, but transnational theory has also been a fantastic eye-opener.
Last week, during the collaborative writing session, I discussed on of the problems that I’ve encountered in research for my project. I wrote that the approaches to history that have developed in the recent past have been invaluable to the discipline as they allow new perspectives to emerge. In the history of colonialism, the emergence of areas such as subaltern studies has made it possible to uncover hidden narratives through focusing on the stories of those who have been previously marginalised by traditional histories. This is particularly important in transnational history as these overlooked societies come with their own transnational connections that have yet to be adequately explored. However, one issue with the popularity of these approaches in historiography is that, while worthwhile, this focus on history from below can limit the availability of new scholarship on other areas of society.
As my focus is on the figures who would eventually become national liberation leaders in Africa, the type of migration that they were a part of was more elite in nature. The common theme that drew me to the figures I am examining is that they travelled for higher education opportunities. Obviously, this was a privilege not afforded to a large number of people in colonial society in the 1900s, so it would be difficult to argue that these figures were marginalised. This is particularly true as African students were strongly politically active during the periods they spent abroad. Despite my issues, I have recently found a chapter that focuses on the experience of African students in Britain. Though it focuses solely on the activities of West African students, it is still very useful for my purposes as it details the complicated relationships that these students were a part of. It argues that a large factor of political motivation for African students came from their experience of racism and the colour bar in Britain. Students formed associations (most notably the West African Student’s Union which Kwame Nkrumah eventually became president of, and Jomo Kenyatta influenced through his friendship with founder Ladipo Solanke) dedicated to combating some of the inequalities they faced, such as lack of accommodation due to a ‘whites-only’ policy. Their activities were not limited to their experience in Britain, however, as many of these associations had explicitly pan-African agendas in that they wished to promote unity for all Africans. Thus, events in West Africa often sparked a reaction in Britain, leading students to lobby the Colonial Office for change. This had an interesting effect on the Colonial Office as a number of documents show that they acknowledge that the students in Britain would be the future political leaders in Africa, meaning that they were careful not to alienate them. This improved the chances of success for a number of the students’ campaigns as the Colonial Office were concerned that any perceived hostility would result in radicalism amongst the students, which could potentially spread back to the colonies, causing unrest. These concerns were not unfounded as socialism held a particular appeal for many African students, leading to collaboration with communist societies.
This book has been something of a breakthrough as it confirms many of the theories that I started out with relating to things such as the impact of racism, and the links between African student migration and socialism. However, since I started this project, I have had a creeping feeling that it may be too complex for me to adequately handle. The more I read, the more complicated the links I find become, to the point that I feel that I have lost sight of what I am arguing a little. Students in Britain are only one part of the puzzle, and the American connection brings with it new complexities due to the nature of African-American identity and where African migrants fit into this society. Similarly, the pan-African movement in America was particularly strong and Kwame Nkrumah had links with a number of key figures. Right now, I am unsure of how everything fits together, and I feel that I have much more work to do before it all becomes clear.
So I’ve been catching up on the material on microhistory, from a seminar I missed, whilst writing my short essay. I decided I really ought to go over the microhistory material since I feel like my project may end up as a microhistory and it is just an approach I am generally drawn towards.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how Rüger’s article “OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History” was the article a lot of the group first connected with in the early weeks and how a carefully presented microhistory such as this is perhaps the best introduction to transnational history rather than a predominately theoretical work focused on trying to ascertain a definition.
Micro history is in many respects history’s grounding point, its home if you will. The discipline begins from the individual stories and case studies that make up micro history and it must return there once in a while. If it were not for the stories there would be no history and no historians. According to Braudel imagination is the historian’s most important tool¹; let us not forget that and that the imagination feeds on stories. And so as the outlook changes to the transnational so history must return to micro history but now looking with fresh eyes for details that may signpost networks previously overlooked, connections previously ignored.
Networks can be difficult to pin down and perhaps by focusing in on individual nodes or connections through micro history historians are given a starting point from which to pursue further research into a given network or convergence of networks or at least a snapshot of connections is created which can later be joined up with others.
It feels as if the Eurocentrism and the centrality of the nation state in previous scholarship is like a camera stuck on a particular setting; if you can’t zoom in or pan out then you will never see a complete picture nor all the details. The combination of micro history and transnationalism can begin to change this as historians must “find more imaginative ways of connecting micro and macro levels”.²
 Tonio Andrade. “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory.” Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (December 2010): p. 591
 Jan Rüger, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’, European History Quarterly 40, no. 4 (October 1, 2010): p. 660
[Collaboratively written by David Bor, Johanna Bokedal and Cecilia Nicholson]
As a collective group we have decided that sometimes answering questions is something that can be tackled more effectively once we pool the questions together. This allows us to better track our thought process, instead of trying to produce profound answers without fully considering the scope of the historiographical issues at hand. Some questions might even be answered with further questions. Hopefully this post will provoke some deeper thoughts and answers, or potentially even more questions, from readers.
The term “transnational” – as we have discussed it in class – is extremely broad, wielded by various historians in order to legitimise their own studies. In researching my [David] short essay tried to find recently researched histories that are more nationalistic in order to find a fruitful comparison for some transnational articles, only to struggle to find any where the transnational article was seriously different or brought out completely novel perspectives. The vagueness of transnational is both one of its greatest strengths, but also its Achilles heel. Here are some questions we brainstormed in order to make sense of, or less sense of, the concept of transnational history:
Where do we stop the concept of transnationalism? Do we have to?
According to most transnational historians, this theory is “more about performance than stricture” (Clavin), about the movements of people (as in particular stressed by Patricia Seed, AHR Conversation), but also about the transmission of ideas. If all these aspects are to be incorporated, does this make transnationalism into a methodology? Can we let it go across multiple disciplines? Can these disciplines go across multiple borders in multiple ways or should they stay within a simple national border? Does it even matter? Can this method be used by anyone for any field of study? Does the practice of transnational history, which professes to not have any clear limitations, need to define its own borders as challenges towards its scope accumulate?
Historians’ views of transnationalism vary but there does seem to be a general consensus on what the term broadly focuses on: that first and foremost transnationalism is about the connections between people, places, and objects across time and space. However there does seem to be a discrepancy amongst the majority of historians when it comes to the scope which this term encompasses its material which can be so small as to overshadow this term and so large as to stretch the term to incoherency. This focus on connections can be seen in Patricia Clavin’s article from 2005, where she stated that transnational history is “first and foremost about people: the social space they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.” and its vagueness is evident in “Transnationalism is in danger of becoming a catch-all concept, with almost as many meanings as there are instances of it”.
As a result of the problem of scope, at times it feels like writing a ‘transnational history’ is almost an unachievable aim, you can only write a history with a ‘transnational perspective’. For instance regional studies certainly achieve a transnational perspective but do not constitute for me a ‘transnational history’, and neither does a microhistory, such as Andrade’s article Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration. An Essay in Historical Epistemology. Moving between the two scales could maybe be a way to write ‘transnational history’ but I prefer to stick with the transnational perspective as it allows topics to stay open historiographically and more focussed on their subject rather than on the issue of transnational history, which results in better history.
Maybe there is not much point to this post. Maybe it is irrelevant to propose that questions can be answered with questions. But in the end, questions DO need to be raised. Transnational history needs to remain open and “porous” (Clavin) in order to continue its development as a discipline and that its process might open up challenges and questions that might establish potential borders.
Patricia Seed, ‘AHR Conversation on Transnational History’, American Historical Review (2006)
Patricia Clavin, “Defining transnationalism.” Contemporary European History 14, no. 04 (2005)
Tonio Andrade, ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Towards a Global Microhistory,’ in Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 4 (December, 2010)
[Co-authored by Feng Bo and Yu Shi)
Edward Said’s text ‘Orientalism’ has become exceptionally famous in terms of promoting the negatives of colonial history. The ideas of the ‘Self’ and the ‘Other,’ have led to a lot of focus on the impact that colonial history has had on modern day thinking of racial hierarchy. Said’s insight has opened our eyes to the biases that are implicit in any kinds of writing. With a focus on the colonised and the coloniser, the binary’s of discourse are put into focus, and they are usually very static. Tagged on to that, is the idea that colonial history is all about ‘oppression and resistance’ – the coloniser is always the oppressor, and the colonised always suffer the brunt, or will eventually end up in revolt and being liberated. The pitfall of this is that historians will tend to construct a narrative which is rather homogenous. For instance, a lot of colonial history has been written about how the British empire exploited the resources in her colonies, shedding light on the ways that the colony is administered, or trading benefits that were resulted.
But colonial history cannot be so black or white, there are a lot more links that only through a transnational perspective can these be put into focus. With the concept of ‘agency’ that transnational history focuses on, the people living under the colony can perform so many more activities than simply ‘resisting colonial rule’ or ‘plotting to overthrow the colonial overlords’. As we see in Lindner’s text, those within the colony can make their own identity through their movement. In Lindner’s example, those within the British Cape Colony moved across colonial borders to the German colony Luderitzbucht, and utilising their affiliation with the British empire, were successful in negotiating with the German employers for a pay rise. This is an example that moves away from the concrete terms that Said uses of the ‘colonised’ or the ‘coloniser’ and shows that there is a fluidity to the terms, to emphasise that there are not set binaries. While not arguing against Said’s ideology that there is a power discourse, as there will always be a power imbalance between peoples, merely making clear that within colonial history the colonised cannot always be linked together as the repressed. Lindner’s text raises this point, for instance where migrant workers from the Cape town ‘changed their racial status successfully’, thus showing the instability of racial categories, and that strict demarcation lines were not available.
In significant ways, transnational history expands the horizons of imperial history, first by shifting the focus away from the power relations between the ‘coloniser and the colonised’, the ‘oppressor and the oppressed’ or the ‘Self and the Other’. The assumption of transnational history is that the stories and experiences of people who cannot be so easily categorised in one of these binaries also merit our attention – people who occupy the grey areas, possessing ambiguous identities (as in the case of ‘coloured people’ in Luderitzbucht) and more than one affiliation (German and British). These migrant workers’ protests against German authorities had less to do with colonial politics (gaining autonomy from their colonial overlords) than with personal economic benefits (pay rise). Lindner’s piece is a good example to show how transnational history can broaden the scope of imperial history by re-focusing on the diverse kinds of ‘people’ who make up colonial history, and in the process empowering them with a sense of agency.
Note from Clarence (Feng Bo):
Before coming back to edit this blog post, I browsed the course handbook to find any other relevant readings, and came across Anthony Hopkins’ piece (see bibliography below) which I also recommend. His discussion is relevant here for a couple of reasons: 1. He talks of the concepts of ‘dominant centre’ and ‘centres of influence’ as ‘unacceptable anachronisms’ because it perpetuates Eurocentrism and possibly covert racism. And from our discussion so far, reconceptualising the importance of the spatial dimension is key to transnational history. 2. Hopkins suggests that a re-cast of imperial history after postmodernism means a ‘retreat from hard political and economic questions that were once central to imperial history’ and that postmodernism has helped to enlarge the field of cultural history. I think this is a useful observation. The challenge would be to incorporate these macro-frameworks into other equally valid (macro or micro) frameworks. Lindner’s piece does it quite well by using the case of migrant workforce to bring in discussions on aspects of culture, such as identity. 3. We mentioned Orientalism in our post, but Hopkins also warns of it as a ‘totalising project’ that ‘generalises about Western views of the rest of the world by assembling a composite known as “Orientalism”,’ which I find apt. So the kind of ‘writing-back’ to imperial history is not to commit the same errors that it is criticised for, but to pay close attention to variations due to regional, ethnic, political, and other such differences.
Hopkins, Anthony, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History’, Past and Present 164 (1999), 198-243
Lindner, Ulrike. “Transnational Movements between Colonial Empires: Migrant Workers from the British Cape Colony in the German Diamond Town of Lüderitzbucht.” European Review of History: Revue Europeenne D’histoire 16, no. 5 (2009): 679–95
Said, Edward, Orientalism, (London, 2013)