Brief Reflections – the integrity of Transnational History

I have learned a lot this semester, that is undoubtable. I will admit it has definitely been a challenge to engage with such a complex and constantly evolving field within the discipline of History. Nevertheless, it has been very much a necessary and formative challenge for my academic development and personal outlook on history and the current world. At its core, this module has made me more sensitive to the fact of the nation as not being all-encompassing in its shaping of history. Transnational history helps us ultimately to engage with the reality of a very important and valid life beyond the nation which goes back centuries.

People, events, objects, ideas in the past were clearly mobile and transcended often more than one boundary which the nation has constructed be it physical or metaphorical. Saunier and others have made this point about ‘methodological honesty’ so crucial to doing transnational history; to follow our subjects through the historical record wherever that may take us (sometimes trawling archives across the world), and cross borders in the same fashion that they did. The multiple sites and spaces which transnational actors have traversed in the past can both create new, independent phenomena which are strictly transnational in nature – such as some international organisations built to serve a common cause globally (e.g. Médecins sans frontières) – and make a certain nation’s history and/or present more diverse in its international and global influences (e.g. the notion of America as historically having been a ‘free’ and ‘immigrant’ nation).

In a time where the politicisation of national rhetoric is widespread surely it is more important than ever to offer up some balance. In space, scale and timeframe transnational history is much more than a study of the manifestations of globalisation. Yet in our current globalised world, the methods used, and knowledge produced, by transnational historians can instil in us a greater sensitivity to the factors which have long connected (rather than divided) us in the most unique ways and continue to do so today.

Looking Backwards

Taking MO3351 has been the most unusual and unique academic experience I’ve had at St. Andrews. While I enjoy historiography, I didn’t know much about transnational and global history as a topic and field. So the terminology used was entirely new to me, as were many of the concepts we were working with. It took some time and a good amount of work in order to get my head around things.

Leaving aside the transnational part of the course, I think the most interesting aspect of M)3351 has been the ‘work experience’. I really like the idea (and implementation of that idea) that students should go through the motions of researching and preparing a paper in a similar way to actual working historians. Just as law students learn about the actual practice of law and not just legislation and judicial precedent, history students can and should learn about the working life of historians.

Even if you’re not aiming to go into academia, I think it’s a good framework through which we have learned a lot. I don’t think it would be possible to write a 5000 word project without the sort of guidance we’ve had in MO3351. Having these checkpoints (both the presentations and the blog postings) has, for me at least, been extremely useful. They’ve kept me on track in terms of getting work done as well as provide a platform for reconsidering my approach to my own work.

The blog system has also meant that this was one of my most interconnected courses. Sometimes, especially in courses with little discussion, it can feel like you’re in a bubble working on your individual assignments with the other students not being a consideration. Both the class format and the blog system have meant I’ve gotten loads of interaction with my classmates, which I think has sharpened my thoughts and just made the course much more enjoyable. Overall it’s been a great time and I’d recommend MO3351 to almost any history student!

Reflections on my ‘final’ project

As was probably quite telling from my presentation, my project has gone through a bit of a rollercoaster over the past week and as I didn’t really have enough time to explain it then, I thought it would be worth talking about in my final blog post of the semester.

It all started when I visited Bernhard’s office hours last week on Thursday. Blissfully ignorant, I was in the midst of a statistics and coding deadline (I know numbers – gross), which was also due on Tuesday. Given my general preference of words over numbers and relative lack of skill with computers, let alone statistical coding, I had been rather preoccupied most of last week, only doing limited research ‘as a break’ throughout the week. So when I approached Bernhard on Thursday afternoon I had a lot of ideas but very little in the way of structure. And if I were going to be honest, I’d basically come to him with a long list of my favourite beauty queens and a few overarching themes. After I had presented everything I had researched in a quick 15 minutes spiel that essentially consisted of the random connections between readings I had made in my mind and the rabbit holes I’d fallen down on the internet during my research, he sort of looked at me and said something along the lines of, “have you considered a dissertation?” Because as we started ascribing arbitrary word counts to the different sections, e.g. 1000 words for the introduction, 1500 for the first section on transnational actors etc., I started to realise I would only really be able to talk about 2, maybe 3 at the most, beauty queens in the 5,000 words we have for this essay.

This made me deeply, deeply upset.

I had about 6-8 favourite queens I wanted to talk about and those were only the ones who had made the shortlist. I was also being difficult as I had my mind set on writing an essay and was quite opposed to anything else. A dissertation also wasn’t really an option for me, as I have to write a dissertation for Geography in the second semester and I think two dissertations in one semester would quite possibly been the end of me. But above all else, I really didn’t want to give up my beauty queens at the end of this semester.

So I went to speak to the oracle of module choices, Mr Derek Patrick. He made me aware of the possibility of doing a ‘History Project’, which consists of an 8,000-word essay (75%) and a presentation (25%) in the first semester, (which sounds an awful lot like a dissertation considering my geography one will only be 7,000 words but who am I to say). Ergo, here I am today about to embark on my final year where I will write two (sort of) dissertations in my final year. Yay.

But all in all I managed to solve the problem I had about too few words this semester, by essentially delaying this problem into next semester, where I’ll probably find myself in the same situation come November and end up deciding to write a PHD and dedicating my life to the Miss World beauty pageant all because of this one module I took in my third year of my undergraduate degree.

Future aside, what this means for me now in the next few weeks is that I need to write another project proposal that gives me enough scope for further research next semester but also is detailed enough to land me a decent mark this semester, whilst constantly keeping in the back of my mind the looming danger of self-plagiarism and the perils of the ominous TGAP. Easy.

To The Newcomers

I’m often frustrated by the lack of module description provided by the School of History when I’m picking my modules for the forthcoming year, so this week I’ve decided to give a run-down of MO3351 for the prospective ‘next-gen’. Fingers crossed they might stumble across this post then.  

The module is 100% coursework. For us, that consisted of compiling 8 blog posts across the semester – like this – (two of which were peer-review comments) worth 20%, one ‘project proposal’ worth 10%, one ‘short essay’ worth 20%, one presentation worth 10%, and one 5,000-word project essay worth 40%. 

Like all history modules, tutorials for MO3351 were structured around readings that provided useful information on the discipline’s various ‘sub-topics’. For transnational history, those could include ‘microhistory’, ‘global history’, ‘Actor-Network Theory’ and ‘Decolonization’ for example. MO3351’s differences, however, were in its provision of tutorial ‘skill sessions’ – ‘working with sources’ and ‘collaborative blog writing’. These were very useful, and have no doubt readied me more for my dissertation next academic year. Most tutorials involved elements of peer collaboration actually, and this was usually achieved via the medium of a google-drive. 

One tutorial session, the ‘unconference’, was also dedicated to developing presentation skills that would come in handy for the marked presentation later in the semester. That too, was valuable: a nice way to ease into the practice of presenting information to peers in a concise and effective manner. 

The biggest challenge provided by MO3351 (for me as it I expect has been for everyone else) has undoubtedly been the individual projects that we’ve been charged with writing. In total, what that involved, was choosing a topic to study in a ‘transnational’ perspective, researching that topic, and compiling a 5,000-word essay on it. As I write now, I’m still in the research phase. I would definitely argue that (as daunting as its been) this type of assessment has been very liberating, however. Never before at St. Andrews have I been afforded the opportunity to pick any topic of my choosing to study in a module. 

Thoughts on a semester of transnationalism.

As the semester finishes, so does one of the more academically challenging modules I’ve taken and I have a few thoughts still left over. At various points throughout, I have been fascinated, frustrated and confused by transnationalism and its methodology and practicality. Whilst the topic has been a very enjoyable enjoyable one, I admit to a degree of cynicism and frustration which has waxed and waned throughout the semester. One comment is that transnational historians can spend far too much time discussing and defining what it means to be a transnational historian. The paragraph to page introduction that are dedicated to this purpose which accompany many of the articles in my reading for the course have frequently left me feeling somewhat frustrated with the discipline. This admittedly might partly be because of my own more practical persuasion when it comes to doing history, I prefer to crack on with the topic at hand rather than debating methodology. Naturally, historiography is important, we must understand why and how we make the choices we do when writing history, however transnational history’s novelty as a distinct subsection of history I feel has often resulted in to greater focus on this.
I also feel that occasionally some of the readings from the course have been far too quick to compartmentalise transnational history from other historical practices. Certainly even back as far as the AHR conversation, there was discussion of postcolonial, global and transnational history as separate entities and boxes within history. I feel that to an extent, there is merely good and bad history. Whilst placing transnational subjects at the centre of projects and focus is certainly a novelty that has come with the new discipline, transnationalism has also always been unavoidable in some historical subjects. For example, Gandhi and Nehru are essential parts of the story of Indian Independence. Both these men led undoubtedly transnational lives, being being educated abroad and Gandhi in particular was famously inspired by a racist conductor in South Africa. Drain theory is also an integral part of the argument for independence, involving the international movement of goods and capital between the Raj and Britain, theorised in 1867 by Dadabhai Naoroji. Similarly the fight against Apartheid, relevant to my project, saw the Desmond Tutu act transnationally, traversing the globe to inspire an international movement, whilst the ANC crossing southern Africa whilst exiled from their homeland. I would argue that if historian of either of these topics were to exclude these details they would be writing bad histories. In world which sees linkages and the international movement of people, goods and ideas surely it is the historians responsibility to reflect this. A good history should take into account all relevant disciplines of history, for example, transnational, economic, social, etc. In defining transnationalism as something so radically new and different, I feel there is a danger that it will limit its application across other histories rather than placing it as another tool in the toolbox of all historians. I would carefully suggest that transnationlists could be more inclusive and open in their definition of their discipline, drawing hopefully more historians into the fold.
However these are merely a couple of issues which I have personally found frustrating in what is overall a fascinating topic and discipline. Transnational history is a fantastic tool for highlighting those actors, flows and ideas that did not consign or limit themselves to national boundaries, an area that can sometimes fade into the background in a historiographical tradition dominated by the nation state. Furthermore, this is becoming evermore relevant in globalised world. Transnational history has definitely grown on me over the semester. It is a brilliant lens through which to examine history, and it is undoubted that in the past, it has been severely neglected. I will certainly be sure in future to keep the transnational in mind during all my writing. The module has been a great experience and I overall I have throughly enjoyed both the discussions in class and the new way of looking at history.

From the Embers

When people think of France what comes to mind, for many it is the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame. So when Notre Dame’s roof went up in flames last week the outpouring from across the world was momentous. In our age news travels, demonstrating how interconnected we have become and the news stories that followed demonstrated the transnational age we live in. For instance, Heritage England has pledged to provide resources if needed, such as craftsmen and archaeologists demonstrating a level of international cooperation which was mirrored by the Japanese government.[1]

Interestingly, the fire at Notre Dame has also inspired help in other areas of the world, boosting the fundraising efforts for black churches in America which were destroyed by racially motivated arson attacks.[2] It seems that the plight of this internationally recognised, national monument has encouraged others to tackle the plight in their surrounding area.

In many ways Notre Dame has become a transnational symbol, causing people to acknowledge and address problems within their own country. In fact, the guardian article which discusses the pledges made by the Heritage England, uses Notre Dame as a spring board to discuss the lack of supervision within restoration work. The article quotes Michael Daley, the director of ArtWatch UK, the conservation watchdog, who highlights the many fires in UK have occurred during restoration work, such as at Windsor Castle, the Cutty Sark and the Glasgow School of Art.

However, the most notable of example of this was the social commentary on the donations from the French billionaires that poured in following the fire. Wealth inequality which was used as a staging point to discuss wealth distribution not only in the UK but also around the world.[3]

In many ways, I am increasingly coming to understand Hugh’s perspective on transnational history, at least in the modern world. With the world so interconnected as it is now, is it not the job of the historian to reflect this? Transnational history it could, therefore, be argued is simply how historian should write a good history, for as the news articles have shown us, any event can be linked to a wider theme. I’m not sure I agree with this, however I think it is an interesting talking point. Instead, for me, as I have already mentioned in previous blog posts and in seminars, transnational history has an important political dimension. Its purpose not only to explore connection within the world, but also to remind the reader that it is there and has been for hundreds of years.

[1] Dalya Alberge, Notre Dame fire: UK ready to share conservation expertise, 20 May 2019, <>[22 May 2019]

[2] Karen Zraick, Niraj Chokshi, Black churches destroyed by arson see huge spike in donations after Notre Dame fire, 18 April 2019, <>[22 April 2019]

[3] Aditya Chakrabortty, The billionaires’ donations will turn Notre Dame into a monument to hypocrisy, 18 April 2019, <>[22 April 2010]

Reflections on the Final Project: Expectations Versus Reality

As the semester draws to a close and we find ourselves rapidly approaching the throes of week eleven, I have the strong sense that some reflection is now in order.

And, since I have been mostly preoccupied with my project this week, many of my present thoughts relating to the module, its structure, and pedagogical reasoning will be filtered through this lens.

So what did I expect of this module, its expectations, and the looming 5000-word essay component at the beginning of the course? To put it bluntly, not much short of disaster, though from about the second week on the course, when we sat and discussed habits and routines, I found that I was already far more optimistic, even enthused about the prospect, and both considerably more than I had expected!

With a few ideas in my head and not a single clue how achievable any of them might be as a project, the next couple of weeks were spent dutifully zooming in and out of various topics and histories, until I had finally settled on my object of study and the questions which I hoped to answer over the course of the next few weeks, not yet knowing quite where they would take me.

A first revelation on this journey was the issue of sites. My initial proposal, although clear in its emphasis on select transnational actors, I realised was not quite as methodologically watertight as I had thought, moving between a few sites which I had identified in early readings but failed to justify in other ways: why include those sites specifically? why include certain places but not others?

This is something which I believe I have now resolved by way of tracing East India Company voyages within a more specific time period and by emphasising useful or interesting examples rather than committing myself to a few random sites from the outset. Yet as well as a personal challenge, this is also a good example of one of the ways that I expect we have all been challenged by this module: that is, it has encouraged us to think not only in terms of transnational phenomena, but transnational methodologies.

Maybe I’ve just gone a little bit mad at this point, but I have to admit that this particular aspect of the tutorial readings has really grown on me over the course of the semester, so I am glad I have managed to ‘unmake’ this particular assumption and remake the setting for my project around the history itself rather than the other way around.

Fast forward a few more weeks and we arrive at my second revelation: this one a little more light-hearted. For although I suppose it should have been obvious — get this, folks — the more time you have to do your research, the more research you are going to wind up with!

I am sure I am not the only one who is still Ctrl-F, Ctrl+B, and Ctrl+Xing their way through an unruly notes document or three, even as the structure of our arguments should now be finally taking shape. So, although it is rather comical, I feel like this is a stage that I probably underestimated, given that it is something that I would usually do alongside and during rather than ahead of the writing process for a shorter essay.

So, my final advice to next year’s cohort: remember that the more notes you take, the more you’re going to have to work with later, but also the more you’re going to have to work against if you’re not careful. Keep your note-taking focused or, if that’s not your style, be prepared to spend a lot of time chopping and changing afterwards.

And, if you value your sanity: always, always note down the page number.

Transnational History – reaching the public?

A comment made by Sophie towards the end our last tutorial regarding transnational history’s restricted engagement with the public got me thinking more about the current divides and how it could be better bridged. In particular, I began wondering why I myself did not know much about transnational history before this semester (aside from my own ignorance), and how this promising new field could expand its reach to other historians and to the public; and indeed, if it should.

In the case of the reach of transnational history academically, as usual, the nation has some part to play. The undergraduate history departments in most universities understandably have a large proportion of their teaching and modules centred around traditional nation-state frameworks. This is understandable for a discipline whose inception was practically tied to the institutions of the nation-state and whose readership was intentionally national.

But just as the wheels of history keep moving along so should the approaches used to study it evolve and adapt somewhat over time. I think there is certainly much rationale for introducing transnational as well as global and world histories into the historical curriculum at an earlier stage. This could then help to avoid the initial (and sometimes prolonged) disorientation you feel after you step into your first MO3351 tutorial and your nation-centred world starts crumbling all around you.

In terms of its wider reach within the public sphere transnational history does risk suffering some of the same problems that the academic writing of history generally does when trying to engage with a readership beyond the lecture hall and seminar room. One of the most notable of these is the overuse of jargon or at least very long, drawn out complex sentences which seek to fit in too many aspects and arguments into one idea or expression, and often go off on tangents, such that they risk losing the intended meaning they started off with – much like this sentence is currently demonstrating. Increasing clarity of expression and only using jargon where it necessarily aids the meaning and understanding of a concept (and is fully explained in laymen’s terms) is a particularly important consideration to bear in mind for historians of a new, evolving field like transnational history.

Yet in terms of subjects studied and context there is a potential widespread appeal to transnational history that seems unrealised. Within the diverse and multicultural historical episodes which transnational historians bring to life, from Tonio Andrade’s ‘Chinese Farmer, Two African boys and a warlord’ and Linda Colley’s Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh to broader event-based accounts like Heather Streets-Salter’s article, ‘“The Local Was Global: The Singapore Mutiny of 1915”, there is an underlying sense that you are reading a completely new angle on a previously well-documented event or being exposed to new accounts of people lives which were previously unwritten about.

In fact, in terms of method, a focus on local histories can often facilitate a direct engagement between the transnational historian and the public. This is especially relevant in the case of historians accessing family records and memorabilia as sources and aiming to sensitively and accurately portray personal relationships and stories. We saw a clear example of this in the Transnational Lives edited volume and Martha Hodes’ account of the sea captain’s wife Eunice Connolly. In discussing her search for sources, Hodes mentions how lucky she was to meet descendants of Smiley Connolly’s West Indian family in New York and New England as well as Eunice’s New England family. This enabled her to follow a more personal take on Eunice’s story and helped form her argument regarding the malleability of racial classifications across geographical borders in North and Central America in the latter 19th century.  

There is no denying the complexity of transnational history, and many would argue that’s the fun of it, yet that does not mean it cannot engage with a public looking to explore a growing interest in history. Arguably, as well, it should; given its current relevance in a globalised era but even more so given that it’s simply interesting, status-quo challenging history. The difficulty lies essentially in taking complex transnational phenomena, often subject to various origins and influences, and expressing their significance in a simple, yet engaging way. Fair to say its easier said than done.

Reflection Post

Looking back at this module over the course of the semester, I have gained incredible knowledge and a new understanding of history as a discipline. I was never interested in medieval or ancient history, always wanting the material I was learning to be relevant to my life and future aspirations. This class as well as HI2001 are some of the only history classes I actually felt have pushed me as a student, making me reconsider the discipline of history. By focusing on not just the act of studying history, but how to practice history, the doing, I have been inspired by the various methods and tools that I had not even considered to be historical. From looking at the concept of a “transnational actor”, seeing how people’s’ lives can span across borders, the topic of transnational history was made relevant to me, and kept creeping into my mind as I read books, articles, or even watched student run fashion shows.

The discussion of what counts and what does not count as transnational has inspired me and pushed me to critically analyse historical papers in ways I never had before. Additionally, I really enjoyed the loose structure of tutorials, with lots of freedom for seminar based discussion. It was one of the only classes I have had where students are not afraid to speak, but encouraged. I listened to my classmates takes on papers and concepts and really felt everyone contributed something unique.

Personally, I think this class has really pushed me specifically in the realm of the assignments. While I have had to write 5000 words essays before, I have never had to do a 5000 word project. Reading example project proposals, spending an embarrassing two hours coding a graphic to put into my project, and attempting to do math to calculate the budget of my project, I have been tasked with doing things I have never done before. Though this project was/is scary, I really have enjoyed it. My parents always say if school is easy, you are doing something wrong, so I think I have been faced with just the right dose of a challenge. From translating a 30 page Spanish interview (rest in peace my Friday night), to trying to decide whether it is worth it to fill out an ethics form, submit it, then possibly not even be able to use the names of the EU reps, I have been frustrated, challenged, tested, but consistently determined to come out on top.

In many ways, this class has been a great asset to future projects I will undertake whether that be my long essay for my special subject, or even the tedious process of getting access to certain documents (a challenge I know I will face as a pre-law student). I have also realised my Spanish is a lot better than I thought but I am not eager to go round two on translating an entire document so please no one enlist me for help.

Thus in conclusion, I have come a long way from the girl who argued with Kai saying this class was called Transglobalism. With this newly established transnational framework, I am prepared to read history with a more delicate eye, really analysing how different actors, concepts and people span across borders, creating a network of connections or a honeycomb (throwing it back to Clavin). This class has proved not only interesting and exciting but also extremely helpful for future history classes as well as making quick connections and recognising existing transnational ties.

A Field Guide to Transnational History

Listing the key terms of transnational history in class helped me to visualise the vast array of components involved in its historiography. From “nodal points” to “NGOs” it seemed daunting to pin down a small number of categories that could encompass the entirety of transnational history. Looking at that board and attempting to fit each component into a coherent, comprehensive yet well organised book seemed to be the equivalent of finding a solution to an unsolvable equation. Amongst our group, questions abounded. What themes/categories can encompass everything we’ve listed on the board? How do we organise the book in a manner that would make sense to students like us who are relatively new to the historiographical approach of transnational history? Finally, how do we incorporate transnational history’s most important literature while also making note of the recent debates between scholars regarding transnational history as an emerging and prevalent historiographical approach? We weren’t able to come up with well-formulated answers for these questions but we began to attempt to answer them by taking the components and categorising them.

Our rough layout of the transnational history reader consisted of (if I remember correctly) four broad categories that most – if not all – the components could fit under as well as a section dedicated to the challenges and historiographical debates associated with transnational history. The first category would be themes or key ideas, the second networks, the third actors and the fourth nodal points and confluence.

Themes [ italic font makes the ideas seem more legitimate], the first section of our hypothetical book, involves the grand topics, key ideas and terms often discussed in transnational history. We would highlight the terms sub-altern, translocal, transcultural, globalisation, and internationalism. Each of these terms would be defined and set in the context of their relevance to transnationalism. Sub-altern studies, while related to nationalism and de-colonisation, helped to create a diaspora of anti-colonialism across the globe.

The section Networks entails a discussion of the bridges that breakdown national barriers. Commercial ties, language, religion, ethnicity and political philosophies all fit into this category. Transnational networks are based up some form of commonality or common interest and therefore necessary in any discussion of transnational history. The common connections in transnational networks could be as seemingly insignificant as the meat essence OXO, which Jan Ruger addressed.

Actors is arguably the most straightforward section. The aim of Actors would be to discuss the most important actors and agents in transnational history. The great empires of the late modern period were chief sources for cross-cultural interaction from the 17th century until the years following World War II.  Supranational organisations such as the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union are the most prominent modern examples of transnational actors.

Nodal Points and Confluence comprises of physical points of connection. Ironically the most obvious point of confluence are national borders themselves, particularly when they are tenuous and not enforced by some physical or man-made barrier. Other, modern examples of nodal points or areas of confluence are social media platforms like twitter or Facebook. Entertainment events like the Olympics, World Cup, or Cannes Film Festival could be considered transnational nodal points. In my project research, I am finding that port cities like Canton, Calcutta and Istanbul were hotbeds of commercial transnational interaction.

            I realise that I have simply created categories for topics that transnational history encompasses and there is a considerable amount I have left out that is essential to transnational history as a field of study. Methodological strategies are crucial to any historiographical approach and certainly should be included in any transnational history handbook. The limits of transnational history, while still speculated upon by historians, would be another important area of discussion. As an exercise, this forced me to think about what was fundamentally important to studying transnational history.

I may have it all wrong…

Defining something that lacks a specific definition is always going to be difficult. I need only need to look to my blog post last week and Jamie’s comments underneath to find evidence of this. Casalilla perspective that any historians have the ‘right to use the methods of transnational history’ is interesting and something I agree with. Transnational has re-emphasised the importance of the movement and connection. However, this only reflects one half of the words meaning. The reference to the nation makes the subject area more apparent, transnationalism focuses on the interaction of peoples between national boundaries.

I will admit that this is a simplistic overview, as was established in class week there are a plethora of subsections within the field. For example, interaction, the movement between borders can cover a broad range of topics in a multitude of different ways. The reading so far this semester have largely focused on peoples and yet transnationalism can also be applied to commodities and the growth of networks. It can, therefore, be argued that the engulfing field which is transnational history requires one simplistic overarching definition to tie the field together. Now I am not claiming to the perfect answer to this, however, if I was to attempt it in a sentence I would state that:

Transnational history is the study of a subject’s interaction and or movement across national boundaries.

I think many will argue against this, stating it misses the nuances of transnationalism, and on one hand people are right. Yet, as a firm believer in the practicality of history, transnationalism needs to be definable in an easily understandable format if it is to have any impact on popular history. Something that I believe to be imperative in a world which seems to growing apart, for people need to understand that the world has been built upon interaction and engagement rather than the story told by isolationist national narratives.

Transnational history web

I’ll admit I totally forgot we were supposed to write about what we’d want to see in a guide book about transnational history, so I wrote a rather lengthy unrelated post earlier today.

My ideal guide to transnational history would not go in a specific order rather it would be a collection of articles on various ideas from trade history in transnational context to the study of intellectual networks. I think this network should be ever expanding, but that each article should have a fairly strict word limit, with the option of adding articles on subtopics that might be of more niche interest. Ideally additions to this web would be peer reviewed and there would be a paid staff to prune and nurture the network.

I also think a short history of the discipline would a beneficial thing to include. I found thinking about the history of transnational and global women’s history to be beneficial when trying to understand the historiography. A similar more general history of the discipline of transnational and global history would also be helpful.

Finally I’d like to make the case for visuals. Personally I think mostly in words, but that is mainly when things are proceeding in a one directional linear way. Concepts in transnational history often are not linear or don’t have a linear relationship towards each other. This is where I think visuals can be very helpful. In addition visuals can be very helpful in remembering complex topics and adding a bit of levity to what can sometimes be dry historiography. This is what I tried to do in my previous post “Trying to do historiography with Polandball” (

A Transnational Index of A (nonexistent) Transnational Manifesto

Given the already-complex nature of this topic, I think it’s best if I don’t spend loads of time justifying and explaining up-front why I’ve set this out like I have. Instead, I’ll explain the terms and categories as I go along!

Meta-Transnationalist Terms: These are the terms and definitions used by academics when describing the whole of or an aspect of transnationalism and transnational history. Under this category you will find ‘Subaltern Studies’, ‘Labour History’, ‘Core-Periphery’, and different interpretations of exactly what ‘Transnationalism’ means. Subcategories for Historiography, Methodology, etc. might also be useful but as of now I am unsure of how to split things up.

“Umbrellas”: These are those networks and organizations that are so large and/or diverse that within them can be found multiple examples of each of the following categories. They therefore cannot be grouped into any specific one and must be dealt with on their own terms. They can be further subdivided into purpose-built (wherin their central purpose is at least in part transnational in character) networks/organizations and diffuse networks/organizations that have developed a transnational character without direct intent on the part of any (or at least most) Actors within it. Included in the latter is the Internet and the New York Stock Exchange, while in the former lies the UN (and its subsidiary organizations), the Socialist International, and the World Trade Organization. A third sub-category might be set aside for Empires, as has been suggested by others, as a consequence of their particular historical significance.

Actors: Specific persons or organizations responsible for transnational activity. These can be subdivided into Practicing Actors and Lived Actors. Practicing Actors are those people/organizations that consciously and intentionally engage in transnational activity; in this sub-category are many scientists, diplomats, politicians, revolutionaries, etc, and their associated institutions. Lived Actors are those people/organizations who have had transnational activity impact their life but did not have direct knowledge or control over the transnational aspects of it, or those who participated in transnational activity without considering themselves as doing so. Included here are many traders, generals, soldiers, prisoners, and “common people” more generally.

Objects: What is actually being transferred across borders. This includes physical objects in the form of traded commodities, as well as non-commodities such as scientific knowledge, culture, disease, and even genetics.

Vectors: The constructed methods and “natural” pathways that enable and accelerate transnational activity. The former includes specific trade networks, diplomatic treaties, and Esperanto. The latter includes religious affiliation, cultural compatibility, global and regional economic phenomena (ex. industrial revolution), and geographic features (ex. good harbors).

Blockers: The constructed methods and pre-existing conditions blocking or impeding transnational activity. The former group includes hard borders, geo-political rivalries, and xenophobic ideologies. The latter group includes geographic impediments (sheer distance, the Atlantic, the Sahara, etc), linguistic barriers, and, again, global and regional economic phenomena.

Similar distinctions in broad categories have been made by others, both on the blog and in the last class, but I think I’ve hit on something that ought to be taken into strong consideration when planning out a broader and more ambitious “manifesto”. Specifically, I think it is extremely important, within categories, to distinguish between active and passive aspects of transnationalism. There is a fundamental difference between a 1950’s UN diplomat and a 1890’s Hong Kong peasant that is not merely a function of their different living conditions and historical circumstances. People and organizations practice transnational activity very differently when they are aware of the transnational character of that activity, and act even more differently when they are intentionally conducting that activity to be transnational. This is true across all the categories I have listed above. Diffuse trade networks operate(d) differently than the World Trade Organization, disease transmission operates differently than knowledge transmission, and constructed barriers to certain types of transnational activities (militarized borders) operate differently than more natural ones (many miles of ocean). Taking a closer look at the last example, it is clear that from the perspective of a scholar, the transnational character of a deliberately militarized border resulting from particular cultural and political developments has to be established via a fundamentally different lens than how a scholar would evaluate the transnational character of a naturally existing water barrier that forces dangerous raft crossings.

Who the heck is Baffo?

I’m having an identity problem, fortunately this isn’t one of those identity problems that pops up so often in transnational history regarding culture and nationality. I literally can’t tell who a name belongs to. The name Baffo seems to be used to describe two different Ottoman Valide Sultans, Nurbanu and Sayife. Nurbanu was the mother of Murad III and Sayife was his consort. So in less we want to get aggressively freudian (sorry psych student humour) these historical figures must be kept separate. It is also important to note that they were very frequently at odds viciously competing for influence over Murad.

Most sources describe Nurbanu as having some personal connection to Venice dating back to her childhood. The nature of the connection is itself ambiguous. According to some sources she was born to commoners of Venetian controlled Corfu, and merely liked to position herself as the illegitimate child of Venetian nobles. Other sources describe her as the child of the Venetian governor of Paros and the Cyclades. These sources describe her as the descendent of the Vernier-Baffo family which suggests that she is the most likely candidate for the name of Baffo. Nurbanu herself played up a connection to Venice and a noble origin, but was unspecific about what family she descended from.

However someone who based on biographical details is quite clearly Sayife is often also described as Baffo. However while sources about Nurbanu will often also say Baffo the same is not true of sources about Sayife. It is also worth noting that these sources often describe Baffo as Venetian, but no source that refers to Murad’s consort as Sayife refers to her as Venetian.

I’m inclined to believe that the name Baffo should best be applied to Nurbanu or not applied at all, but my real question is does that mean I should disregard sources where it refers instead to Sayife? Most of sources where Sayife is referred to as Baffo don’t have obvious errors except in mixing up her origins with those of Nurbanu. Some of these sources contain details that might be useful, can I still use them if they include what I believe is an error?

Interestingly I’m having a similar problem with their kiras (Jewish women who served as a personal secretary/chief of staff/personal shopper). Some historians question wether the word “kira” even describes the role, or is actually just the shortening of on of the kira’s names. I’m inclined to use the word kira anyway because there is not another good word for describing that role. In addition there were three prominent kiras around the time of Nurbanu and Sayife and there is a problematic tendency for them to get mixed up together or even combined into one person. One historian cleverly points out that Nurbanu and Sayife would not have used the same kira as they were nearly constantly at odds. This combined with the fact that we know some biographical details about each of these kiras makes me fairly sure there wasn’t just one. However there is some ambiguity still about which events happened to which. For example one of them was infamously stabbed to death and it has taken better historians than me a fair amount of detective work to figure out which one that is.


List – Technical Terms (Learning the Language) 

  1. Introduction: Transnational History, History and Historiography. 
  2. Heterogeneity, Confusions and Misunderstandings.     
  3. Aims, Agendas and Aspirations.   
  4. Methodological Approaches.  
  5. Source Materials.
  6. Spaces and Times. 
  7. Mapping and Visual Aids. 
  8. Conclusion. 

Reference Works and Further Readings

At the start of the semester, I was, and still am to some degree, slightly baffled by the complex of technical terms which can be quite specific to transnational history (‘nodes’, ‘translocal’, ‘glocal’ etc.). If I was to compile a book on the subject then, I think it might be handy to include a list of those expressions, accompanied by brief explanations of them at the start of the work.

I think it’s important to situate transnational history in its historiographical context too (its emergence, its comparison to other sub-disciplines of history, and how it has changed since in its character since its inception); and I think would give me reason to address those topics in the first chapter of the book. 

In the second, it might then be helpful to confront or work around the various confusions that present themselves in the practice of writing transnational history; its heterogeneity as a discipline, its flexibility as an ‘umbrella perspective’, and the way in which it functions as a ‘tool’ rather than a strict methodological approach. In this instance, it might also be useful to include the criticisms that have been levied against it in the past. 

The third and fourth are quite self-explanatory, and could address why historians have chosen to practice transnational history, break down its various sub-disciplines, and perhaps match those sub-disciplines to the areas of historical enquiry that have benefitted most from them in the past (‘translocal’ for inter-colonial spaces for example, or ‘microhistory’ for cities etc.).

‘Source Materials’, I think, should receive some serious attention. For me, using primary source materials to write transnational history has been challenging, and I’m still unsure as to how I should be reading a source through a transnational ‘lens’, whether or not there in fact is a specific way to do so, and how I should deal with a scarcity in source material (the validity of the Andrade approach for example, or something entirely different). 

The issue of space and time is something I’ve blogged about before, specifically with reference to the spatio-temporal problem of ‘transnational’ history before the rise of the nation-sate, and legitimacy of ‘transnational’ history for places in which social organization was not manifested with reference to European frameworks of Westphalian sovereignty. In this chapter, I think it might be wise to address those issues, and offer some ways in which they might be overcome (via the practice of ‘translocal’ history for example). 

Unfortunately, I missed the QGIS sessions, but skills like the ones taught there, I hear, have been very useful: it’s for that reason that I would devote the seventh chapter of the book to mapping.