If transnational history is intended to ‘destroy containers’, to borrow the phrasing of Dr Struck, then we must be careful to ensure that we are not simply replacing one set of obstructive and dogmatic terms with a newer yet similarly unhelpful set of restrictive phrases.
History, structured and defined by notions of the nation state, has proved popular and durable as the concept of the nation state is easy to understand and define. Therefore, the very concept of transnationalism suffers from the fact that it has to deal in less definable, more abstract terms. Hence, it is the duty of the practitioner of transnational history to ensure that these new terms remain easily and consistently defined, simplifying rather than obscuring the study of history.
While Clavin’s Defining Transnationalism and Patel’s Transnational History both generally maintain a helpful level of clarity when defining the terms on which their vision of transnationalism is built, some others have occasionally allowed the vagueness of some of the more abstract terms to undermine the clarity of their definitions. Hinting at such a point, Patel quotes the Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History which states that transnational history involves ‘the people, ideas, products, processes and patterns that operate over, across, through, beyond, above, under, or in-between polities and societies’. It is unclear, to myself at least, what it means for an idea operate ‘under’ societies or indeed what the difference is between those ideas that operate ‘beyond’ or ‘through’ societies. The crux of the problem is that essentially ideas can’t actually move in a literal sense – ergo ascribing more abstract and intellectual concepts with physical properties, while perhaps providing a more evocative analogy, is inevitably going to lead to vagueness and detract from the clarity and value of transnational history.
Happily though, Clavin has provided a clearer and more strongly defined framework for discussing history with a transnationalist perspective. Clavin splits international relations into three ‘elements’ – transnational, international and supranational. If we are to define these terms based on the strict dictionary definitions of their respective prefixes, then we are provided with definitions for phenomena occurring across a number of nations, between individual nations, and out with the confines of the nation state. These categories, then, appear much more useful to the historian than merely regurgitating restrictive and indistinct clichés that describe how ideas somehow ‘move’ amongst geographical spaces.
One, then, must remain vigilant that the terms used by practitioners of transnational history remain clearly defined to avoid the creation of yet more obstructive ‘containers’ that hinder, rather than simplify the study of history.
Readings: Patel, Transnational History
Clavin, Defining Transnational History
Struck, Destroying Containers! The Challenge of Spatial Dynamics (http://transnationalhistory.net/doing/2015/01/29/destroying-containers-the-challenge-of-spatial-dynamics/)