The broad schools of transnational and global history often arise side by side in historical debate, but to equate the two is to ignore the fundamental questions surrounding the definitions & applications of these still emerging fields of study. This brief analysis aims to scratch the surface of the relationship between transnational and global history.
Both fields are, according to Bayly, part of a wider effort among twentieth century historians to escape the dominant but restrictive national perspective. Global history emerged primarily in the 1990s amidst academic debate around the concept of globalisation. Transnational history followed and drew inspiration from global history in a number of ways, as explored by Rüger. In both fields the spotlight is firmly fixed on the concept of mobility, be it the mobility of people, ideas, products, capital or even diseases. What’s more, each places a heavy focus on individuals within the context of international networks and transnational institutions. This of course leads to the question of what constitutes an international network or transnational institution, which should be an interesting topic for further analysis.
As well as its roots in global history, transnational history draws on the tradition from the French & German approaches of “l’histoire croisée and Transfergeschichte” in the way it attempts to develop the method of comparative history. Transnational historians are able to look at comparisons between regions, cities & communities across the globe; comparisons which are often far more helpful & natural than those between nation states.
The existence of transnational history as an alternative to global history reflects, in part, a wider acceptance of the value of the concept of transnationalism, which has manifested itself particularly strongly in sociology & geography. The emergence of multinational companies operating on a global scale has ushered in the concept of the transnational corporation, which is now deeply embedded in geographical debate. In the field of history, the term ‘transnational history’ has been preferred to global or world history by some academics, partly because studying on a truly global scale is rarely practical or even possible. The recognition that the global perspective can be a useful one remains, but transnational history gives the historian freedom to choose from a variety of spatial and temporal scales.
More generally it appears that the success of transnational history lies in its ability to combine approaches. As Rüger suggests, transnational history has the benefit of challenging the national unit without dispensing with it, and is thus able to operate at the often neglected extremities of national history. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the combination of methods is the key to improvement, in history as in many other academic fields, and for this reason transnational history should continue to be taken seriously as a helpful template for future study.
Let me return finally to the relationship between transnational and global history. Given the intention to break the restrictive mould of national history, it is perhaps unsurprising that these terms find themselves so open to different interpretations, which can cause confusion. Nevertheless, the transnational and global approaches to history both offer opportunities for the individual historian to pursue research without the pressures and limitations of historiographical tradition, and that cannot fail to enrich the discipline.
Christopher A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review 11/5 (2006), pp.1441-1464
Clavin, Patricia, ‘Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’, European History Quarterly 40/4 (2010), pp.624-640 http://ehq.sagepub.com/content/40/4/624.full.pdf+html
Rueger, Jan, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’, European History Quarterly 40/4 (2010), pp.656-668 http://ehq.sagepub.com/content/40/4/656.full.pdf+html
Tyrrell, Ian, ‘What is transnational history’ https://iantyrrell.wordpress.com/what-is-transnational-history/