I know this is more a consolidation (project-finishing, presentation-preparing, caffeine-pounding) week than anything else, but I stumbled onto something interesting (to me, at least) while polishing up my work on my project, and I thought it worth sharing. I had no idea where I was headed when I began my research in January, but I managed to land on Santería and its rich cultural history. What I’ve ultimately chosen to focus on is the transnational identities and communities, formed in the crucible of colonial Cuba and shaped through centuries of cultural diffusion across the Americas. All that has me thinking about the things that form our identities and the communities that we build for ourselves as students, as young adults, as historians, as citizens of our respective countries. Bear with me, because I know this sounds a little ‘we are the world’, but it’s a fantastic thing if you really think about it.
Take the identities we see here in St Andrews. Is it a society affiliation or your course of study that primarily defines your days’ work? Are you a proud champion of your Hall or are have you gone private? Do you ignore freshers simply because they’re freshers and probably as immature as you were when you first arrived? Or do you prefer taking them under your wing and making them part of your university family? Are you an Academic Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Grandmother? Do you study a science or one of the humanities? Can you afford to attend every last ball and fashion show or are you working 20 hours a week just to pay your rent?
All of these questions point to the immeasurable variety of humans that we are able to meet and connect with, even in this tiny town. And how do they build our communities? Are we St Andrews students? Are we Chapel Choir singers, brewers at the Shire of Caer Caledon, stargazers at AstroSoc or first-string footballers? What ties of identity and association build each of our own hodge-podge university families? These questions barely touch the surface of the multitude of self-identifications we can see here, never mind the ways in which we each identify others and their communities. If we accept that incredible array of possibilities, then how can we ever carry out a comprehensive study of any group?
The simple answer, I suppose, is to focus on single points of commonality and reduce the dimensions of our work. As historians (especially budding transnationalists) it is our job to attempt to tell stories of the past with the greatest accuracy possible and with consideration of the innate complexities of human interactions.
What’s the point of all that waffle? Well, I think the waffle is a prime example of why interdisciplinary approaches to history are so important. Most of what I learned about santeros and their fellows came from anthropologists, those who probe the deep roots of human culture, and you can see evidence of that in the highly personalized shape my work has taken; in attempting to study a religion, I have found myself studying its practitioners and their lives for the simple reason that concepts (such as religion) only matter to the extent that people believe in and/or practice them. If I was to study St Andrews, it is the students, the staff and the townspeople who would probably best illustrate the complex reality that the town lives every day, not statistics or official records or even photographs. Yet that seems more a job for a sociologist or anthropologist than a pure historian, so we must adopt a hybrid method to better understand the true nature of things (a process at which I believe transnationalism excels).
I suppose the takeaway is to consider how unfathomably complicated our individual contexts are and then to attempt to bear that in mind as we look at the people of the past.
Whether this is just sentimentalism run wild, the tired ramblings of someone who’s been listening to Lucumí chants for too many consecutive hours, or something of substantive use, I thought it worth sharing with you all. I appreciate how personal this project has become to me, and I think it is the unique perspectives offered by transnational methodology that have allowed me to build a deep understanding of the people I’ve been studying. Sometimes it helps to remember that we’re studying ourselves, just a few years back. When we talk about actors and their networks, we are talking about structures that we reshape and rely on every day. How fantastic is that?