Transnational history: why is it worth doing and what does it do well? Transnational approaches take marginalized people and places and attempt to connect them or understand existing connections in different ways. They illuminate connections which may have been ignored in favor of broader or ‘louder’ networks. They create narratives with which we as researchers and we as readers can connect in a more personal way, because the connections we explore are more relatable and tangible to us as individuals.
With regards to the project regarding Regla de Ochá, a transnational approach has offered the option of illuminating the unique situation of West African slaves and the communities they built in their captivity. This religion as the intersection of Spanish colonialism, Yoruban faith, and Native Cuban culture tells the complex story of a kidnapped people who created their own faith in the face of incredible cruelty and oppression. The narrative of newly freed slaves building their lives around their santeros and their altars is a deeply personal one and one with which most people can identify and empathize. The dignity restored to marginalized groups through exploration of their development from a sympathetic perspective restores them to the wider historical narrative with as much significance as any ‘dominant’ people or culture. This connectivity and personalization is one of transnationalist history’s greatest strengths, because it engages us with the past in a personal way; how many of us can only identify with our nation, rather than with our families, our language, any of a million subcultures, our personal social networks, ourselves?
Also, transnationalism provides the framework for integrating a multitude of different methodologies; microhistory, macrohistory, comparative history, just to name a few. Within this framework, we are able to better access aspects of history that have been obscured by previously dominant forms of analysis. For example, the national approach can focus too much on (arbitrary) boundaries and can ignore identities that may supercede the ‘nation’ within a specific individual or communal context.
For the project concerning the European Capitals of Culture, methodology is an issue of extreme importance. European History has been categorized as a sum of national histories since the creation of the nation-state. While these individual histories give in-depth explanations of the political, social, and cultural evolutions of each state, they remain isolated and unrelatable. In contrast, this project deals with a larger supranational identity that either complements or might even seek to overpower the conventional national identity. Transnationalism uses the combination of methods to provide the most accurate form of analysis. By incorporating forms of micro, regional, national, international, the European Identity can be fully broken down as the product of connections through various spatial scales. Europeans are inherently part of many spatial communities and their identity needs to understood by exploring the connections within the various scales that shape them.
One of the significant downsides of transnational history (in fact, the only one we’ve really found) is that defining where the ‘ends’ of your connections are can be extremely difficult. Where do you cease your study when all of these threads interact in thousands of different ways? This has been a topic of considerable debate during our seminars, and this will continue to be highly subjective and individualized to each specific historian and each area of research. The image of the wheel defining the end of the spokes from a central hub, which we used when discussing networks and network analysis, is one which we’ve found very useful; defining our own parameters is one of the liberties (and the difficulties) of transnationalism, and it ultimately provides for greater freedom of expression in our research. In determining the boundaries of our own inquiry, we are encouraged to probe deeper into our subjects in order to carve out the perfect shape for our analysis, thereby allowing for an inherently fuller, more thorough understanding of history.
Madeleine Miller and Susannah McClanahan