Transnational History

Transnational history is a relatively new term, which, as Bayly suggests, has not become relevant to the historical narrative until after world war one. This school of thought looks at a larger global picture which have helped to shape history. Chakraberty highlights how, throughout European history, there has been a tendency by historians to localize the narrative to such an extent that it becomes ‘provincialized’. The unfortunate truth is, that traditional teaching methods of history lean towards a Euro-centric perspective, and ignore the larger picture. Transnational history instead takes on a far more holistic approach to the writing and practicing of history.

Jan Ruger demonstrates the transnational aspect of the OXO cube, which gained large scale popularity after the first world war. Essentially a German invention, financed by Britain, produced in Uruguay and in distributed from Antwerp, the OXO cube clearly highlights the increasingly interconnected world which fueled globalization.

Transnational history, and the practicing of it, makes light of the importance that nationalism has had throughout historical narratives and the legacy which it has today. Ruger articulates how the OXO cube, despite being an inherently transnational product, came to be a symbol of ‘Britishness’ during the first world war. Advertisement campaigns focused on the Best of British, with OXO aligning themselves with the British navy, and the jewel in the navy’s crown, the Dreadnaught. This kind of nationalism was again seen in Zahra’s chapter regarding the Germanization of annexed Czechoslovakia. There was a clear indication throughout this period that the Germans looked to Germanize, or most likely indoctrinate, the children rather than the adults. Funding from the Nazi regime was focused on schooling, Kindergarten and changing curriculums. This is not to say that the aging population was totally ignored, but to a near enough extent, it was forgotten. Similarly, the Nazis recognized the potential threat that the future generation could pose to their regime and as a result treated the annexed Czechoslovaks with increased respect than other alien races they deemed inferior.

Bayly’s argument that transnational history would not have been useful pre-1914, is in my opinion wrong. To suggest that globalization occurred only after the first world war, with the advent of products such as OXO entirely disregards the interconnected patterns seen in history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, the East India Company was an entirely transnational venture, for example, the ship Arniston sailed through St Helena, Madras and then China and on her last voyage became shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. Trade was conducted on an international scale, with ventures being set up globally, especially with the advent of companies such as the British and Dutch East India Companies. To view such links as bi-national is in effect wrong, and presents an all too simplistic historical narrative.

Transnational approaches to history are therefore centered around people, and therefore goes beyond the traditional realms of economic or political history, which typically takes on a bi-national approach. Instead, networks are studied, culture is taken into account and a macro image is thereby produced. Unfortunately, there is still a trend within the school of history to look at a singularly national approach, subscribing a certain number of factors to causing an event, rather than looking at a larger picture focused on any number of different influences which may have caused the ‘flash point’ leading to historic moments.

Literally what even is Transnational History?

Something that’s come up a lot in the reading I’ve done so far is the lack of clear definition surrounding transnational history. Of course, everything is subjective, nothing is real, the points don’t mater etc etc etc – but still, on the surface it seems like we’re trying to study a discipline that doesn’t know what it wants to be yet.

So I think it’s pretty understandable that if professional historians are struggling to come up with a definition then…you know…I’m not sure how much of a chance a group of undergrads stand.

Look guys it me.

But I’m quite an optimistic guy, and I’m trying to stay positive. Besides – here’s my thing – clear definitions are for nerds, and I think the seeming flexibility of transnational history is something that I find kind of interesting.

 

Towards a definition

Of course, despite the lack of ‘clear’ definitions about transnational history, there are obviously some themes emerging that make it possible to make some general definitions. I think that’s great because it allows for the genre to take shape without it being restrictive – to discuss this, I’m going to dissect a quote from Patricia Calvin.

 

“[Transnational history] does not have a unique methodology, but is motivated by the desire to highlight the importance of connections and transfers across boundaries at the sub- or supra- state level.” Patricia Calvin, Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts, p. 625

 

Does not have a unique methodology – I think this is kind of cool. What it says to me is that transnational history is basically a set of ideas rather than a ‘historical school’ so to speak. Other methodology can and should be used to do Transnational history. That gives the area a lot of freedom, and leaves it open to potentially ground-breaking collaborations.

Connections and transfers – Transnational history is primarily concerned with movement – movement of people, movement of goods, movement of ideas, technology, religion, food, labour, movement of anything – and…

Across boundaries – …it explores these movements across borders and boundaries, rather than within them. That allows it to explore connections that may be hard to see on a standard geo-political map. Calvin also goes on to speak about the importance of analysing the boundaries themselves, both exploring the character of the boundary, and the way that people interact with it and even exploit it.

At the sub- or supra- state level – This is now the level to which the exploration is applied, and in many ways what makes transnational history unique. It basically throws of the framing device of the nation, and instead draws its conclusion based on its focuses of study – be that a small focus within a particular nation, or a larger focuses that moves between nations.

Okay. Movement across borders. Got it.

 

Okay but now ACTUALLY towards a definition

Assimilating this, I’d put forward my own definition: Transnational history is a way of approaching historical study that (1) focuses on movement (2) across borders, and (3) rejects the idea of a nation-state as the principal historical framing device.

Also as a quick addendum, something else that came up which I liked was the idea that transnational history is frequently talked about but less frequently practiced (Sven Beckert, AHR Conversation: On Transnational History, p. 1446). I tentatively put forward the idea that it might be easier to define if we practiced it more, focusing on the actual doing rather than talking about it.

But what do I know, I’m just an undergrad.

Some of my post-tutorial thoughts

In our first class, one of the things that struck me was how transnational history is arguably not all that new. In the early twentieth century historians sought to analyze history outside strict national borders.[1] Last year, I studied a bit of Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, for instance, which examined the long term history of the Mediterranean as a whole and paid little attention to political boundaries. However, it would be anachronistic to say that these historians wrote with the intention of writing a transnational history. The difference with transnational historians today is that they set out to intentionally analyze history using this framework. It would be helpful to have a working definition of what transnational history is, in order to understand the lens transnational historians use in their research.

Broadly speaking, transnational history can be defined as how people, institutions and ideas flow across borders and political boundaries. This definition is very broad, yet what it shows is that historians have moved away from studying history within national borders to now thinking of these borders as being more loosely defined. Patricia Clavin gives a more imaginative definition of transnational history where she likens it to a ‘honeycomb’ in which people, goods and organisations move within a large framework. Similarly, a ‘honeycomb’ contains spaces where these groups can enter or be replaced over time, allowing new groups to fill these spaces.

Such a straightforward definition as this can be helpful for people (such as myself) who wish to get to grips with what exactly a transnational history is. But, as Clavin identifies, part of the reason for studying transnational history is its flexibility and if you apply rigid definitions to it, then you can end up restricting your research [p.433]. As I try and develop my own research interests in transnational history over the course of the semester, I will probably find that I will begin to lose touch with such rigid and limiting definitions of what transnational history is. Though right now, it is a helpful guide for me because it helps me to understand in black and white terms what we generally think of as being ‘transnational’ when looking for topics for my research essay.

I also found the article particularly helpful when trying to understand some related theoretical concepts such as the distinction between ‘world history’ and ‘global history’ [p.436]. The article also struck me with the idea of how transnational history does not actually seek to ignore national boundaries. For instance, Clavin makes a really interesting point when she identifies that cultural historians try and show how groups of people often still interact with each other even when they are either in the same or in different territorial boundaries [p.436]. This challenged my perception that we should rethink the idea of a statist world with national borders. Instead, it seems as if it is important to understand the role of states and to still include them when writing a transnational history.

In Clavin’s other article on ‘Time, Manner, Place’, she again mentions about how transnational history can in fact rescue the nation state from being ignored in historical analysis. For example, international histories of Ireland sometimes argue that it was mostly subject to British imperial policy and had no foreign policy of its own. However, a transnational perspective gives Ireland back its agency. Such a perspective allows us to trace Irish migrants to the Americas and Irish missionary activities to Africa to show that Ireland had a foreign policy outside of state actions. A transnational perspective that moves towards non-state actors across national borders enables a clearer national history of Ireland to be drawn. Once again, my view that national and transnational history are contradictory topics was again challenged.

[1] Bernhard Struck, Kate Ferris and Jacques Revel, ‘Introduction: Space and Scale in Transnational History’, The International History Review 33 (2011), p. 575.

An Introduction Into Studying Transnational History

When I first applied to take this module, it was because of the unique format and the ability to retain flexibility in what one would like to study. Personally, the idea of studying the movement of ideas, people and cultures across borders appealed to me, particularly after a detailed study in migration in India last semester, and through a vested interest in the India-Pakistan border along with the North-South Korea border. 

The India-Pakistan Border

While I must admit, I do not know too much about transnational history (I’d barely heard the word before our first tutorial), Patricia Clavin’s ‘Defining Transnationalism’ was an interesting introduction to the course. What really truly struck me about the idea of transnationalism was the fact that while historians tend to use the word to refer to certain events or phenomenon, the term itself can be used over a broad chronology, and a vast period of time. Just last seminar, we were talking about how transnational history can cover the ancient Mediterranean, but can also focus on themes of bitcoin and finance in today’s world. While Clavin doesn’t actually get to defining transnationalism (in a chapter that suggests that she does exactly that) till the very last pages, I think that the fact that she didn’t simply proves that the term is so fluid and nuanced that there simply isn’t one specific definition.

When I first read through the American History Review conversation piece on transnational history, an interesting note by C. A. Bayly really stuck out. He questioned just how vital transnational history was before the 1850s, when a lot of nations had not been consolidated yet, as the one commonality between the definitions of transnational history lie in the fact that it emphasises the fluidity of people and ideas across national borders. However, after our conversation regarding transnationalism in the Ancient Mediterranean last week, I seem to believe that national borders don’t necessarily play a role, as nations are simply social constructs in a way. The fact remains that any form of a border, any territory enclosed in a fixed space, and the movement between these borders can be considered transnational. This can be seen as slightly confusing due to the word ‘nation’ within the term ‘transnational’,  though. The conversation on the American History Review also encourages readers to consider the relationship between global history, and transnational. Bayly looks into this, stating that transnationalism is more fluid and emphasises movement a lot more, similar to global history came about in the 90s amongst debates on ‘globalisation’.

The term ‘transnational’ truly took shape through the concept of migration, and the movement of people, ideas and cultures across borders. Not only does this encourage conversation about the South Asian diaspora that persisted not only through the 70s and 80s (with the expulsion of South Asians from East Africa) and through the nineteenth century through indenture, but it also makes us consider the movement of people in our world today. The notion of transnationalism seems increasingly prevalent in our lives today, not only through our personal lives (through our movement from our hometowns to St Andrews), but through current affairs that are taking place today. For example, the Financial Times recently carried an article stating that the numbers of American and British migrants to New Zealand since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have skyrocketed, which I find particularly intriguing.

While the one challenge is perhaps the lack of consensus on a definition, I find that studying such a broad subject gives us the scope to consider topics and units that interest us, over a vast chronology.

Concluding thoughts on the module

Now that we have had our last class for the module, and done our presentations it feels quite strange that we still have so far to go in terms of the work for this module. Having spent so many weeks defining and redefining what transnational history is it feels good to be able to let this more historiographical side go for a while and focus more on the practicalities of our own individual projects. From the wide variety of our projects it is clear that a transnational approach can be brought to almost any aspect of history, and with a variety of lenses, from the micro to the global. I have found my feelings about what the transnational means widely vary, from a strong sense that the transnational perspective is indispensable to the history of today, to a skepticism that almost all history is written from a transnational sense already, and thus our attempts to define it are almost futile. I have more recently felt more positive again though, as starting with something as broad as a transactional approach has given rise to such a dazzling array of projects. From purely our own perspectives, rather than those of professional historians, I’m not sure how many of us would have ended up writing a project on what we have ended up with without this fresh historiographical focus. I certainly didn’t imagine I would end up writing 5,000 words on a brewery! My other concluding thought is about learning techniques, and how this is the first module I have taken at St Andrews where this is discussed. It feels bizarre that this is the case as new learning and working techniques can have a huge impact on our ability to study. I have certainly found the pomodoro technique very useful, and will be continuing to use it as I battle my way through this project. Finally I’d just like to wish everyone good luck with completing their projects, I’m sure I’ll be seeing you all often in the library over the coming weeks.

So long, and thanks for all the fish

(NB: By fish, I obviously mean the historiographical and methodological enlightenment that has happened over the past eleven or so weeks. However, that doesn’t make for a particularly catchy title.)

Like the two or three posts below mine on the blog, I’m just going to come out and say it – I still don’t have a better definition of what transnational history is, even after twelve weeks of classes. I know that it’s attempting to close gaps previous historical writing, which, when confined to the nation-state, ignores networks and connections that could enlighten our understanding of historical events. The enormous diversity of what can be considered ‘transnational’ is staggering – this is something that we have all seen in our readings, looking at soup cubes or Taiwanese peasant farmers, as well as our presentations, which have covered everything from beer to ovens to maps. This diversity is, in all likelihood, due to the sheer novelty of transnational history as a an approach to history.

Beyond the new approaches to history that I’ve picked up this semester, I’ve also had the chance to learn some other skills too. These classes were far more discussion-based than other tutorials, which was interesting both because it gave us all a chance to engage more with the material, as well as putting us on the spot if we hadn’t done our reading. (I was certainly periodically guilty of this.) The emphasis on using new software, such as QGIS and Gephi, in our historical practice was also something novel for me. I think the best part of this module, however, was the passion and interest (and occasional confusion) that everyone brought to this module. It made such a difference in how we engaged with the material, and I think that the fact that people were able to pursue research projects based on their own interests also brought a spark to class discussions. I’d like to just say thank you to everyone in the class for an excellent semester.

 

 

What This Module Has Given Me: Final Thoughts

As we wrap up this semester, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learned in this class, since I’ve had more fun and amassed more research skills with this course than any other I’ve ever taken. Besides a profound appreciation for the fantastic people in class with me every week (you guys are amazing!), I think I’ve grown as an historian in 3 different ways.

(1) Confidence in my own ability to ask and answer meaningful questions

Whenever a past tutor asked me to question the articles we read, I felt as though I was ill-qualified to judge the work of professional historians and that I would always come to the wrong (or least imaginative) conclusion. Under our lovely tutors, however, I felt much more able to question the assumptions of the authors we read (except of course Patricia Clavin). I am better able to identify bias in the articles I choose, and I am less afraid to take chances in my own interpretations.

(2) Comfort working with primary sources

This research project has forced me to work with sources that are more nuanced and to some extent less accessible than the translated medieval texts I’m used to. I’ve watched hours of interviews and spent entire days listening to religious chants; it has certainly been immersive, and as a result I feel a more personal connection to this work than to the standard coursework that we do for other modules. Since I was able to sort the sources myself, I get to play around with my own authorial bias and sort out the aspects of writing history that appeal most to me. Basically, the freedom to wade through historical sources at my leisure has reinvigorated my passion for the past, and I cannot thank this course, my classmates and our tutors enough for that.

(3) Appreciation for collaboration

Full disclosure: I used to dread group projects, so I was incredibly wary about the pair-writing exercises. Yet they ended up being some of the best work I feel I’ve done thus far. Special thanks must go to Rachael for forcing me to stay on topic and write a specific thesis; I am a rambler, but she kept me on the straight and narrow. Along the same vein, receiving feedback from classmates can sometimes be, at best, useless and, at worst, dismissive or overly harsh. Yet we never had to fear that in this class; everyone was so keen to support each other, and the constructive criticism I received helped me refine my process in ways that I know I could not have done without the objective evaluation of our class.

This module has given me so much, and I hope I’ve contributed to my classmates’ experiences as well. It has been an enjoyable, sometimes confusing, mostly amazing ride this semester, and I am so excited to hear about everyone’s final project. I hope you guys are proud of yourselves, because we’ve done incredible work. To our fourth years, I hope this was a great way to end your last year. To my fellow third years, I hope we can chat, chuckle and collaborate next year as well! To our marvelous tutors, thank you so much for everything you’ve given us.

Some final (ish) thoughts….

In the beginning we wanted to know what transnational history was and to pin down a definition; then we realised that we shouldn’t seek a rigid definition and instead should keep what transnational history was as a fluid concept; now I think we are beginning to understand why that was necessary.
For me transnational history is filling in the gaps and cracks left by more established forms of historiography. Transnational history builds spider webs of connections between different historical concepts and ideas and between national histories. I think that part of the reason transnational history is so hard to define is that its strength is in its malleability, it can fit wherever you need it to; wherever previous historiography has overlooked. It can give a voice to the voiceless and grant individuals agency and importance in narratives they may have otherwise been excluded from. Transnational history can call into question the barriers and limits we impose on ourselves as historians and on the subject matter we study; it reminds us to question everything from the words we use when writing to why we are studying something in the first place.
One thing that occurred to me right at the start of this course is how the discipline will look years from now when transnational historians come to study our present time period. With so many of us living our lives online will connections become easier to trace or will important ones be obscured simply because there is so much ‘noise’ now?
A related thought is the fact that there seems to be this perception that human connectivity has been continually increasing until the present day, albeit with some bumps along the way, and I am beginning to wonder if this is actually true. Perhaps by the time the early 21st century is studied the connections of previous centuries will have been traced and mapped and historians will find that our globalising world was actually encouraging people to retreat back into national boxes both conceptually in terms of identity formation and physically as the world beyond our borders is portrayed as ever more hostile.
I think this idea of increasing connectivity in later modern history also has the side effect of implying a time period for transnational history in a similar way to the term itself; transnational implies that we should not look beyond the start of the importance of the nation on the world stage. I think if anything this module has taught me, it is not to underestimate the past. Human beings have always been connected and ideas will always flow across artificial boundaries. Human life has never fitted into the neat little boxes that we employ for analytical purposes and historians would do well to always remember this.

Two Months On – What Do I Think?

Admittedly, after two and a half months of studying this module, I still would not be able to give a clear definition of what ‘transnational history’ is. However, unlike when I started this module, I think now I actually find this liberating rather than terrifying. After watching everyone presenting their projects on Tuesday, it struck me how broadly the term ‘transnational’ could be interpreted, from histories dealing with inherently transnational organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross on the one hand, to a much more microhistorical approach such as the history of a particular brewery on the other. That has been the most enjoyable part of this entire course for me personally. Seeing how each person approached transnational history so differently has been really enlightening, as people have picked up on links that I have never even considered before. And that, I think, is the strength of this particular approach.
Despite how different all of our topics were, I also think there is one thing they all have in common – people. Each one of us brought agency to people and particular connections who would be difficult into more traditional narratives. Even in my own case, where the specific actor I chose to focus on appears in countless histories (no surprise given that he is a British prime minister), the certain connections and networks of his that form the basis of my work are somehow completely under-represented in existing historiography. Even those of us whose projects deal with the movement of ideas or objects (of which mine is one), their importance always appears to be in the way people interact with these ideas and objects. For example, my initial idea for a project was to simply look at the way in which ideas about state-funded welfare became popular across the world from the nineteenth century onwards. However, it quickly became clear that the only way to look at how ideas crossed borders was to look for interactions between individuals.
I think, then, if transnational history has taught me one thing it is that agency is everywhere in history, and that the more we look at individuals and their interactions with one another, the more we realise they do not fit neatly into the boxes imposed by national historiographies. Beyond that, my own personal opinion of what a transnational history should be keeps evolving, but I actually now think that is actually part of the subject’s appeal. No other history module has made me question the relevance or the goals of my work anywhere near has much as this one has, and although this has been a huge challenge at times, it is one that I am grateful for.

Final Words

With the presentations complete, and now on the home stretch for this module, I’m attempting to think once again about the age old question of what is transnational history. Way back in Week 1 we read Patricia Clavin’s ‘Defining Transnationalism’ and this has gone on to become our unofficial module Bible. One thing about this article that became very apparent after Tuesday was the idea that Transnational History is a perspective which allows networks to be traced and for the development of concepts without a focus on the nation-state. With presentations concerning the religion of Regla de Ocha to nomads in France to the condom, the vast array of projects really promoted this idea. Whether to focus upon a product, (the AGA), and how it moved, or an institution, (the Red Cross), and its impact or work within many countries, or even an idea, (welfare state), and its progress, does not make it easy to properly define transnational history.

 

However, this is one of the great aspects of transnational history; that it can cover so many areas/years/themes. To say that you are a transnational historian describes how you study history rather than what you study.  It does not matter whether this is a micro history of one person or product or a more general overview but to view the interconnectedness of something throughout the globe means that a transnational perspective is being taken. When Clavin spoke of the multi-textured forces which shape the destines of individuals, institutions and countries, I underestimated to what extent this is true. To get an accurate representation of the history of anything, all angles, sides and connections in between need to be viewed and this is something that transnational history attempts to do. Transnational (and its value) lies in its openness as a historical concept.

 

And while I have offered no real definition of what transnational history is, that is the important idea, that it can cover so many areas and is not refined to a set time period or geographic location. But it is how you look at your region of study that makes it transnational.

 

References:

Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History 14/4 (2005), 421-439

Closing Thoughts on Collaborative Work

My final post about my 18th century transnational sailor clothing project involves the topic of collaboration, something which I believe will increasingly become (and should be) the norm for historical research, and without which my own project would have been impossible. Even if ones fellow researchers are separated geographically, by experience, age, or the specific focus of their studies, they can offer essential content and perspective on one’s own personal study. I would argue that sharing fluency in the same language, and similar methodological approaches are necessary to this end, but outside perspective of any kind can only be valuable in challenging and adding to one’s own work. For instance, I have found myself frequently sending off pieces of my writing to peers who study science, to make sure that my writing is avoiding excessive jargon, and is intelligible to the ‘NPR’ audience that we’ve been advised to write for in class.

 

In the course of my recent work for this module, several people have played the part of academic co-conspirators. Matthew Brenckle, a friend and Historian at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown Massachusetts, has been one invaluable mentor who has been able to push me forward with a variety of primary material and secondary sources. Another colleague has been Kyle Dalton, who works as Public Programs Administrator at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater Maryland, and runs a blog called ‘British Tars, 1740-1790’ (http://britishtars.blogspot.co.uk/ ) where he has compiled a searchable library of hundreds of primary visual sources depicting Anglo-American seamen. This has allowed my own project to enjoy far greater scope, given me images I would have otherwise lacked, and allowed me to focus on exploring French sources, while putting them in comparative perspective. Other specialists I’ve consulted for various subsets of my paper have included a historians of tattoos named Anna Felicity Friedman (https://independent.academia.edu/AnnaFelicityFriedman), the leading traditional English pipe-maker Heather Coleman (http://www.dawnmist.org/pipesale.htm), various 18th century tradespeople and material culture experts working at Colonial Williamsburg, and Laura Auger, a French friend and historical linguistic specialist who has helped me with translation issues in 18th century French. These individuals have filled my own shortcomings in specific topics where I lacked the necessary experience or time, and my own understanding has benefitted greatly from their help.

 

What then are the obstacles to collaboration, on this project or others? One is tradition and education, where a historian is seen as a lone researcher somewhere deep in an archive and group work is not stressed enough in higher-level academic training. One issue has been until recently technology, for instance if one considers how entirely recent advances in digital media now make sharing content and communicating across distance far faster and more comprehensive than in prior decades (for instance, Skype and Dropbox via telegraphs or letters).  Another potential obstacle, and perhaps the most powerful is ego; historians are eager as anyone to claim ownership over the content they unearth, especially (if like friends who are antique dealers), their livelihood depends on their intellectual property. Yet all these obstacles can be overcome if there are the tools in place to work together and a common vision – and when collaboration happens, the study and writing of history can only benefit from it.

Conclusions So Far…

It’s weird to think that this is the last blog post of the semester. It’s all gone so quick. I have been researching my project for several weeks now and have a fair amount of source material to work from, but it still feels odd that tomorrow we’re all giving a presentation on our work. I have only really started to pull all my separate pieces of information together in the last week or so, so to present this in front of everyone tomorrow feels slightly daunting. However, I am really grateful for this, as it has forced me to think about the conclusions I have drawn from my research far earlier than I otherwise might have.
Only last week I had lots of ideas in my head but no real idea of how to pull them together. For example, I had detailed accounts of how David Lloyd George had visited Germany in 1908 in the hope of bringing back ideas he could put to use in the formation of British social reform. I also had lots of information on his infamous later visit to Berchtesgaden in 1936, where he had very similar intentions, wanting to see first-hand Hitler’s economic ‘miracle’, achieved largely through his public works programmes. However, what I did not have was a clear idea of how these linked to the larger, macro picture of the rise of the welfare state as a whole across Europe and the rest of the world.
This is something that I have been thinking constantly about for the last week. I spent all my time reading about the wider context of both Bismarck and Lloyd George’s social reforms in their respective states, and also went much further afield, looking at how they were both linked to other examples in Scandinavia, America and New Zealand. After narrowing in my focus so much in order to see more detail, it had now become necessary to zoom out and examine the larger picture once more. Through this, I could really start to chart the development of what we refer to today as ‘the welfare state’. I found it had its political origins in the French Revolution and had influenced several states across the world in different ways. However, it was in Germany where the term ‘welfare state’ (or ‘Sozialstaat’) was coined, and from there the idea that welfare should be comprehensive and universal began to spread first across Europe, and then to other corners of the world.
Once I had this idea of the macro-level, it became much easier to see the significance of the micro-level experiences I was dealing with. Britain, following Lloyd George’s visit, was the first nation not linked by culture or language to Germany to start adopting Bismarckian social reforms. It was also taking a huge step by introducing universal reforms that, whilst were commonplace in an autocratic state where the government had much greater control over its citizens, were a radical idea in a country such as Britain where the government (especially the Liberals) had always preached about individuality and laissez faire.
Today, we see democracy and the welfare state as intertwined, but as I have discovered in this project, this is definitely not the case. This becomes even clearer when examining Lloyd George’s second visit to Germany in 1936. The motivation behind this second visit was his frustration at the National Government’s refusal to accept his Keynesian-style programme for economic recovery through increased public spending and public works programmes. Dismayed that this idea had been rejected in Britain, Lloyd George was keen to return to Germany, where this was a reality. I personally found it incredible that the figure most often associated with the creation of the welfare state in Britain, a system that British people are so proud of, found himself turning to Adolf Hitler for inspiration. Whilst we may see the welfare state as the ultimate symbol of democracy in today’s society, aspects of its history such as this reveal a very different side.
These are my main thoughts so far, and whilst I’m sure they will change between now and the final project, I am really grateful that tomorrow’s conference has made me sit down and think so deeply about what my project is really trying to say.

How my project has changed.

In this post, since we have had the last of our normal classes, I thought I would reflect on the ways in which my project has changed since I made my proposal. We were certainly warned that this would be the case yet it has still be a little surprising to deal with.

I think the biggest thing that has changed is the scope of the project. It took a long time for me to decide on a topic for this project as I came up with, then rejected idea after idea. One of the problems I was having was thinking that the other ideas I had were too narrow and would not yield enough information. That is why, when I finally settled on the project I have, my approach to it was so broad. I initially intended to focus on a large number of African national liberation leaders from all over the continent in order to chart their migration process and how they were influenced by the places they went. By the time of my proposal I had realised that this may be ambitious as though there are a number of people who followed a very similar migration trajectory, they also had their own individual contexts that could not be ignored. Therefore, I decided to focus on two figures, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. I chose these figures as I felt the differences in their backgrounds made their similar migrant trajectories more interesting. They were both from British colonies yet on opposite sides of Africa and with different administration systems. Also they did not personally know each other beyond a brief meeting in 1945, though they were involved with similar organisations. Thus, I went from a broad examination of numerous figures (with no real idea of how to attempt this examination) to the comparison of just two, with a view to finding out  how these separate transnational experiences led both to being figureheads of independence. I still worry that perhaps my choosing of these two figures was too arbitrary yet I think the comparison can yield an interesting argument if I can do it right.

Also in my proposal, I promised that my work would illustrate a network of African intellectual elites across the world who shaped the ideas behind national liberation. This meant that as well as looking at Nkrumah and Kenyatta, I would also focus on people who were not eventual African leaders. This was somewhat naive, and also based on a misunderstanding of the way in which this network functioned. While there are many very prominent individuals associated with the two, such as George Padmore, C.L.R. James, Ladipo Solanke etc, yet these associations were formed through many political organisations. These organisations operated on many levels. Some were just for students, some were national, some were international. In addition, over the course of Nkrumah and Kenyatta’s involvement with these organisations, many of them changed as they split up and merged with others. Encountering organisation after organisation was overwhelming and keeping track of all of them was very difficult. Thus, it was necessary to narrow my scope and focus on what the point of exploring these connections is. In other words, how did their migration experience shape the way in which they negotiated independence from the British? How did it affect the position they were in at the transition from colonial rule?

 

Panama Papers and a Hong Kong Surgeon in Aden

As the final post for this module, and partly (well, mostly) due to a lack of time to scour through journals for interesting articles, I decide to situate it within the present, letting my mind roam free in search for anything remotely relevant to transnationalism in my life, resulting in a miscellaneous bag of fragmented thoughts.

Last week, the story of the Panama Papers broke out, as well over 10,000 documents from the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonsaka were leaked. The Guardian calls it “history’s biggest data leak”, and my hometown, Hong Kong, occupied a rather prominent place in the whole unfolding story. Hong Kong has the highest number of intermediaries – banks, accountants, law firms – which serve the clients of this Panama-based firm. The world’s richest people are almost all implicated, many of whom set up offshore companies with the help of nominees so that their names don’t even have to appear. These companies exploit the loopholes in the international system to their own benefits, as being registered in tax havens helps the real owners to save millions worth of taxes. Journalists are still ploughing through the mountain of files, but well-recognised names are already spilling out.

This treasure trove of scandalous materials for a hungry world exposes in concrete details a suspicion that has to have floated at the back of many people’s minds. Rich people hide their wealth, Mossack Fonsaka shows exactly how, and the extent to which they do it. For a student in transnational history too, this case exemplifies the interconnectivity of the modern world, how institutions and companies collaborate to form an intricate web of linkages to serve the interests of the world’s ultra-rich and powerful. Our discussions previously in class about how transnationalism doesn’t always have to be ‘progressive’ or ‘rosy’ couldn’t have found a better example. Since the story broke, I have been discussing with my family whether this should shake our faith in Hong Kong as an international financial centre, forcing us to ask ourselves the question ‘to what end?’ if we know it only facilitates a minority bent on duping the system. Nonetheless, Hong Kong has been an important node in the international system since the West started trading in the East, as this former British colony carved out a tiny space in the southeast corner of the world’s most populous country that abides by a set of rules set down by the West. It is the place where secret societies traded gunpowder and dynamites to be smuggled into the mainland, but it is also a place that showcased the superiority of the Western governance and the capitalist system, acting as both an inspiration and a sanctuary for revolutionaries.

Before I get too excited about Hong Kong, I should move on to the other fragment that comes from a family friend who is a surgeon based in Hong Kong, but often travels to parts of the world that are in the most dire need for medical assistance. I was sent a message which he wrote when he was still in Aden, Yemen, over two weeks ago. This has allowed me a glimpse into the global exchanges promoted by organisations such as ICRC and MSF, as surgeons from around the world use their expertise to help places that have a shortage of personnel and train local surgeons. Dr Au mentions that he would be replaced in a week’s time from his time of writing by a Japanese lady surgeon, who had replaced him twice before in Hangu, Pakistan. They had also met in Gaza in 2014 during the war. He also wrote about mentoring a local lady surgeon, Dr  Samar, who lacked the chance to practice on her own because for most part she had to assist senior male surgeons. So he decided to give her more opportunities to operate, and also assisted her to ‘repair a torn radial artery’, which was her first time. I have much admiration for the work that he does, as he has to risk his own personal safety, has a lot of patience and does a world of good.

I certainly think that our outlook on the world is inevitably influenced by all that is happening around us. Whereas a dominant view in history has focused on tensions or outright conflicts, transnationalism is more invested in discovering how people make connections and form networks, and how these in turn shape the world as we know it. In a way, I feel more empowered by this perspective on history, and I think others will too, because it is centered around individuals, showing us the microcosm of history and the agency of people, veering away from a mypoic fascination with the actions and decisions of powerful figures.

A (hopefully) ‘non-boring’ reflection on ‘Learning Outcomes’

For me, life is about people. This goes for my interests in history as well as in life. This post is a brief reflection on my ‘Learning Outcomes’ from the MO3351 module. Reading the ‘Learning Outcomes’ section of any handbook usually makes me switch off, but let me outline some of the very real learning experiences that this module has given me. Hopefully, my classmates will agree.

The structure of the MO3351 course has been original in that we only had assigned tutorial readings for the first few weeks, and after that the teaching has been focused on our own work or skill sessions. For me, this course has been an eye-opener to what it feels like to be a practicing historian at a university. Being a historian means scouring yourself to find out what your research interests are. It involves teamwork with other people across institutions, archives and disciplines. With regards to Transnational and Global History in particular, the ‘Introduction. Space and Scale in Transnational History’ by Struck, Ferris and Revel comes to mind. They included a brief reflection on how transnational history had brought together three historians from very different historical fields to write an introduction together, which might not have happened under any other circumstances. This, above all else, is what I have loved the most about this course. The whole class is a melting pot of different cultures, interests, ideas and approaches, but we are all brought together as a group and a team through the concepts of networks and border crossings. Making such a diverse environment work can be difficult, for each individual student as well as for the tutor(s). Our tutors have treated us as students, but also as friends. They have taken a personal interest in our projects, and been encouraging and enthusiastic when we were sometimes unable to see where we were going (for the record, I’m still not 100% sure where I am going). The class itself has sorted out questions through the Facebook group we created, which also included frantic posts about how we could not find the books we needed, or that we had no clue how to get an essay together in a day(!) Thus, as part of this post I want to say a big THANK YOU to the whole class, and to our encouraging, challenging, supportive and wonderful tutors. This is, without a doubt, the most stimulating module I have taken. I cannot stress enough that its experience has been shaped first and foremost by the people, but transnational theory has also been a fantastic eye-opener.