What is transnational history? And what is it about? Some critics have commented that transnational history was a too loose, open and vague concept. Personally, I would defend it – I would defend the openness and vagueness as a strength as it allows to experiment. There are a number of definitions or rather attempts to define transnational history or “transnationalism”, as for instance by Clavin (2005). – I am not a huge fan of the -ism, which, to me, fixes the term and closes is, not to mention other -isms that spring to mind suggesting organised, political or social movements. But I leave that aside here.
Clavin, in her article / introduction “Defining Transnationalism”, defines transnational history as being “first and foremost about people”. Is that a definition that helps? Is that not what all or most of history is about, pundits may argue? But her definition goes on: it is about “the social space that they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.” Later on she fleshes out the “connections” and “cleavages” between nations or the policy-making transnational or international institutions. Her focus then in this introduction to a journal special issue is primarily on institutions.
What I find intriguing is the mentioning of “space” and “social space” that meets with Kiran Patel’s brief introduction to “Transnationale Geschichte – ein neues Paradigma” (Transnational history – a new paradigm, 2005). He has a brief paragraph on the relevance of “space” in transnational history. Patel clearly argues for the relevance of the national (ie modern nation state) in the composite word transnational. Transnational, in his view, does not go against the acknowledgement of the importance and relevance of the modern (western style) nation state. But: history should not be limited by the nation and should not be told exclusively from within the borders of nation states – as an exclusively internal making of the nation state. “Instead”, he argues, “the novelty of transnational history is really the idea of offering an alternative to the dominance of a historiography structured around the nation.” Many practitioners see it more like an “onion model” – that is an additional layer or “stratum” between local, regional, national and global (Patel, Transnational History, EGO).
While transnational history in these (and other) definitions does not go without or against the nation state, it seeks to offer an alternative stratum, layer or space.
That is perhaps where some of the uneasiness about transnational history stems from. Where is the space for transnational history if not in a more traditional “container” historians tend to choose and work in: the nation, a village, a city, a historical region or a continent (to name a few). What these spaces have in common is that they are predefined and thus may have the tendency to appear as spatially fixed by boundaries – national borders or city walls.
Transnational history seems to be targeting a very different understanding of space. It is “social space” to refer back to Clavin again. The problem and challenge (perhaps fun) about social space is that it is not stable. It is not a container. Rather it is in constant flux and in constant motion. It can be fragile as Clavin (2005) points out in her reference to “epistemic communities” (Haas 1992), at least more fragile than, say, “class” as a category that suggests social cohesion (nobility, middle class). The suggestion is, partly, to practice transnational with and around “epistemic communities”, understood as “knowledge-based networks”. Rather than writing history along the timescales and chronologies of individual nations. Clavin rightly suggests that such communities allow to research along alternative slices of time and periodisations. Her suggestion of the period stretching from 1920s-1970s is an intriguing one.
I find the challenge of time and chronology a very important one that is offered by a transnational perspective. However, having to choose between time and space, personally I would opt for space and spatial questions as the even more intriguing challenge and potential innovator for our subject: history. Historians are not well-equipped or attuned to think spatially – though it is interesting to see that parallel to the rise of the term transnational we have seen space returning back on the agenda (“spatial turn”). The questions of space as a central one in transnational, I think, forces us historians to think harder or in different and novel ways about the where of history and the places & spaces of transnational history in particular. It forces us to think harder not only about chronological dynamics, but also about spatial dynamics and changes.
In order to do that we may have to borrow, learn or steal from other disciplines – but history has always done that. The cultural turn borrowed from ethnology and anthropology. The rise of social history stole from sociology. The latter one, a productive dialogue between history and sociology for a long time 1970s & 1980s, has come a bit out of fashion. But transnational history could revive such a dialogue, in particular if we are serious about alternative social spaces, people and movements across space and borders. But I can also see scope to learn from and cooperate with geography, geosciences or computer sciences that may enhance the way we think about space and the making of space through actors rather than taking space (mostly as a given territory) as a given.
For further inspiration on space and perhaps how to bring in GIS, maps and visualisation into transnational history (as we try to do later on networks and in the skills sessions) see for instance:
Patricia Clavin, “Defining Transnationalism.” Contemporary European History 14, no. 04 (2005): 421–39. doi:10.1017/S0960777305002705.
Kiran K. Patel, Transnationale Geschichte – ein neues Paradigma? (2005) http://www.hsozkult.de/article/id/artikel-573
Kiran K. Patel, Transnational History http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/theories-and-methods/transnational-history