It is often cited that there is a danger that ‘Transnational history’ could become a buzzword for a new type of international history: a means simply to transcend previous ‘boxes’, such as the nation, region, or locale, and a means by which historians can escape the confines of Cold War barriers of area studies. Active, collaborative engagement with the term is necessary across the academy and with a broader reading public to understand how different ‘ways of seeing’ can be integrated into all of our research.

History as an academic discipline grew up alongside the nation-state, becoming one of its principal ideological pillars. This way of practising history was (and still is) warmly received by a wider general audience who want to clearly understand where they have come from, what their ancestors did, and how they have come to be where they are. A typical national history fed to the general public offers this with a linear trajectory of cause and effect, neglecting the “space of the flows” and the historical processes constructed in the movement between places, sites, and regions.

As much as enhancing our understanding of the past, there is a duty to the general public to provide them with a better framework with which to understand what has gone before. Perhaps the strength of Transnational history can be in its refusal to pander to what we believe have become ‘popular’ tastes. With the centenary of the outbreak of the ‘First World War’ last year, for example, there was a deluge of books claiming to explain the outbreak of the War. I cannot recall seeing one that actually attempted to deconstruct the notion of a ‘World War’, whose primary theatre of operations was in a Europe that, in typical fin-de-siècle fashion, duped itself into thinking it was the centre of the world. Rather than getting bogged down in ‘inevitablist’ vs. ‘accidentalist’ debates, is the answer to experiment with new chronologies of flows, connections and exchanges, which amount to a different lens?

But this here is the real challenge as laid out by Jan Rüger: how can the transnational perspective be reconnected with the more traditional questions which are still at the heart of our understanding of modern Europe? For sure, there is increasing access to national archives, but, Matthew Connelly perceives research issues with regards to the underdeveloped history of international and transnational histories: how can we tackle these issues when we lack archive based evidence of United Nations agencies, for instance, and some of the most private foundations?

Transnational history is a product of our place in history. Express communications means that many of us transcend traditional ‘containers’. Nobody is certain what form this history will take. Collaboration, communication, and interaction appear to be the key, with a suitably careful use of language and semantics as we display our research to both an academic and more general audience.


Readings: Christopher A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’; Clavin, Patricia, ‘Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’; Pomeranz, Kenneth. “Social History and World History: From Daily Life to Patterns of Change.”; Rüger, Jan, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’.

Challenges of Transnational History
Tagged on:                 

One thought on “Challenges of Transnational History

  • February 3, 2015 at 7:47 am

    Thoughtful start to our discussion. On the point about the World War, I recently read in the work of Japanese scholar Yamamuro Shin’ichi his claim that the first use of the term “World War” for that conflict was in Japan and he makes a forceful argument in favour of the term as he outlines the huge importance of the conflict on East Asia. Scholars of African history, I understand, also have much to say about the conflict’s impact there on imperial powers.

Comments are closed.