Transnational history is an elusive term. It’s perhaps an attractive concept because of the difficulty in citing an exact definition, but its potential and creativity is crucial to its interpretation. Freed from the constrictions of an “intellectual straitjacket”, I am inclined to agree with Patricia Clavin’s understanding that to assign a definition would counteract the phenomenon of transnational history. It is an open concept that should not be made to adhere to traditional expectations of historical enquiry, or be fit into a version of ‘container history’.

Expanding on the notion of containers quite literally, I was reminded of a photograph by Allan Sekula, a contemporary photographer whose image here documents the world economy and globalisation in the 1990s throughout the UK, America, Korea, and Poland. Sekula is drawing connections between trade and industry of nation-states by mapping the “invisible global maritime economy” and capturing images that remind “metropolitan elites” of the conditions of globalisation. Though ships are perceived as outdated in the modern era, here he reveals the world economy depends on them. The image reminds me of Christopher Bayly’s remarks on the emergence of global history in the 1990s as a reaction to globalisation and seemed to combine these thoughts of ‘containers’ and ‘global’ rather literally. However, Bayly distinguishes the term “transnational” from  as a term evoking a sense of movement and crossing boundaries. Global history acts as the heading under which transnational history is found, and that allows transnational history to focus on a narrower geographic and chronological subject.

Allan Sekula Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993, from Fish Story 1989–95
Allan Sekula
Panorama. Mid-Atlantic, November 1993, from Fish Story 1989–95

The transnational approach concerns itself with the movement and flow of  people, ideas, capital, etc., but one challenge that arises is the exact nature of transnational history’s relationship with the nation-state. Patricia Clavin mentions this problem and perceives the nation-state as an unavoidable feature of modern society, particularly with regards to European history. Christopher Bayly recognizes this inevitability when arguing that with regards to his work transnationalism is a limited concept. The nation has only come into being over the past century and a half, which raises the questions that if a historian is to study regions undefined by nations or before 1850, is transnationalism still an applicable tool? Can you have transnational history without the “national”? Or is there a more appropriate word to replace “national”? The term itself (“transnational”) assumes that there are borders in order to cross them, and is a paradox on account of its ability to either reinforce or dissolve borders. Often times when the value of historical research is questioned (the “so what?” factor), it must somehow be of significance to a bigger picture that usually involves the nation. This can be frustrating, as it seems limiting that the nation must be the be-all and end-all. That is why I am inspired over the course of this module to further pursue questions of borders and conceptions of space, in addition to determining where the nation is situated with regards to the subject of my project.



Christopher A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, 1441-1464.

Clavin, Patricia, ‘Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’, 624-640.

Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism.’ Contemporary European History 14, no. 04 (2005): 421–39.

In case anyone is more interested on the work of Allan Sekula: Roberts, Bill, ‘Production in View: Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism”, Tate Papers, 18 (2012),

Is transnational history dependent on the nation?
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One thought on “Is transnational history dependent on the nation?

  • February 6, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for this Harriet, very thoughtful. I’ve often thought of the role of the nation in the transnational as something like this: imagine a large kitchen for a bakery or a restaurant, in which there is a counter-top island in the middle of the room. For me, in doing transnational history (in the late modern period), the kitchen island is a bit like the nation: it is always there and you can very rarely pretend it doesn’t exist at all. It is place where you can put the dough, assemble the ingredients, etc. if you like. Sometimes, it is in very annoyingly in the way; you have to walk around it, pass a bowl to a fellow baker on the other side, and sometimes, you don’t need it it at all; kneading the bread on the counter top next to the oven. Maybe you just took the dough out of the cupboard under the island and that was the last you made use of it. At least, I have found this metaphor useful in thinking about the role of the nation in transnational history.

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