The relation of global history to transnational history is more complex than I first thought. An interesting point raised, that I wish to address here, is the idea that the two schools converge. Behind this is the idea that transnational history, with its focus on dynamic networks and flows, make up for the inadequacies of global history. Therefore, I think it necessary to examine the strengths and weaknesses of global history in order to highlight spaces (if they exist) in which transnational history might be preferable.
Christopher Bayly begins his contribution to the AHR Conversation on transnational history with a brief overview of the origins of global history. He states that it combined world history’s desire to move away from ethnocentric histories of Western Civilisation with the concerns of the 1990s over globalisation and its effect on historical processes. This focus on the fields of study that helped formulate global history provides an interesting insight into its nature. This is an idea furthered by Patricia Clavin who situates global history in the context of academic fields, such as subaltern studies and gender studies, that seek to destabilise the categories that we use so frequently in our analyses. Clavin suggests that global categories can be understood in the same way that Joan Wallach Scott characterises gender, as ‘culturally constructed, historically challenging, and an often unstable system of difference.’ (p.626) Thus, she states that global history is a means for historians of Europe to avoid presenting European history as neatly boxed into a single, post-enlightenment era, defined by progress and conquest. Rather, there is a need to focus on what is meant by Europe, Africa, and Asia and the effect each has had on the others.
It is interesting that Clavin makes this point about the benefits of a global history approach towards European history. Isabel Hofmeyr approaches global history from a different perspective, focusing instead on the ‘global South’. Thus, her interpretation of the benefits of global history differ greatly from the European perspective. Whereas Clavin suggests that global history is a way for historians to tease out the complexities of European history, Hofmeyr argues that there is no such benefit for the history of places outside of Europe, particularly those traditionally considered to be less developed. She states that global history is reflective of an ethnocentricity that ‘flattens the complexities of the ‘Third World’’(p.1443) as there is a tendency to present the ‘Third World’ as the victim of globalising forces from elsewhere, thus removing its political complexity. This is especially interesting as it highlights the way in which different perspectives highlight problems and contradictions within particular fields of study. When approached from a European standpoint, global history can be seen to have the positive effect of illuminating new ways of examining Europe and its place in the world. However, if we agree with Hofmeyr, in beginning a global history narrative from a ‘Third World’ perspective, the term becomes somewhat problematic.
In order to remedy this problem, Hofmeyr offers transnational history as an alternative term to global history. She states that it opens up broader possibilities, taking into account ‘complex linkages, networks, and actors in the global South’ (p.1444). This is an interesting comparison, yet I am not quite certain that it is necessary for transnational history to be in competition with global history, or presented as preferable to it. I think it is perhaps more useful to consider transnational history as an aspect of global history. Global history, according to Bayly, places an emphasis on the way in which historical processes became more global over time. This suggests to me that global history can be used as something of an umbrella term. Transnational history can add to this, for example through the potential for more detailed and specialised investigations into the movement of people, goods, or ideas across nations, such as in Jan Rüger’s micro-history of the OXO cube.
Christopher A. Bayly et al., ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review 111/5 (2006), 1441-1464
Clavin, Patricia, ‘Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’, European History Quarterly 40/4 (2010), 624-640
Rüger, Jan, ‘OXO: Or, the Challenges of Transnational History’, European History Quarterly 40, no. 4 (October 1, 2010): 656–68.