[Collaboratively written by David Bor, Johanna Bokedal and Cecilia Nicholson]
As a collective group we have decided that sometimes answering questions is something that can be tackled more effectively once we pool the questions together. This allows us to better track our thought process, instead of trying to produce profound answers without fully considering the scope of the historiographical issues at hand. Some questions might even be answered with further questions. Hopefully this post will provoke some deeper thoughts and answers, or potentially even more questions, from readers.
The term “transnational” – as we have discussed it in class – is extremely broad, wielded by various historians in order to legitimise their own studies. In researching my [David] short essay tried to find recently researched histories that are more nationalistic in order to find a fruitful comparison for some transnational articles, only to struggle to find any where the transnational article was seriously different or brought out completely novel perspectives. The vagueness of transnational is both one of its greatest strengths, but also its Achilles heel. Here are some questions we brainstormed in order to make sense of, or less sense of, the concept of transnational history:
Where do we stop the concept of transnationalism? Do we have to?
According to most transnational historians, this theory is “more about performance than stricture” (Clavin), about the movements of people (as in particular stressed by Patricia Seed, AHR Conversation), but also about the transmission of ideas. If all these aspects are to be incorporated, does this make transnationalism into a methodology? Can we let it go across multiple disciplines? Can these disciplines go across multiple borders in multiple ways or should they stay within a simple national border? Does it even matter? Can this method be used by anyone for any field of study? Does the practice of transnational history, which professes to not have any clear limitations, need to define its own borders as challenges towards its scope accumulate?
Historians’ views of transnationalism vary but there does seem to be a general consensus on what the term broadly focuses on: that first and foremost transnationalism is about the connections between people, places, and objects across time and space. However there does seem to be a discrepancy amongst the majority of historians when it comes to the scope which this term encompasses its material which can be so small as to overshadow this term and so large as to stretch the term to incoherency. This focus on connections can be seen in Patricia Clavin’s article from 2005, where she stated that transnational history is “first and foremost about people: the social space they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange.” and its vagueness is evident in “Transnationalism is in danger of becoming a catch-all concept, with almost as many meanings as there are instances of it”.
As a result of the problem of scope, at times it feels like writing a ‘transnational history’ is almost an unachievable aim, you can only write a history with a ‘transnational perspective’. For instance regional studies certainly achieve a transnational perspective but do not constitute for me a ‘transnational history’, and neither does a microhistory, such as Andrade’s article Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration. An Essay in Historical Epistemology. Moving between the two scales could maybe be a way to write ‘transnational history’ but I prefer to stick with the transnational perspective as it allows topics to stay open historiographically and more focussed on their subject rather than on the issue of transnational history, which results in better history.
Maybe there is not much point to this post. Maybe it is irrelevant to propose that questions can be answered with questions. But in the end, questions DO need to be raised. Transnational history needs to remain open and “porous” (Clavin) in order to continue its development as a discipline and that its process might open up challenges and questions that might establish potential borders.
Patricia Seed, ‘AHR Conversation on Transnational History’, American Historical Review (2006)
Patricia Clavin, “Defining transnationalism.” Contemporary European History 14, no. 04 (2005)
Tonio Andrade, ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Towards a Global Microhistory,’ in Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 4 (December, 2010)