When I first applied to take this module, it was because of the unique format and the ability to retain flexibility in what one would like to study. Personally, the idea of studying the movement of ideas, people and cultures across borders appealed to me, particularly after a detailed study in migration in India last semester, and through a vested interest in the India-Pakistan border along with the North-South Korea border.
While I must admit, I do not know too much about transnational history (I’d barely heard the word before our first tutorial), Patricia Clavin’s ‘Defining Transnationalism’ was an interesting introduction to the course. What really truly struck me about the idea of transnationalism was the fact that while historians tend to use the word to refer to certain events or phenomenon, the term itself can be used over a broad chronology, and a vast period of time. Just last seminar, we were talking about how transnational history can cover the ancient Mediterranean, but can also focus on themes of bitcoin and finance in today’s world. While Clavin doesn’t actually get to defining transnationalism (in a chapter that suggests that she does exactly that) till the very last pages, I think that the fact that she didn’t simply proves that the term is so fluid and nuanced that there simply isn’t one specific definition.
When I first read through the American History Review conversation piece on transnational history, an interesting note by C. A. Bayly really stuck out. He questioned just how vital transnational history was before the 1850s, when a lot of nations had not been consolidated yet, as the one commonality between the definitions of transnational history lie in the fact that it emphasises the fluidity of people and ideas across national borders. However, after our conversation regarding transnationalism in the Ancient Mediterranean last week, I seem to believe that national borders don’t necessarily play a role, as nations are simply social constructs in a way. The fact remains that any form of a border, any territory enclosed in a fixed space, and the movement between these borders can be considered transnational. This can be seen as slightly confusing due to the word ‘nation’ within the term ‘transnational’, though. The conversation on the American History Review also encourages readers to consider the relationship between global history, and transnational. Bayly looks into this, stating that transnationalism is more fluid and emphasises movement a lot more, similar to global history came about in the 90s amongst debates on ‘globalisation’.
The term ‘transnational’ truly took shape through the concept of migration, and the movement of people, ideas and cultures across borders. Not only does this encourage conversation about the South Asian diaspora that persisted not only through the 70s and 80s (with the expulsion of South Asians from East Africa) and through the nineteenth century through indenture, but it also makes us consider the movement of people in our world today. The notion of transnationalism seems increasingly prevalent in our lives today, not only through our personal lives (through our movement from our hometowns to St Andrews), but through current affairs that are taking place today. For example, the Financial Times recently carried an article stating that the numbers of American and British migrants to New Zealand since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have skyrocketed, which I find particularly intriguing.
While the one challenge is perhaps the lack of consensus on a definition, I find that studying such a broad subject gives us the scope to consider topics and units that interest us, over a vast chronology.