Given the already-complex nature of this topic, I think it’s best if I don’t spend loads of time justifying and explaining up-front why I’ve set this out like I have. Instead, I’ll explain the terms and categories as I go along!

Meta-Transnationalist Terms: These are the terms and definitions used by academics when describing the whole of or an aspect of transnationalism and transnational history. Under this category you will find ‘Subaltern Studies’, ‘Labour History’, ‘Core-Periphery’, and different interpretations of exactly what ‘Transnationalism’ means. Subcategories for Historiography, Methodology, etc. might also be useful but as of now I am unsure of how to split things up.

“Umbrellas”: These are those networks and organizations that are so large and/or diverse that within them can be found multiple examples of each of the following categories. They therefore cannot be grouped into any specific one and must be dealt with on their own terms. They can be further subdivided into purpose-built (wherin their central purpose is at least in part transnational in character) networks/organizations and diffuse networks/organizations that have developed a transnational character without direct intent on the part of any (or at least most) Actors within it. Included in the latter is the Internet and the New York Stock Exchange, while in the former lies the UN (and its subsidiary organizations), the Socialist International, and the World Trade Organization. A third sub-category might be set aside for Empires, as has been suggested by others, as a consequence of their particular historical significance.

Actors: Specific persons or organizations responsible for transnational activity. These can be subdivided into Practicing Actors and Lived Actors. Practicing Actors are those people/organizations that consciously and intentionally engage in transnational activity; in this sub-category are many scientists, diplomats, politicians, revolutionaries, etc, and their associated institutions. Lived Actors are those people/organizations who have had transnational activity impact their life but did not have direct knowledge or control over the transnational aspects of it, or those who participated in transnational activity without considering themselves as doing so. Included here are many traders, generals, soldiers, prisoners, and “common people” more generally.

Objects: What is actually being transferred across borders. This includes physical objects in the form of traded commodities, as well as non-commodities such as scientific knowledge, culture, disease, and even genetics.

Vectors: The constructed methods and “natural” pathways that enable and accelerate transnational activity. The former includes specific trade networks, diplomatic treaties, and Esperanto. The latter includes religious affiliation, cultural compatibility, global and regional economic phenomena (ex. industrial revolution), and geographic features (ex. good harbors).

Blockers: The constructed methods and pre-existing conditions blocking or impeding transnational activity. The former group includes hard borders, geo-political rivalries, and xenophobic ideologies. The latter group includes geographic impediments (sheer distance, the Atlantic, the Sahara, etc), linguistic barriers, and, again, global and regional economic phenomena.

Similar distinctions in broad categories have been made by others, both on the blog and in the last class, but I think I’ve hit on something that ought to be taken into strong consideration when planning out a broader and more ambitious “manifesto”. Specifically, I think it is extremely important, within categories, to distinguish between active and passive aspects of transnationalism. There is a fundamental difference between a 1950’s UN diplomat and a 1890’s Hong Kong peasant that is not merely a function of their different living conditions and historical circumstances. People and organizations practice transnational activity very differently when they are aware of the transnational character of that activity, and act even more differently when they are intentionally conducting that activity to be transnational. This is true across all the categories I have listed above. Diffuse trade networks operate(d) differently than the World Trade Organization, disease transmission operates differently than knowledge transmission, and constructed barriers to certain types of transnational activities (militarized borders) operate differently than more natural ones (many miles of ocean). Taking a closer look at the last example, it is clear that from the perspective of a scholar, the transnational character of a deliberately militarized border resulting from particular cultural and political developments has to be established via a fundamentally different lens than how a scholar would evaluate the transnational character of a naturally existing water barrier that forces dangerous raft crossings.

A Transnational Index of A (nonexistent) Transnational Manifesto

One thought on “A Transnational Index of A (nonexistent) Transnational Manifesto

  • April 26, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    I think this is a great way to conceptualise the myriad aspects that the field of Transnational History naturally entails in its breadth and scope. Manifesto or no manifesto, those approaching the field need to have a solid understanding of scales, from the most macro terms and concepts down to the most micro, as this post demonstrates. The metaphor that springs to mind is of a digger drilling down to the core of what can conceivably be classed as ‘transnational’, as well as what has an impact on the transnational itself. Here is where I think you make a very important point that needs to be clearly discerned for historians/scholars doing transnational history.
    That point is ultimately a question of agency. The distinction made between active and passive aspects of transnationalism is a very pertinent one and applies most to us humans as actors with conscious and (arguably) rational thought. When doing biographical accounts of transnational lives and/or case-focused stories of transnational individuals, historians in the field need to make this distinction between those who have ‘lived’ the transnational world (and been subjected to its developments and exigencies over time), and those who have consciously engaged with the transnational character of their actions (and often had an influence on transnational outcomes).
    For example, though there was some inevitable ambiguity with the story and its sources, in Tonio Andrade’s article on the ‘Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys; and a Warlord’, we get a sense that the Chinese farmer Sait is a passive, ‘lived’ actor, not aware of the transnational significance of his decision to cross cultural divides between the Dutch colonists of Taiwan and the Chinese. Andrade clearly expresses this from the start by stating that ‘his story is useful not so much because it’s significant in itself but because it offers a glimpse into another world’ (Andrade, 2010: 575). This has been arguably a common trend amongst transnational histories of people, movement and individual lives; to use their stories to yield broader insights of the time being studied. In the Andrade case, Sait’s story provides us with a distinctive, ‘bottom-up’ lens through which to analyse contexts of war and globalisation in the early modern period. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t make it any less important a transnational history to do, but what I’m saying is that the distinction should be made by historians from the outset.
    The issue of agency relates very much to the idea of peoples’ purpose and intentions in acting, and though some individuals can be much more self-reflexive of the transnational nature and purpose of their lives, others are not. Above all this as well, we must realise that as historians with the privilege of hindsight, we hold a much more comprehensive view of the transnational significance of individual lives than those actors ever could have. This is something Martha Hodes touches upon in her account of the sea captain’s wife Eunice Connolly. With this privilege we must be sensitive to the extent of what is classed as ‘transnational’ within the period/case studied and not fall into the trap of anachronistically over-exaggerating the transnationalism of certain people and their impact.
    Terminology, concepts and events on transnational scale can be blurred easily, and as a historian you can find yourself not knowing where you have started, stopped or are going in your analysis. Yet the idea of agency, as problematic as it can be, and of the distinction between passive and active actors, can give us a sense of direction when doing transnational history. It arguably provides a way to return epistemologically to the source and purpose of our doing transnational history in the first place.

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