I’ll be the first to admit it: when people asked me what modules I was studying this semester, I could easily rattle off the titles, but when asked for clarification, I struggled a fair bit to find the right words.
“Doing and Practicing Transnational and Global History in a Late Modern World” is quite a mouthful, and when asked “Can I have that in English?”, I didn’t have an easy answer.
Finding the answer to that question is largely the goal of this module, and I hope that by the time we reach May, I can not only give a full answer (complete with actual understanding), but also discover a new excitement for this historical discipline.
I distinctly remember sitting in the Buchanan Lecture Theatre for the final lecture of MO1008; a slightly naïve first-year, with little idea of what her second, and in fact third years of university would entail (global pandemic, Microsoft Teams, remote learning and lack of a library, to name just a few). However, Bernhard’s lecture: ‘Late Modern History and Modernity: Global Perspectives’, stuck with me, because it was the first time I’d really heard of the approach that prioritised connections, diminished the importance of constructed national boundaries, and gave insight into what comes next in the historiographical question.
I knew we’d been stuck in the ‘post-modern’ world, but that always leads to the question of “What now?”
From my initial dive into Transnational History through the first two weeks’ readings, this approach is exciting. It’s different, challenging, and I know without any doubt that I’m going to be stretched by this module, but that satisfies the curious nature of my brain; the part that is always asking “What next?”
Rather than a summary of just one of the readings, I thought I’d pose a couple of reflections alongside some questions that emerged from the texts. I’d love to see whether other people thought the same, or maybe just to correct me if there’s something I’ve missed.
So, without further ado, here are some “Transnational Thoughts”.
Definitions, Definitions, Definitions…
Definitions are important, but only to a point. Seeing the conversation go back-and-forth between the historians in the AHR Conversation: On Transnational History, only illuminated this further. It is helpful to understand what the historians’ task is when they set out to do transnational history, to understand why it’s important, and most importantly, to understand how.
But; there comes a point where discussion over the technicalities of whether or not this is ‘cultural transnational’, or ‘global economic’, or even, what the correct definition of “transnational history” should be, goes too far. The conversation can get bogged down in the legalistic practicalities, without ever achieving any research, analysis, or progress.
Sven Beckert argued that ‘transnational history is not bound to any particular methodological approach’ , and instead suggested that historians should see the diversity in approaches as a strength. Instead of focusing on a particular theory, transnational history should encourage a new ‘way of seeing’ .
Simon Potter and Jonathan Saha highlighted the differences between Global History and Imperial History; how comparative methods have been used differently, and whether or not they can be classed as ‘connected histories’. This conversation is interesting, but I question how important it is in the long term.
How important is it to establish which discipline one is operating in, rather than just doing the research and analysis?
As soon as you break out of the boundaries that have constricted the historical discipline practically since its development in the nineteenth century, it could be said that “the world is your oyster.”
Yet, that phrase may also present issues. There is a danger to assume “transnational” equates to global, and therefore the scope of transnational analysis should also be the same.
In answer to that challenge, I enjoyed Patricia Seed’s clarification, also in the AHR Conversation. She says that instead of being confined by borders, transnational history offers the ‘ability to follow people’, wherever they moved. This gives its own challenges- for example, how does one track individuals or communities where there are broken, or patchy records?
Rather than being stumped by this, I see instead an opportunity to champion different sources; to escape from the primacy of written records, and instead to investigate what else might be out there.
If the importance of traditional boundaries such as nation and empire has been limited, is there a need for an alternative within transnational history, OR, are politically constructed geographical boundaries more of a hindrance for transnational analysis?
Transnational ≠ Macro
This reflection is similar to the geographical one above, where transnational does not automatically mean the scope should encompass the whole globe. Likewise, the category of analysis does not have to be limited to the macro; such as empires, global institutions, etc.
Instead, the growing emphasis on micro-historical studies have a home within transnational history; championed by a number of historians such as Linda Colley and Emma Rothschild. This work has been instrumental in returning a ‘human dimension’ to ‘otherwise impersonal global forces of change.’
The question I have here is How do we connect the experience of the individual to the processes of empire, nation or world? Is there a way of combining the micro and the macro?
I said in our first seminar that ‘connections and communications’ are of particular interest to me, and this extends to the study of the individual. I have little interest in, for example, the number of soldiers that fought at a particular battle, or the military strategies behind imperial expansion. Instead, the lives of individuals, the subaltern narratives, are fascinating to me. I’d love to see how the experience of the individual can reflect some of the larger changes that rippled across societies, and how they differ around the world.
While I don’t know how this could play out, I’d like to see how this develops within the scope of transnational studies. It’s a conversation I’m eager to continue; and much of what I’ve said above will hopefully be refined in the weeks to come.
But for now, my first glance at the transnational conversation is one that challenges me, but also excites me. What are your initial thoughts?