What is transnational history? And, how does it differ from global history? 

Transnational and global histories are on the rise and offer an alternative way of doing history. An increased emphasis on the movement flows which transcend the rigid borders of the nation state, define this emerging field. Hence, as Bayly notes, taking a global and transnational perspective moves historians away from a state and Eurocentric view of the past. Instead, it helps us to understand how the flows of people, knowledge and materials (just to name a few focus areas) have impacted and shaped the world around us. Hence, offering a fresh and unique perspective on the past which moves towards a focus on non-state actors.

So, how do global and transnational approaches differ, and which one is more suited for investigating the past? For me, ‘global history’ infers that the whole world is the object of study and that there the historian is attempting to cover the entire history of the world. However, I don’t believe that applying a grand sweeping narrative to the history of the world really captures the nuance and complexity of global flows. Hence, I much prefer the term ‘transnational history’ as the object of study is not limited to a planetary scale viewed from a ‘cosmic crow’s nest’. 

Rather, a transnational approach isn’t limited to a macro perspective and can be done on the micro level, by narrowing in on an individual or a place and observing the effects of their transnational movements and flows. Therefore, transnational history does not limit itself to following ‘global’ flows and narratives as not all flows are truly global, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to make connections that are not there. The transnational approach, therefore, balances the scale of our investigations, allowing us to zoom in to the micro level of analysis and zoom out to see the larger trends and flows. 

This is an exciting idea as you can look at a town, an individual or even a building and then pull back to see how they fitted into larger transnational flows. This marks a divergence from seeing nation states as the main actors in history to highlighting the impact of non-state actors and breaking away from more traditional historiographical methods. 

Transnational and Global History: A Shifting Focus on the Past