Following Bernhard’s solid endorsement of Pierre – Yves Saunier’s Transnational History, I endeavoured to find a cheap second-hand copy online. Through Saunier’s style of writing, a combination of this text with many of the case studies that I have read has allowed me to develop an understanding towards how historians compose a transnational history. A fundamental point that has resided with me is that Saunier believes the term ‘transnational history’ is divisive, preferring the phrase ‘history in a transnational perspective’ as it much more accurate and reflective of the field’s intentions.

The text is self-described by the author as ‘a guide, the validity of which is conditional on the rapid change of the landscape it purports to describe’, evidence of just how liquid and malleable the discipline of transnational history is. In the early stages of my project topic selection, it is interesting, albeit very difficult, to come to terms with the fact that ideas, my chosen subject, refuses the bounds of a nation. Rather than looking at the manner in which a nation affected the Enlightenment Philosophy, transnational history reverts this perspective to one wherein it is important to understand the effects of the Enlightenment Philosophy itself. The process of ‘methodological nationalism’ has skewed the outlook of historians towards viewing each national state as the natural form of society and the basis of historiography, making it incredibly difficult to separate the flow of ideas from national boundaries. Saunier affirms that it is vital to remember however, that transnational history does not supersede but enhances the capacity of national historiography by adding the history of entanglements between countries.

The three main issues of transnational history are:

1. Historicisation of contracts between nations, understanding how exchanges fluctuated and the changing levels of exchange, integration and disintegration

2. Acknowledging and assessing foreign contributions to domestic features within nations and the projection of domestic features into the foreign

3. Understanding the trends, patterns, organisations and individuals that live between these entities

As such, Saunier has opened my eyes to the process of transnational history writing, especially due to his river analogy that breaks down the method five stages:

1. Know your riverbed

2. Demarcate a catchment area

3. Identify your tributaries

4. Where there are slopes, there are flows

5. Pin the blame on regime makers

Viewing the project ahead from this five – step process has allowed me to understand what it is that I have to do, as well as the manner in which I will go about it. With reference to the short essay, things remain a bit murkier. Understanding ‘connected history’ as specific confrontations between different nations and empires has demystified the field considerably. However, fully grasping the difference between connected and comparative histories, where comparison is a topic of study in transnational history, rather than a tool for the study of topics, is something that I need to read more on. My task ahead is reading the 1928 article on ‘comparative history’ by March Bloch to aid this understanding…

Saunier ‘Opening the Door’

One thought on “Saunier ‘Opening the Door’

  • February 16, 2021 at 8:14 am

    Douglas, that is a super post! Excellent reading of Saunier…and yes. If Bloch is on the table as a foundational text of what we do today, read it. It was (and still is) a canonical text (that I read repeatedly as a PhD student). And well spotted that there may be the divisive undertone in “transnational history”. With Saunier, I would prefer or tend myself to put on the “transnational perspective”.

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