Terms and definitions have always been tricky for me. Growing up in a bilingual household, I would often know the word or meaning in one language without the ability to translate it to the other. In some cases, there was no translation or phrase equivalent, just a need to create a new word, phrase, or meaning. Transnational history, the budding sub-field which centers on the movements of people, ideas, goods, and technologies sans national borders and boundaries, is in a similar position. The 2006 “AHR Conversation: On Transnational History” has shown as much. Here a group of historians, admittedly diverse yet still from elite Western universities, addressed their concerns over the term ‘transnational’ and the approach of transnational studies. As an academic exchange, I found this conversation extremely insightful. In reading how these historians deliberated definitions and shared sources, I began to integrate many of their ideas into my conception of transnational history.

Historiographically, transnational history has a very interesting yet predictable origin story. Born from the desire to break free from Eurocentric, nationalistic history, the transnational approach seeks a more inclusive perspective. Many historians claim transnational history as a critique of nationalist and imperialist history as well as racist, sexist, and heteronormative lenses. I find many parallels between the formation of this approach and the development and rising interest in gender studies, sociology, and social justice. It makes sense that as the world becomes a more traversable and connected place, with either travel or the Internet, historians are exploring beyond national borders. As someone perpetually interested in transnational interactions and non-traditional lenses, I am very excited to endeavor into doing and practicing transnational history.

One limitation I identified within transnational history is the term’s anachronisms. Since last summer, I have analyzed shipping records from the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, a Spanish colony in present-day Argentina and Uruguay. Tracking the arriving and departing ships, I gained a new insight into the global connections in foodways, goods, people, and ideas to and from this colony, Europe, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. Still, as argued in  ‘Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire,’ this cannot be considered ‘transnational.’ The nation-state as a concept did not yet exist; instead empire was the primary mode of government and social organization. Once again, we have to generate a new word for our study. Here ‘trans-imperial’ is the ideal term, allowing for the same cross-border or comparative exploration yet with empire and colonial thought in mind. While the term change seems easy enough, for me it provides an opportunity to reconsider definitions and further cultivate an inclusive perspective of the past.

I look forward to exploring more terms and definitions as we venture into the transnational and global in the coming weeks!

Starting Up: Thoughts on Terms and Definitions

One thought on “Starting Up: Thoughts on Terms and Definitions

  • January 24, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Super start, Sigi, and insightful. With half a foot myself in early modern history myself, the notion of transnational does pose a problem – given the absence of the nation-state as such. So yes on the one hand we (early modern) may stay clear of transnational as you outline OR we accept it as a way of seeing and a perspective. After all history is discipline that borrows from other disciplines, fields, sub-disciplines. But I agree we should engage with your questions and intervention here in class.

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