Reading through the AHR conversation on transnational and global history I was initially struck by how constrained much of this debate is by the need for definitions. To start first with transnational history, broadly understood as concerning the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries, Chris Bayly makes a fair point when he considers how “transnational” as a term is restrictive – does using the word “nation” (ethnocentric in itself) limit our ability to study the connections, prior to the existence of nations, as we now know them? Patricia Seed echoes this by stating that we use words from the present to define the past. However, I would not consider it a limitation necessarily – the fact is that transnationalism in itself seems to be at least partly reliant on the nation as a physical construction, for in order to understand how these borders are permeated you must them establish in the first place.  Indeed, though it is concerned with the nation, transnational history to me seems a way to challenge the exceptionalism of national histories on a multitude of levels – using comparison as a means to show how local phenomena on a national level – whether this be political, social or cultural – can be considered on a larger scale. As such, as Patricia Clavin put it transnational history has the “roominess of a loose-fitting garment” – it can be worn in many different ways.  

If transnational is in some ways restrictive however, it could be countered that global history is altogether too broad. Global history is intrinsically linked to globalisation – as such its connections with the world we live in today are immense. In order to explain how we live in such an interconnected world in the present, we must understand how these connections between people, places, commodities were made in the past. Global history in principle has incredible potential – allowing us to understand how the world has been integrated on a multitude of levels – from political movements to economic crises and environmental issues. But its enormity seems to me like it could be a limitation, particularly in understanding what is meant by “global.” 

Global history is an idea that originated primarily in Western Europe, the US and the U.K., and historians that consider it are usually from these places. This led me to wonder, can we really write a truly “global” history? Or is it inevitable that in all findings some players will simply be more prominent than others, especially considering the origins of the field? In the U.K. the idea of the British Empire allowed for a broader consideration of Asian and African history, in the U.S. this was brought to light partly by immigration and the demands of a more diverse demographic. Perhaps then it is nations that most benefitted from the process of globalisation that are dominating the very study of its history.   

This struck me in particular, because as someone who grew up in East Africa and South-East Asia studying in international schools, much of the history taught to me always held the disclaimer that it was “global” or international in its nature.  However, in retrospect I feel keenly aware that including a chapter on the Cold War in Asia or comparing the Russian revolution to that of China does not really constitute as a “global” history perspective. What I was studying was rather a way of focusing on how European or Western concepts had found their way into the so-called ‘Third World’ in an attempt to be inclusive. To an extent, understanding how revolutions and ideological rivalries that began in the West spread to other parts of the globe is indeed a part of a more “global” outlook on history – but confining it to a Eurocentric power dynamic – in which the West is an imposing force, and the rest of the world are simply receivers of its influence is incredibly restrictive and certainly only skimming the surface of what “global” could and should encompass. Instead, taking such a “global” perspective silences narratives of places already marginalised. Perhaps that is why terms like transnational are preferred or more easily understood than global history. However, I do believe global history can bring to light connections that have since been concealed or at the very least, its leverage as something of a buzzword in current historical discourse can be used as a call to arms for the need to widen where we look for these connections in the first place – something I am very much looking forward to doing over the semester.  

Transnational too restrictive, yet global too broad? Thoughts on definitions and who writes transnational and global history