The Trouble with Transnational History

Every job advert for a university History lectureship in the past few years seems to have had the term transnational history forced into it somewhere. Being selfish, this is no bad thing for me. My research to date has been focused on medical charity in Britain and Ireland, but I’ve been slowly developing a transnational agenda for future research. Melanie Oppenheimer and I wrote a piece for the VAHS blog two years ago making the case for adopting a transnational approach to the history of voluntary action, as we worked with Georgina Brewis and Peter Grant to set up a transnational histories network for those seeking to do so. I’d be thrilled if the academy was genuinely embracing an approach to historical inquiry built on an understanding that history moves through space as well as time. My problem is not simply that this is an empty gesture (an attempt to hire those who can use the right buzzwords without supporting methodological training or research networks), but that the rush to jump on the bandwagon has superficially celebrated the very real advantages of transnational history but overlooked its limitations.

Too often transnational history is used as an all-encompassing term simply meaning anything that looks beyond the national level, when it’s actually something much more particular. In their introduction to their 2009 Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, Akira Iriye and Pierre-Yves Saunier neatly referred to transnational history as “the history of connections and circulations in the modern age… across polities and societies”. The reason this relates specifically to “the modern age” emerges when we consider Ian Tyrrell’s comment that this field of history:

“concerns the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries. It applies to the period since the emergence of nation states as important phenomena in world history. While this epoch can be dated from the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which set out the international law of relations between sovereign states, it is principally used to described histories of the period since the so-called age of the democratic revolutions, when the birth of the American nation occurs.”

This relationship between transnational history and the nation state is a complex one. It’s founded on a critique of the nation state as a restrictive unit of historical study, “silencing stories both smaller and larger than the nation”, in the words of Thomas Bender. Yet, at the same time, it’s reliant upon the existence of nation states for understanding and tracing the flow of ideas and institutions, people and practices across those national borders.

Each major attempt of the past two or three decades to move the unit of historical analysis beyond the national has received criticism, fair or unfair. In the case of comparative history it has been the tendency to compare case studies out of context, with connections between them overlooked. Even if global history is properly understood as relating to connections and interactions, to exchanges and encounters around the globe rather than an attempt to write a history covering the entire planet, its ahistorical links with theories of ‘globalisation’ and ‘modernisation’ have been uncomfortable for many historians. Meanwhile international history has long referred to inter-state relations within diplomatic history. The grounds on which Ian Tyrrell dismisses a host of other names for interconnected histories beyond the national level reveals the fundamental limitation of transnational history. He wrote in the Journal of Global History that inter-cultural and trans-cultural relations, trans-border or entangled histories (a rough translation of histoire croisée), have proved unpopular for being “too broad to analyse the making and remaking of the American nation”.

For many historians, and crucially for those who forged it as an approach to historical study, transnational history has largely been about understanding the (usually American) national story in wider context. Indeed, we might see the movement’s founding call to arms as Akira Iriye’s 1988 presidential address to the American Historical Association on ‘The Internationalization of History’; in which he said it offered Americanists an opportunity for “broadening their perspectives and accustoming themselves to thinking of American history not just as national history, or even as part of transatlantic history, but also as an aspect of human history”. More recently this challenge has been picked up by Sven Beckert, as editor of the Princeton University Press series on America in the World, which features “the work of a new generation of scholars writing the history of ‘global America'”. Similarly,Thomas Bender has sought to recast America as a nation among nations: “The nation is not freestanding and self-contained; like other forms of human solidarity, it is connected with and partially shaped by what is beyond it. It is time to stop ignoring this obvious dimension of a national history.”

In 1999 David Thelen edited a ‘transnational perspectives’ special issue of the Journal of American History. Here he acknowledged the somewhat contradictory nature of transnational history – at once both concerned with replacing the nation state as the focal unit of historical study, yet it is also eminently preoccupied by the task of casting new light upon the nation state.

“We wanted to explore how people and ideas and institutions and cultures moved above, below, through, and around, as well as within, the nation-state, to investigate how well national borders contained or explained how people experienced history. We wanted to observe how people, moving through time and space according to rhythms and relationships of their own, drew from, ignored, constructed, transformed, and defied claims of the nation-state. To make our project recognizable to others we tried, perhaps foolishly, to find a single term to encompass the many questions that sprang from our goal of reexamining history’s embrace of the nation state. We finally settled on transnational.”

This approach to transnational history is an American one born of a largely American problem, summed up by Bender: “Somehow the world is everything but us.” The challenge of overcoming such a problem does not exist in the same way for countries whose national identity is inextricably linked with a former empire, either as coloniser or colonised. In such cases, exceptionalism does not exclude an awareness that the nation exists within wider networks, something obvious in both academic and popular perceptions. The notion of sonderweg or the ‘special path’ in German history is a case in point. The problems of parochialism and exceptionalism in the case of British history are tangibly different again, but can equally be challenged by adopting a transnational perspective. Indeed, there are a variety of approaches to transnational history, some of which I will return to here on this blog; yet this does not mean the suitable applications are endless. The close (if complex and contradictory) relationship between transnational history and the nation state means that if we want to abandon the nation state as a unit of analysis, then it is not an appropriate model.

There are huge benefits to be gained from taking a transnational perspective of an historical issue. But they are lost when we misunderstand transnational history as anything and everything that looks beyond one isolated national story.

Transnational Americanists

5 Replies to “The Trouble with Transnational History”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion on the emerging field of transnational history. I think you have done a good job at looking at some of the various ways that it has been defined and developed. I’m not sure I follow the negative argument though: if some of these approaches have offered gains, I’m not sure where you anxiety about the presumed chaos of a fuzzy definition of the field, “as anything and everything that looks beyond one isolated national story.” On the contrary, I would caution against accepting any one single monopoly (or small oligarchy) on the term by the groups you have looked at here and accept that the emergence of this field has both the usual “bandwagon” effect you get as scholars repackage themselves as fairly common and natural in these cases.

    Instead, I would suggest, that the very impreciseness of the term “transnational history” is a virtue: it has brought together historians into conversation who might otherwise not do so, and collaborations that might not happen can now happen. In my own case, some of my interests do not always involve “the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries” – unless this is defined extremely broadly and the movement is very dispersed. Rather, it allows a “playing with scales” – indeed along the lines of examining stories “both smaller and larger than the nation” – it is a tactical move rather than a declaration of allegiance to yet a new corner of the boxing ring designed to release me from the need to engage primarily with a national historiography. It enables a historian to ask historical questions and go where the answers take them (to the limit of their language skills, and archival access, etc.) in which the “nation” may be an elephant in the room that has to be acknowledged at some point, but need not become one of the main protagonists. There is no reason why many historians in previously defined thematic fields can’t claim to do the same thing – it is just that, in this case, the move is to unite historians is across themes, rather than within one.

    To make a long story short: let us hold the categoricians at bay just a little longer, and I hope you will agree that anxiety of the indefinite nature of the field is well countered by the fruitful bringing together of problem-based historians beyond, below, above, and despite the nation – not by denying its presence in the history we study, but recognizing how its presence in the academic world we occupy has created boundaries that our historical questions are less affected by.

    1. And thank you for the thoughtful response, Konrad. I should say that I’m far from being entirely negative here – I’m rather a fan of the exciting possibilities opened up.

      I do think there is a problem, especially as an early career researcher not yet in a permanent position, when so many hiring committees say they’re looking for someone who can “do transnational history”, yet there is so little agreement (including between institutions and within those hiring committees) on what the term means. The inevitable consequence is that it makes it a hard job to position yourself for each application or interview. Equally, I’ve been at conferences where people are talking at cross purposes, using the same term. Perhaps in some cases it’s a matter of distinguishing exactly what is transnational: the subject, the methodology or the operation (international networks, etc.). So there can be difficulties from imprecision, but that is not to deny the benefits.

      I would say we need to be aware of the origins of the transnational history movement (as historians, surely we should be) and its contradictory relationship with the nation state. However, I do not for a second think we should be restricted to keep within those boundaries. I have written a little before on the virtue of embracing a multi-faceted transnational approach to the history of civil society and voluntary action ( and perhaps I’ll return to it again soon more fully. The reason I’m writing about this is because I think these difficulties are worth overcoming and that the opportunities to recast historical research beyond national histories are great. On that note, I look forward to taking a closer look at your work, which sounds fascinating.

  2. I think that the practical implications of the transnational fad for historians, particularly graduate students, are often overlooked and deserve more discussion. As a graduate student I have received nothing but encouragement and applause for pursuing a comparative/transnational history. However, it is rarely acknowledged that such topics typically require much more travel (i.e. money) and time. I feel pressured to finish at the same rate and write a dissertation that is just as detailed as those of my colleagues who are working on topics that are much narrower and take place in a small area or region.

    1. Thanks Jessica. That’s really interesting (if not uplifting) to hear – especially as someone who wrote a doctoral thesis on my home town less than two hours from my university on the train, but is now beginning to look at those same issues in transnational perspective. This is the sort of thing I just don’t think is taken into consideration when a university/department decides they want more transnational historians about.

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