Transnational history has become one of the latest buzz terms in the history discipline over the past few years. In simple terms, it is an approach that seeks to move beyond the nation-state and look at the interconnectedness of history. It can be applied to lots of different questions and situations. For example, we can look at environmental and regional places in the context of a variety of peoples, nations, and other factors. The case of the American West is particularly instructive. You have French, Spanish, Mexican, British, Native American, and American forces competing for land, resources, and power. For much of its history nations held very little power and borders were haphazardly applied with little meaning. Of course, transnational history is also seen in trade relationships and multi-national corporations. In recent years commodity studies have been a popular way to illustrate these ties. There is a multitude of ways to do transnational history and I think most of them are creative and good ways to expand our lens and better understand the world.
So why then a crisis? For me the crisis emerges when we beging to privilege transnational approaches. This week for my U.S. and the World seminar we read Thomas Bender’s A Nation Among Nations, which is a first attempt at writing American history in a global context. The book is solid, but not without fault. While I agree with his premise that we need to better situate the United States in the world community, I worry that focusing too much on doing this only reinforces a larger meta-narrative that obscures many events, details, and voices. In short, I’m concerned that you just can’t do it all. This is not to say that I don’t think it should be done, but perhaps not in a single unifying text. This, of course, is the historians dilemma: what do you include and what don’t you? I buy into the idea of a “history of society” outline by Geoff Eley in his A Crooked Line and I think transnational history is important, but I have my worries.
Included in these worries are the recent hiring practices and jobs trends in U.S. History. While I don’t have numbers, I’ve watched the jobs posting over the last 3 years and noticed that most of the jobs are “U.S. and the World” oriented. Many may see this is a good thing. After all, by situating the U.S. in a global context we’re working to dismantle the traditional whiggish narratives of exceptionalism. Further, teaching the U.S. in a global context is very important in an age of globalization and interconnectedness. In fact, I think one of the true strengths of the emphasis on transnational history is what it adds to the classroom. But, and maybe I am being a bit selfish here, history is not all about the classroom. History is also about preservation, knowledge creations, and seeking to understand the human condition and lived experience of the past regardless of whether they are transnational or global in context. I fear that by hiring predominately historians who focus on this approach is troublesome for the greater discipline. Although my evidence is anecdotal and stems from my own personal observations, I worry that many departments are collapsing multiple U.S. history positions into one sort of ‘catch-all’ category. For a department strapped for cash they could feasibly combine positions in gender, race, politics, foreign relations, popular culture, business history, etc. into one. While this may make little difference in a history survey, replacing 2-3 specialists with one generalist always has a backlash. It potentially compromises upper level and graduate course offerings. It also limits scholarship and privileges certain questions and approaches. Discipline wide, I find this very concerning.
Maybe I am just being a Gloomy Gus and following a slippery slope. I know in practice transnational history operates very differently than how I am portraying it here. But, as I mentioned before, I don’t have a problem with transnational history itself. A lot of my work is very transnational, especially if you view Native American as national groups. Instead, I take issue with what I perceive to be an over emphasis on it. A lot of scholarship coming out of the early 2000s pointed to it as sort of revolutionary wave sweeping across the landscape of history. To be sure, some noted that it was not a new approach but suggested that it might perhaps be more relevant or applicable with the rise of globalization. This is understandable as it’s impossible for historian to completely divorce themselves from the time they’re writing, and their present context clearly affects the type of question they ask. But for me, transnational history is one of many tools that historians should use, not a category that defines them.
I’m fully aways that a lot of people will probably disagree with me, if not in principle, at least in presentation. I welcome those disagreements and am genuinely interested in having a dialogue. Here are a few questions to get things started: is there a crisis of transnational history? does its benefits outweigh its costs?