The Crisis of Transnational History

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?

5 thoughts on “The Crisis of Transnational History

  1. reflectionsandcontemplations

    Interesting read. My Cambridge undergrad course, by contrast, was not particularly transnational. It certainly didn’t feel that it privileged such an approach.

    I do think that a transnational approach can bring a lot to the table.

    I remember reading a very good piece by Jon Parry on how foreign policy interactions with France and the domestic political situation interrelated. Looking at both nations in a sort of duality was an appropriate model, as that was how the political rhetoric was operated at the point of the C19th.

    I think that this way of thinking can also do a lot of good in terms of analysing the medieval period, when states are beginning to emerge, against the background of a church that is a sort of parallel state. I’d probably want to ditch talk of the nation, though, and think about forces and institutions. Maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.

    I do agree that whether we need a transnational approach or not can be a matter of what we want to prioritise. For my final year special subject I studied the German reformation. This was wonderful, and I gained a real appreciation of the main currents in the German debate. I was able to dive in and play close attention to Luther’s writings in particular, and to watch him battle with Erasmus. I’m very interested in culture and theology/exegesis and how truth is established and came away with a lot of ideas about Luther’s success.

    But had I wanted a more strategic political understanding of the Reformation, it may well have been useful to see a wider picture. Were the broader forces acting upon the Holy Roman Empire and Papacy more important than the German theological discourse?

  2. Trevor Burrows

    Great post Andrew – I think you raise some interesting questions (particularly about the job market/hiring practices). I’ll respond more fully in a post in the next day or two – we can have a blog war. Grab your pitchforks and hide the children!

  3. Trevor Burrows

    Reblogged this on No Religious Islands and commented:
    My friend and colleague raises some good and interesting questions about transnational history, questions that are probably useful when approaching any sort of methodological or thematic lens/tool. I hope to respond to this shortly.

  4. Jason

    Other disciplines call this holistic learning. Exploring the interconnectedness of a field instead of just focusing on the specific facts lends itself to a broader understanding of the function and the future of that field. It is especially important in history. It allows us to see how innovation changed agriculture, which changed how people live, which changed art, religion, etc…

    I don’t think your worry concerning the educational system is warranted. Schools will always want the best and brightest teachers in order to provide the best education, attract students, make money, and build prestige. Instructional systems can evolve too and the holistic approach, to include transnational history, is part of that evolution. If, for instance, you wanted to learn about the more strategic political aspects of the reformation, like reflections discussed, go to a library and learn about it. Professors are not the only sources of information. They provide the tools we use to synthesize and understand the information but if there is something you want to learn about, learn about it.

    The overemphasis you see is just the educational equivalent of a child proud of its newest toy. In a few years it won’t be over emphasized, it will just be emphasized. A few years after that, grade schools will have incorporated it, and it will be old hat.

    What really excites me is the work of the philosopher Alain de Botton, concerning education, specifically his critique of the humanities. Incorporating the emotional tools used by religion to provide a better more meaning education. That is a new idea, that takes holistic to a completely different level. Instead of just providing the global stage with intelligent people, his approach would provide intelligent, ethical, well-adapted people.

  5. Andrew McGregor Post author

    First, thanks for the all thoughtful comments. I’m sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond.
    Martin — I enjoy hearing your UK perspective. Most of us Americans really have no idea how education works across the pond (let alone north and south of our borders). You’ve made this conversation truly transnational. You hit directly on one of my concerns — depth of study. While I’m sure there will still be a few subject area expects even if the discipline shifts, access to them may be difficult (beyond just reading their works). Also, I wonder if we’ll have less people doing the smaller, specialized topics than we do now.

    Trevor — I’m glad I piqued your interest. I admit my posts makes a lot of assumptions and appears slippery. I’ve had this conversation with a few other folks and am already willing to concede some ground and think about other buzz-y types of historical scholarship, e.g. gender, race, urban. The “new social” history of the 1960s and ’70s revolutionized departments in similar ways — although that was during the era when departments were expanding and hiring more professors instead of contracting. I look forward to your response post(s).

    Jason — I agree with a lot of what you have to say. I’m a big advocate of the liberal arts education. Some of my worry is that older and equally valid forms of scholarship may be left behind. You’re right, it is slippery and perhaps unwarranted. I see the value and importance of transnational history, and I do think emphasizing it is good. It helps us see those connections and ask new and different questions. Indeed, transnational history does allow us to connect a variety of subfields and use them in conversations. You mention that we can still go and learn about other types of information and approaches in libraries, etc. But if we keep placing too much emphasis on training and hiring transnational historians, few specialists in those other fields will be around to create new knowledge and help train them. Perhaps I am privileging new scholarship too much here and I don’t doubt there will be a few institutions who continue to have a broad faculty. To be sure, transnational history does help to counter the ‘over specialization’ often critique of history. I admit that I go back and forth in my mind about the problems of overspecialization, at least in terms of access and accessibility of scholarship to a broader audience. At the same time, overspecialization is a two headed monster, we don’t want to have too many people working on narrow and esoteric topics, but we also don’t want too many people using the same approach and limiting our perspectives and ways of looking at the past. My concerns lie somewhere, but I admit they may just be petty and conservative. That’s why I’m interested in learning more and talking them through. Thanks for helping!


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