Monday, January 10, 2011

The Challenges of International Legal History: Reflections from the AHA

Legal historians had a range of interesting panels to choose from at the AHA conference in Boston this past weekend. I attended several panels that addressed the meaning, practice, and implications of international and transnational history, and the particular challenges of researching, writing, and publishing beyond the traditional borders of national histories.

As William Hitchcock, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, noted in introducing a roundtable on publishing in international history, legal historians, like scholars in so many other fields, now have excellent examples of work that helped to internationalize the study of legal history, and that have posed significant challenges to several traditional areas of historical inquiry. Hitchcock pointed to Paul Halliday, Habeus Corpus: From England to Empire(see Steve Vladeck’s series of posts on Halliday’s book here), Liz Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights, and Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. These authors and others certainly encouraged me to begin to think more globally about American legal history and convinced me that there is still a great deal more to study about the implications of American law for the world, and world history for American law.

But as panelists noted this weekend, scholars working on international histories face some particular challenges. For example, commenting on a panel concerning non-state actors in the practice of foreign policy, Erez Manela, Professor of History at Harvard, suggested that because scholars studying international institutions are “not working in well-established modes,” they do not necessarily have a “built-in audience.” As international historians advance new concerns and insist upon new avenues of study, he suggested, they have to work to clearly define the stakes of their projects to connect with the familiar concerns of national histories—immigration history, state-to-state diplomacy, and the Cold War, for example. Though Manela directed his comments to the study of NGOs, his suggestions seem to apply to many areas of international and transnational inquiry.

The reasons for this are both intellectual and practical. As Susan Ferber, Executive Editor for History at Oxford University Press and Kathleen McDermott, Executive Editor for History at Harvard University Press, explained, publishers need to be able to identify the core constituencies for new work. International and transnational histories may be cutting edge and spark an editor’s interest, but ultimately, publishers need to know the stakes of a project for well-defined areas of study, which often means placing a work in a national category or categories. Some in the audience seemed disheartened by the fact that publishers’ category codes have not evolved to reflect the new terrain of international history. But Ferber and McDermott’s broader point seemed to be that publishers want original work driven by clearly defined questions to which the author provides meaningful answers.

In many cases, the innovative challenges to well-defined fields and long-standing narratives come from scholars doing international work, but not always. Whether a work is international or national in scope, within a well-defined field or on an uncharted path, the marks of good scholarship are the same: What is the original contribution? To whom does it matter? And why should we care? The answers to these questions should not rely on labeling the work “transnational” “international” or “global,” particularly given the proliferation of scholarship that can make such a claim. As Mark Bradley, Professor of History at the University of Chicago and co-editor of the series The United States in the World added, whether a project is international in scope or not, it still takes a “rich historical imagination” to make a substantial contribution to the study of history, and to get an editor’s attention.

Reflecting on some of the comments on international history at this weekend’s AHA, I wondered about the specific challenges that legal historians face when doing international and transnational work. In my own research on law in the Philippines in the early twentieth century, I have to reconcile and account for various legal traditions, institutional forms, jurisprudential disagreements and overlapping codes. I’ve found that in many cases I can answer the more technical questions with further research. The more difficult issues, it seems to me, are those that concern some of the enduring questions in the study of American legal history. International and transnational legal histories push us to think about the relationship between law and society in new ways, either because we have embraced geographic and cultural difference, expanded our understandings of legal agents and modes of exchange, or as in the case of global institutions, because our traditional definitions and understandings of “law” and “society” do not quite fit the nature of international legal institutions and aspirational international agreements.

I am interested in what others think. What other challenges have those working on transnational or international legal histories encountered? Does the international turn look different to non-U.S. scholars? Do those who have published international histories have suggestions or thoughts?

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