Saturday, January 3, 2009

Doing Transnational History at the AHA

The question of where the nation is in transnational history was one of the important questions at an illuminating panel, Doing Transnational History, chaired by Akira Iriye, Harvard University, at the American Historical Association annual meeting today. (What follows includes rough paraphrasing of conference remarks, necessarily very incomplete.)

Iriye opened the discussion by identifying features of new work in transnational history:

  • it takes up themes that cut across national boundaries, irrespective of national identities
  • it tends to look at non-state actors
  • it seeks transnational understandings of a shared past.

It would be clear by the end of the two-hour session, however, that the boundaries of transnational history, and particularly the role of the state, remain very much in play. In closing, Iriye directed listeners to a new Dictionary of Transnational History, featuring 450 entries by 350 historians from 25 countries. We can find there, he suggested, 350 different definitions of transnational history.

The discussion continued with an evocative paper by Pierre Yves Saunier, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, on "Worlds of Nursing," describing his work on transnational networks of nurses. Erika A. Kuhlman, Idaho State University, discussed her work on war and gender from a transnational perspective. Kuhlman seeks to disconnect the nation and war, and to view war as a common experience for those who encounter it. The effort to problematize conventional approaches to the historical narrative of war strikes me as important, but one thing that was interesting was the way the state seemed so present in Kuhlman’s description of the history she seeks to untangle. And even Sunier’s nurses, in whose narrative the state was more distant, would have encountered nation-states in their global movements: every border-crossing would be enabled or frustrated by immigration control, as U.S. cold war restrictions on international travel by Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, and so many others makes clear.

For Dominic Sachsenmaier, Duke University, an important question is whether transnationalism in historical thinking will be accompanied by transnationalism in historical practice. Do we open ourselves up only to stories about peoples of other areas of the world, rather than by scholars of other areas of the world? Sachsenmaier’s call for a more truly globalized scholarship parallels Shelly Fisher Fiskin’s argument in her 2004 American Studies Association presidential address, "The Transnational Turn in American Studies."

Matthew Connelly, Columbia University, spoke of the practical difficulties involved in doing transnational work, beginning with the fact that history departments tend to be organized by countries and regions of the world, making it difficult for the transnational historian to fit in. Legal historians in law schools tend to be spared this challenge. Although there are other challenges to doing history in law schools, our colleagues tend not to care about whether we don’t fit within the categories of sub-fields of history.

Rana Mitter, Oxford University, brought the panel to a close with a comment that put the problem of what to do about the state back on the agenda by asking (and here – apologies – my notes do not capture his thoughtful comments) why we think we need the state, when trying to work through or beside it. Perhaps this triggered some of the (terribly difficult to hear) questions from the audience, which focused in part on the state. At times the panel seemed to define trans-national as a methodology that transcends the state, hoping to do without it. But Sachsenmaier clarified that the state can be very much a part of transnational histories: we need global histories of the nation and of state actors. For Connelly, the nature of the historical question should determine the nature of the sources and methodology. Some questions will require a transnational approach, and national histories remain important.

It was curious that there was not even a nod in the direction of Organization of American Historians efforts to internationalize American history, as if different groups of historians are globalizing history separately. Perhaps historians' professional categories (Americanists, Europeanists, and others) are still structuring our work. Some sort of engagement would seem to be productive.

Besides the new Dictionary of Transnational History, speakers mentioned resources. Among them:

And I would add the new Journal of Transnational American Studies.

There are many other panels with transnational themes at this year’s AHA. The theme for the meeting is "Globalizing Historiography."

It is because of superb panels like this that I so often encourage legal historians to attend the AHA, the Organization of American Historians annual meeting, and other scholarly meetings outside of legal history. Staying within circles of legal scholarship isolates the field, and panels like this one are simply too interesting to miss.