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About this book

Although some historians have been researching and writing history from a transnational perspective for more than a century, it is only recently that this approach has gained momentum. But what is transnational history? How can a transnational approach be applied to historical study?

Pierre Yves Saunier's dynamic introductory volume conveys the diversity of the developing field of transnational history, and the excitement of doing research in that direction. Saunier surveys the key concepts, methods and theories used by historians, helping students to find their own way in this vibrant area.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
This statement was not made in one of today’s forums where the need for ‘a global history for a globalised world’ was preached. Neither was it uttered in a graduate seminar where enthusiastic young historians present their first historical research, nor in the ever-growing number of conferences and workshops where established scholars confront their work on ideas, commodities and other items on the move. Nor was it written in the last two decades, when more and more historians have tried to stretch the limits of their investigations and imaginations beyond the restrictions of the merely national. These words were pronounced in 1891 by the US historian Frederick Jackson Turner.1 Only two years later, Turner would again tackle the topic of the significance of history and pronounce his famous ‘frontier’ hypothesis. It was to become a touchstone of the idea that the United States of America was a country on a special historical track, different from other countries’ trajectories, and to be narrated as such. The tension between a relational outlook and an insular national history was thus embodied in one person, a member of the generation that made history a discipline within the framework of the research-based university.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

1. Meanings and Usages

Abstract
In 2005, the American social scientist Gustavo Cano presented a substantial report on the meanings and usages of the terms ‘transnationalism’ and ‘transnational’ among US scholars.1 He identified a start in the late 1990s, with premises as early as 1979. Building on the Social Science Abstract Database, Cano captured a sharp and durable rise after 1993, and illustrated the situation across the arc of the social sciences and humanities by looking for subject keywords such as ‘transnational communities’, ‘transnational links’, ‘transnational migration/migrant issues’ and ‘transnational spaces’ in publications in anthropology, economics, history, law, political science, migration studies and sociology. Cano’s account locates the term only in the US, and only in the last 30 years or so. It would be tempting to conclude that transnational history is a recent fad, with history trailing behind the social science disciplines, and the community of historians throughout the world adopting another passing fashion picked up from US campuses. This chapter will complicate this view. Starting with an account of the recent success of the transnational approach in the social sciences, it explores 170 years of lay and scholarly usage of ‘transnational’ and its derivatives. Subsequently, it focuses on the discipline of history, with special attention paid to the way in which some historians had adopted a transnational perspective well before the phrase ‘transnational history’ was minted. This will lead us to finally consider why and how modern historians have increasingly adopted a transnational perspective in the last 20 years, and to assess the several agendas that are encapsulated in transnational history. Gustavo Cano rightly points out that ‘transnationalism’ was a ‘generous’ term: its use by social scientists and historians does not belie such a statement.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

2. Connections

Abstract
Phytophthora infestans is not often mentioned as a major protagonist of modern history even though it made a major contribution to creating linkages between distinct and distant places in the middle of the nineteenth century. It travelled to Europe in 1845, after a sojourn in the USA, and, as far as we know its pedigree, had origins in Central America. Under its spell, a common fate of want and suffering hit communities across Western Europe in 1845 and 1846. Irrespective of national affiliations, but according to the composition of people’s diet, Phytophthora infestans put pressure on social policy institutions in several cities and regions. It created a European-wide atmosphere of social unrest and market riots, and affected international discussions about free trade. In the west and south-west of Ireland, at the peak of its activity, not only did it bring about the death of about 1 million people but it also boosted the importance of a migration that had started a century before, and sent about 2 million Irish men and women to England, Wales, Scotland, the United States, Canada and Australia.1 Being the fungus responsible for potato blight, Phytophthora infestans is more familiar to environmental historians, who retrace the mutual impact of humans and the biosphere, than to historians of migrations and of public policies. Yet, as it literally flew with the wind from Flanders, its European bridgehead, it singled itself out for the future attention of transnational historians, to whom it gives a clue that connections are not only created by human beings but also by other living organisms. Humans matter, but so do animals, germs, things and technologies. Consequently, our journey in this chapter will take on board both human and non-human intermediaries.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

3. Circulations

Abstract
Plants and germs, things and the knowledge of how to make them, ideas and the ways of conceiving them, people and the techniques to govern and define them, were moving across and between polities well before the last two centuries. But these last 200–250 years have been the time when borders have been increasingly adopted and installed to control movements between national states. State, nation and nationalism progressively became banal, incorporated in bodies, minds and institutions through a host of rituals and routines.1 As a result, the very attributes and instruments of national sovereignty have been concerned with mobility. Constitutions or military organisation have been widely compared, adapted and traded. Nationalism itself has been a composite fabric. In nineteenth-century Europe, national identities were defined with a very similar nation-building kit that mobilised grammatologists, educators, artists and folklorists.2 Bengali activists of the Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement of the early twentieth century constantly drew parallels with, and inspiration from, other national insurgencies against imperial powers.3 And later, the liberation struggles of decolonisation in Africa were shaped by the circulation of anti-colonial leaders, notions, weapons and assistance provided by the new independent governments of Egypt, Algeria and Ghana.4 What goes for political dimensions also applies to other domains: ideologies of free trade as well as those of protection have been promoted, moved and resisted across limits of national discourse.5
Pierre-Yves Saunier

4. Relations

Abstract
Connections and circulations are not just worthy of study for themselves. They also create relations between different entities and participants brought together by flows and ties. Relations are the effect or relevance these entities have on and for one another, but they are not an automatic consequence of connections and circulations. It may also happen that connections and circulations come to nothing, in the sense that no change seems to take place in the behaviour of participants. One famous example is the lack of adaptation in military strategy following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Despite numerous reports and recommendations by European officers who observed the conflict, there were no major responses in strategic thinking and military equipment in the British, US, French or Austro-Hungarian armies. When the First World War began, they were not ready to cope with hand grenades, trench mortars, barbed wire, field artillery and machine guns.1 The history of ‘lessons unlearned’ and of rejections is still mostly waiting in the aisles for the attention of transnational historians: this chapter will instead concentrate on situations where parties involved in ties and flows across polities and societies had their behaviour affected by that participation.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

5. Formations

Abstract
What are the outcomes of these circulations, connections and the relations they result from or install? What do they generate that historians can study to make sense of the past and the present? Where do combinations of links, flows and relations take place and create entities that historians can examine? What are the observation platforms from which historians can follow the blurred line between the domestic and the foreign, tell the story of historical actors and processes that wax and wane through and between the territorial units that frame our professional common sense? How can we reconstruct the making and unmaking of interdependencies between these units? A few years ago, political scientists Thomas Callaghy, Robert Latham and Ronald Kassimir provided an answer to these different questions. Proclaiming their desire to go beyond binary oppositions that came to frame research on ‘globalisation’ in the 1990s (global/local, space of flows/space of places, external/internal), they stated their interest in ‘what lies silently between’ these binaries: ‘the rich kernels of specific junctures joining diverse structures, actors, ideas, practices, and institutions with varying ranges in a common and social political frame’.1 It is in these kernels and their resulting frames that social power, political outcomes, forms of authority, order and meaning are created and implemented. As instances of such kernels, which later in the book they call ‘transboundary formations’, they mention the civil war in Uganda, the slave trade system of yesteryear, the traffic of arms and diamonds in African civil wars, the mechanics of African debt or the economics of oil in the Niger Delta.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

6. On Methodology

Abstract
‘It remains the case that world historians largely rely on secondary sources rather than on their own primary research’, writes Patrick Manning in the ‘Methods and Materials’ chapter of his overview of world history.1 ‘Largely’ rightly reminds us that some world historians do proceed from primary sources, but the view of the research process as a second-degree one is widely shared in world history and other ‘large-scale’ attempts to write history, like big history or global history.2 Such endorsements have fuelled fears that the adoption of a wide horizon implies a growing estrangement from original material. Thus Bartolomé Yun Casalilla noted that ‘Global history involves a clear movement of the historian’s laboratory, from the archive to the library.’3 The recent success of a synthetic essay like that of Chris Bayly seems to support this view.4 Here, I argue that transnational historians cannot move their laboratory away from original material, whether archival or not. It is when they inch their way through the original material that they see circulations, connections, relations and formations taking shape, and it is when they are in the position to reorganise data, reassemble documentary evidence and gather new material that they can reconstruct their operation and impact. It will not do merely to collate data and evidence that others have dug out and organised from a perspective that did not aim at answering the ‘big issues’ mentioned in the introduction to this book.
Pierre-Yves Saunier

Conclusion

Abstract
‘This book proposes to mark the end of American history as we have known it.’1 This is the daring assumption Thomas Bender uses as the opening sentence of his Nations among Nations. Bender’s book is about the making and unmaking of interconnections and interdependencies between America and the rest of the world on the one hand, and on the other it pinpoints the presence of the foreign within domestic American history, and the projection of domestic America into the world out there. As such, Bender does work on two of the three fronts we have mentioned as the ‘big issues’ to be handled by historians who adopt a transnational perspective. He is adamant that adopting this perspective will make a huge difference to the way American history is written and imagined. British historian Patricia Clavin upholds similar standards in a recent article where she examines the potential of global, transnational and international history to reshape European history. Clavin writes: ‘Unearthing connections and networks — however defined — within and across Europe’s borders, determining where they break or peter out, will recast our understanding not just of European history, but our understanding of the modern world.’2
Pierre-Yves Saunier
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