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.
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