April 11, 2006

Transnational history: from topic to method

In an excellent series of recent posts, Caleb McDaniel, Robert K.C. Johnson, and Rob MacDougall debate the relationship of transnational history to other modes or topics in American history.

Caleb is right when he says that

It may even be misleading to speak of "transnational history" because that phrase seems to denote a field that stands in contradistinction to "political history" or "social history." It's better to think of transnational history as a posture or a methodological intervention that urges us to do political history and social history (and cultural history and intellectual history and so on) in a certain way. [emphasis original]

If I may simplify drastically, all new modes or topics in history go through these phases

  1. A manifesto phase where a field is largely composed of abstract articles saying that an approach or topic is worth doing. Examples of the power of the method or the importance of the topic are usually cribbed from the extant secondary literature, or the author's own previous primary research
  2. A contributionist phase where primary-based research appears, but generally overstates the importance of the topic or power of the approach. The argument of many works can be crudely summarized as "This factor was important too". But important is a variable quantity, not a value. How important? What is the threshold for importance? Yet though we see this in retrospect, at the time it is necessary. Just demonstrating that other people were there, other things mattered is a necessary first step. Historical understanding accumulates slowly and collaboratively. Specialist journals and conferences appear.
  3. A theoretical phase where the implicit theory underlying the early works is abstracted and re-stated in broader terms.
  4. A relational phase where the approach or topic is conceptualized in relation to other topics or approaches. Thus, the move from "women's" history to "gender" history; from "black" history to the history of race. Variables are distinguished from their values, where they were previously confused. Reviews, summaries, and the injection of the topic into textbooks are common. People involved qualify earlier overstated claims to revolutionary importance, and the topic or approach becomes mainstream. Opponents of the topic or approach make peace with it, by watering down its message. The relational and theoretical phases can overlap substantially.
  5. A splintering of the consensus with a return to the archives phase where a new generation of historians influenced sometimes unconsciously by the reviews, summaries and textbooks return to the archives to research particular questions that were inadequately answered in the contributionist phase.

I offer this as an hypothesis, based largely on my reading of "quantitative history," labor history and women's history. Now, though a diversion here, quantitative history is interesting. There was a brief moment when you could unite an otherwise diverse group of historians with that title. Not so much anymore. Economic, demographic and social history has reclaimed those historians (and vice-versa). Quantitative history was reshaped into smaller components, absorbed into other parts of the discipline, in what I call the relational phase.

So, what of transnational history? It seems that transnational history is now firmly in the contributionist phase, but probably moving into the relational or theoretical phase. There is a stream of dissertations and books coming out which are transnational history.

It seems that overstatements of the power of transnational history are fading, as the humble applied results of diligent research demonstrate what you can learn. I suspect that a more explicit restatement of where transnational approaches fit into American history are coming along soon. As transnational historians become more confident of the reception of their work they will likely begin to qualify and measure the importance of transnational influences in American history.

Obviously (obviously) this will vary by topic. It is hard to conceive of how immigration history—previously (and I overstate to make the point) a black box process where immigrants arrived and were assimilated or formed X-American communities—could go back from the transnational approach. Diplomatic history, similarly. Yet some topics which have benefited tremendously from comparative history—nineteenth century race relations in Australasia and North America, in particular—may be due for a more insular approach. How much was "native policy" in the different countries really influenced by what went on elsewhere? At least for Australasia and Canada you can connect things through London, but I suspect that the intellectual payoffs right now might be to start out with the hypothesis of operational independence in native policy, but with a shared intellectual background that is necessarily difficult to connect from place to place.

This would still be transnational history, but by going back against it a little skeptically, the credibility of the approach would even be enhanced. I'm confident, too, that if someone was to set out and skeptically ask "How international was the Progressive movement, really?" (i.e; attack Daniel Rodgers' Atlantic Crossings head on) that Rodgers' thesis would largely be sustained. In other words, one way forward for transnational historians is to stop assuming that the transnational was really that important, but set out to "measure" its influence anyway.

Posted by robe0419 at April 11, 2006 02:25 PM | TrackBack

Great post. It also seems to me that this process of field creation is cyclical: the "manifesto" phase emerges out of a "consensus splintering" phase. And often, rather than being the beginning of an entirely new field, the "manifesto" phase simply rehabilitates and breathes new life into an older set of manifestoes, which have since been forgotten or obscured by decades of contributionist and theoretical developments that pointed in other directions. Such is the case, I think, with transnational history, which may be more recuperative than innovative.

Posted by: Caleb at April 14, 2006 11:11 AM
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