Roundtable Global Work, Transnational Workers, and Challenges to the Nation and Community in the Late Twentieth Century

AHA Session 246
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 203 (Hynes Convention Center)
Steven High, Concordia University
Steven High, Concordia University , Lisong Liu, Susquehanna University , Jeffrey T. Manuel, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and Jennifer A. Miller, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville

Session Abstract

Throughout the final decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, growing global flows of capital, people, ideas, and goods have challenged older conceptions of human collectivities. Globalization has thrown once-familiar categories such as nation and community into doubt.  Historians have long traced emerging networks of transnational connections, challenging static ideas of the nation and emphasizing its long history as a consistently-constructed concept. Scholarship has revealed the local community, once imagined as an unproblematic space for connection and resistance, to be a deeply-conflicted terrain open to multiple interpretations and criticisms.  This roundtable investigates the relationships between work, migration, and community construction and destruction through four international case studies of work-community relations in the postwar era.

The four case studies from Asia, Europe, and North America share a common historical context in the late twentieth century. After World War II, international leaders attempted to repair the shattered global economy and ultimately constructed a financial infrastructure reminiscent of earlier waves of globalization. Historians have outlined these global changes and debated their meaning for the present. Understudied, however, is precisely how these changes played out through individual's ordinary lives around the globe. For example, how did new networks of transnational relations and new combinations of international competition disrupt older ideas of community?

By discussing these papers together, we can compare the experiences of different groups grappling with the challenges of globalization and its effects on meanings of community.  Focusing on transnational work and community in several different sites, common patterns emerge amid the complexities of globalization. We can also note how differences of race, ethnicity, gender, and economics affected people's experiences. Jennifer Miller's research reveals how post-World War II migrations complicated older notions of the national community. Miller discusses how foreign "guest workers," especially female workers, used  the economic crisis of the early 1970s to launch their most significant and well-organized labor protests and, in so doing, claimed their role as “social citizens” among a population who viewed them as temporary “labor solutions.”  Trans-Pacific migrations also complicated national identities. Lisong Liu's research explores how Chinese student and professional migrants in the U.S. regarded their own community, as well as their integration into the U.S., their long-distance nationalism, and their transnational identities since 1965. While some migrants created new meanings for community and nation, others used a history of migration to shore up traditional national communities that were struggling amid globalization. Jeffrey Manuel demonstrates that concepts of white ethnicity in the Lake Superior iron mining region influenced how public historians and local residents turned their own histories of migration for contradictory purposes amid a collapsing U.S. steel economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Finally, Steven High's research explores the fallout when older communities are destroyed, emphasizing the role of memory--and forgetting--in sustaining communities.

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