Roundtable Challenges in Transnational Research: A Conversation about Methods

AHA Session 140
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 111 (Hynes Convention Center)
Colleen A. Dunlavy, University of Wisconsin
Reflections on Transnational Research and Writing
Edward Beatty, University of Notre Dame
On the Importance of Intellectual Flexibility
Colleen A. Dunlavy, University of Wisconsin

Session Abstract

The various challenges to the nation-state presented by global integration have produced a recognizable transnational turn in the history profession. The sub-field has become a standard category for hiring, funding, and publication, and the implications of its potential for “mission creep” have been widely debated: as practiced from the United States, some have argued, transnational or comparative history can become a way for AHA members to write the rest of the world's history into North America's, while ignoring practitioners and literatures from individual countries. Champions of the approach have pointed rather to the empirical insufficiency of the nation-state as a container for human experience, the flexibility of mind promoted by comparative studies, and the ability of cross-border work to reduce provincialism in historiography and teaching. Done right, they maintain, transnational research can capture histories that nationalist frames miss or misrepresent.  

But how is it done right? Is there a toolbox of transnational research methods? What works, and what fails, in performing research beyond a single country? What kinds of questions are best addressed through transnational research? How can we meet the specific challenges of working in multiple linguistic and national contexts, across multiple cultures of scholarship and in wildly differing conditions of access? What practical lessons can we learn from historians’ specific encounters with cross-border or comparative primary sources? If "transnational" is here to stay as a framing device, how do we make it live up to its promise and avoid its obvious pitfalls?

Historians of capitalism, industry, trade, technology, and corporations are well placed to offer useful reflections on these questions, since their objects of study have never been confined to single nations. From the Silk Road to the joint-stock company to the megacorporation, large-scale economic activity is an ideal site for rigorous cross-national inquiry. But it presents specific challenges as well: unlike empires and nations, economic actors rarely leave public archives, and individuals do not have an implicit right to peruse their records. Rather then allowing this vast arena of human history to hide simply because it is not subject to open records claims, business historians have developed practices that could be useful to many of their colleagues in other sub-fields--especially if they are intent on tracing phenomena that supersede national borders. The historians in this roundtable discussion have concrete experience from their scholarship on the diffusion of technology in the Western hemisphere; the development of nineteenth-century communications and transportation, and the global operations of consumer-based companies like Singer and Coca-Cola. The practical advice they can share, and the epistemological perspectives that they can provide, will move the conversation about transnational history from whether and why to how.

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