Grounding Transnational History: Place-Based Approaches to Connections and Borders

AHA Session 201
Conference on Latin American History 45
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Michele Mitchell, New York University
Michele Mitchell, New York University

Session Abstract

Academic historians are crossing borders as never before.  Scholars are tracking ideas, people, publications, and commodities across territorial boundaries, no longer content to leave “where from?” or “where to?” unasked, or to answer with generalities drawn from secondary literature.  The collective shift has responded in part to incisive critiques of the epistemological errors of “methodological nationalism,” and in part to ethnographers’ and sociologists’ accounts of the importance of the transnational fields created by overlapping circuits of migration, communication, and capital in the present day.  While these interdisciplinary inspirations date back two decades or more, historians’ inclination to follow other disciplines in rejecting nation-based studies did not become a mass movement until the twinned expansion of source digitization and web-based text search made us radically more able to track connections and flows across written sources regardless of place of publication, catalogued topic, or archive of origin. 

This session asks what risks being lost in our collective “transnational turn,” and which practices of research design, method, and scholarly communication may help build back those pieces at risk.  Might we be building a collective portrait that overemphasizes cosmopolitan possibility and undercounts the weight of emplaced structures, from land tenancy to education budgets?  When our research follows things on the move, how can we also stay put long enough to report on the impact on those who stay behind? These and other key questions combine ethical with methodological and interpretive dimensions. Do U.S.-based scholars who move through other parts of the world (literally or figuratively) in transnational projects have an obligation to attend to the scholars for whom those places are a daily reality, their histories a life-long mission rather than passing interest?  To which “real people” are transnational historians accountable?  What spaces can bring those people’s priorities into dialogue with academics’ agendas?

In this panel, four scholars use their own work in progress as a springboard for engaging these issues. Elliott Young reconstructs the history of the McNeil Island detention center off the coast of Seattle, which housed Chinese and Mexican migrants and other "criminals" across the 19th and 20thcenturies, as a nexus within international border-making.  Lara Putnam asks what the nineteenth-century remaking of international trade looks like viewed from a forgotten cocoa port in northeast Venezuela, where Corsicans merchants, Lebanese matriarchs, and British West Indian laborers rubbed shoulders, with very unequal consequences.  Aviva Chomsky explores the environmental history of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu, who from the peripheries of Spanish colonialism and the Colombian nation-state have participated in and resisted transnational economic development projects from the slave trade and pearl diving to the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. Frank Guridy explores the local consequences of stadium-building projects in Los Angeles that sought to mobilize labor and capital to create new stages for the global sport industry. 

This panel will be of interest not only to scholars interested in cross-border flows of labor and capital in the Americas, but all attendees seeking space to debate the theoretical and methodological dilemmas of the transnational turn.

See more of: AHA Sessions