Challenging Historiography: Connecting Empire and Migration Studies

AHA Session 149
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Salon A (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Geoff Eley, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
José C. Moya, Barnard College, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Over the past decades, migration history and empire studies have become established subfields of academic history. Members of this panel propose two reasons why challenging these established subfields proves worthwhile and necessary: 1) for nineteenth- and twentieth-century contemporaries migration and empire building were part of the same phenomenon. 2) Scholars have developed different methodologies and approaches to their respective specialties that overlap, but are often not acknowledged because of diverging and distinctive terminologies.

Empire studies began as subfield of political and economic history. The British Empire provided the original model, with its “metropole and colonies;” its “center and periphery.” Historians discussed “formal and informal imperialism” as different means to control overseas territory and populations. World systems/dependency theory and postcolonial studies colored scholarly interpretation after the 1970s and 1980s. The study of “power relations” turned to the study of “the Other” and isolated Orientalist discourses as products of Euro-centric modernity. On the other hand, migration history began as an attempt to analyze immigrants’ assimilation to the United States, later expanding to the systems approach in an attempt to encompass the full migration experience. The mono-directional story of “immigrants” became the complex dispersals of “migrants,” who knowingly departed a “sending society” for a “receiving society” following an experience of “mobility.” While migration history developed out of social history, it drew its influences through the cultural turn in history. Yet explaining the tensions between “structure” and “individual agency” remains a challenge.

While global and transnational history approaches attempt to blur boundaries and focus on historicizing the “nation-state,” the dialogue between migration and empire studies highlights the oscillation between power structures and individual agency in the shaping of the “modern world” and “modernity.” Migration history and empire studies both attempt to understand similar issues, but initiate their undertakings from different perspectives: Migration history began with an emphasis on meso-level (national) analysis. Its advocates later incorporated the individual stories of the micro-level and the structural understandings of the macro-level. Empire historians’ initial scope focused on macro-history and globe-spanning empires, only later to incorporate stories encompassing particular regions and eventually, the subaltern, following the postcolonial turn.

This panel aims at providing a platform for the reevaluation of the gap between two neighboring subfields that could benefit from intersectional considerations and overlapping objectives to render fully the complexities of experiences spanning past centuries, and making these narratives accessible to audiences today. The participants come from a multiplicity of geographical and disciplinary backgrounds, including studies of African, North American, South American, German, Italian and Middle Eastern regions. Questions they ask include: How can methodologies that developed in one subfield be useful for the study of the intersection of migration and empire? How far have the approaches disparate historical subfields already overlapped? What methodological contributions can the combination of empire and migration studies bring to transnational and world history approaches?

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