Linking Levels of Experiential Scale: Empire, Nation, Individual

AHA Session 73
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Julia A. Clancy-Smith, University of Arizona
Marisa J. Fuentes, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Edin Hajdarpasic, Loyola University Chicago
Pieter M. Judson, European University Institute
Susan K. Kent, University of Colorado at Boulder

Session Abstract

This roundtable, based on four scholarly new books, links levels at which people experience structures of power: empire, nation, individual.  Histories often privilege one of these as their building blocks.  Each discussant in this roundtable has brought all three ingredients into play in his or her recent scholarship.  The exciting challenge offered by the intertwined themes of “scale” and “linking levels of experience” brought these scholars together for the roundtable.  

Recent historical debate has concerned the relationship between empires and nations, with the virtues and drawbacks of each type of structure adduced for favoring empire or nation as  primary in narrating historical development over time.  When it comes to the empire versus nation discussion, roundtable members have had new insights.  Pieter Judson and Susan Kent see the relationship of empire to nation in terms that differ from other histories.  Judson shows empire as the pivotal ingredient in the construction of central and eastern European history with “nation” playing a derivative role.  Somewhat differently, Kent focuses on the intersection of empire and nation, showing English domination of three other nations and transoceanic empire as the unifying glue for a single “Britain.”  Edin Hajdarpasic shows nationalist and imperial rivalries operating jointly in the case of Bosnia, problematizing any clear-cut view of the nation as more foundational than empire or of empire as more foundational than empire.   Marisa Fuentes chooses the transnational institution of slavery to query nation and empire alike as the primary ingredient of the slave experience.

Often large, transregional structures such as empire dominate global historical narratives, with the experience of individuals left for other discussions.  Some practitioners of world history even challenge the appearance of individuals at all, except for a few iconic figures such as Gandhi or Hitler. In fact, the four historians and the moderator of the roundtable use the experience of individuals to cast light on large structures.  Individuals erased from national or imperial archives (slaves in the Caribbean) leave traces affording glimpses of individual experience within these large political structures; individual actors in small segments of overlapping empires (Bosnia, for example) embody and produce contests among nationalisms and empires.  Stories of individuals in the Habsburg empire show intra-imperial commonalities that reveal the centrality of empire to the production of nations.

Finally, discussants have used several levels of historiographical scale to produce their works: two of them have written synthetic works covering at least three centuries, while the other two have constructed more focused monographs from in-depth research, though transcending geographical boundaries and structures of power.  Scale has been important in composing the panel as well: please note that several levels of academic experience are represented on the panel, producing, we hope, an exciting and multifaceted conversation.  Moderator and chief interlocutor, Julia Clancy-Smith, has likewise integrated multiple scales of experience in her scholarship: individuals migrating across empires, nations, and seas and confronting a diverse set of structures—religions, colonial schools, employment, family--in their separate lives.

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