Methods

Primer: Transnational History

Carolien Stolte
Title page of The Voyages and Adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto

Overview

Transnational History encompasses all history that transcends the national level. As a field within the discipline of History, it arose out of dissatisfaction with what was called “methodological nationalism”: the assumption in most historical inquiry that the nation-state is the main building block of history. By contrast, advocates of Transnational History argue that even national questions cannot be sufficiently answered by national explanations: states do not exist in isolation, and should therefore not be studied in isolation.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.

Essay

Transnational History encompasses all history that transcends the national level. As a field within the discipline of History, it arose out of dissatisfaction with what was called “methodological nationalism”: the assumption in most historical inquiry that the nation-state is the main building block of history. By contrast, advocates of Transnational History argue that even national questions cannot be sufficiently answered by national explanations: states do not exist in isolation, and should therefore not be studied in isolation.

Transnational History can be a fruitful approach for anyone asking questions about the traffic of goods, people, and ideas. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the importance of nation-states grew, so did their reach. The drawing of borders – both national and imperial – and corresponding rise of national regulatory regimes impacted such traffic across the world. However, goods, people, and ideas are notoriously bad at observing national boundaries. The study of how borders are crossed, in what way, and with what consequences, lies at the heart of Transnational History.

Aside from the question of how borders are crossed, the transnational approach can also center the history of processes, political and social movements, and even whole communities or ethnic groups that have remained peripheral to more nation-centric forms of historiography. Especially over the past twenty years, great strides have been made in foregrounding historical subjects that have long remained invisible precisely because they thrived in between, or indeed across, national territories.

However, using the transnational approach for questions such as those listed above also raises issues. For instance, what is the temporal framework of Transnational History? In a way, the term carries the very focus on nation-states that its early proponents were hoping to avoid. Those who follow this interpretation of Transnational History argue that its purview is therefore primarily modern, and that it has limited analytical value for ancient, medieval, or perhaps even for early modern history. The same critique of Transnational has been construed as Eurocentric: what of the regions of the world to which the nation-state was exported, sometimes by force, in the wake of colonialism? What of the regions in which the nation-state was not a relevant political unit until the mid-twentieth century? This has led some historians to prefer the term translocal over transnational. Middle Eastern historian Ulrike Freitag was an early advocate of this alternative. However, other practitioners take a much wider perspective and argue that the transnational approach encompasses entanglements between and across all forms of natio (place or community of birth), not necessarily in the shape of the nation-state as it the became dominant unit in the nineteenth century. In the latter definition, Transnational History bears a strong family resemblance to Connected History as proposed by Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

It is likewise possible to query the focus on border crossing. In taking mobility seriously as one of the driving forces of history, does the term Transnational History not end up reifying the very borders it proposes to unsettle? Does the “trans” in Transnational History mark border crossing as exceptional where it should be the norm? For much of history, itinerant individuals and even communities were hardly aware they were crossing borders even as they were doing so. Alternatively, as Pekka Hämäläinen argues in Comanche Empire, sovereignty was imagined as well as enacted in ways other than the territorial nation-state well into the modern era. Nevertheless, as proponents of Transnational History argue, territorialized units do impact the local, the regional, and the world, as well as contact between polities and societies. Borders matter, even porous ones.

Among the historical approaches orbiting the larger field of World history, Transnational History is a relative newcomer. Not unlike Connected History, it emerged as a clearly identifiable approach only in the late 1990s. It is no coincidence that Transnational History, which questions the nation-state as the primary unit of history, came up during this time. It reflects a rise in the number and importance of transnational and non-state actors globally from the 1990s onwards, and the questions this raises for the current international system. Law, political science, sociology, and other academic disciplines, have all seen similar orientations towards transnational questions and explanations during this period. Nevertheless, as Antoinette Burton argues in After the Imperial Turn, obituaries of the nation are, so far, premature. A consensus on what Transnational History does and does not include is still developing. What it offers as an approach, however, is a deeper understanding of historical contacts between polities as well as societies.

For further reading:
Pierre-Yves Saunier, Transnational History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Primary Sources

Title page of The Voyages and Adventures of Ferdinand Mendez Pinto
Annotation:

One of the most important results of the early modern period was the spread of European culture generally, and Christian religion particularly, throughout the globe. The selection below, taken from the diaries of Mendez Pinto, a Portuguese sailor captured by the Chinese, illustrates the early stages of contact between Europe and the East. Pinto was shipwrecked around 1537, and landed in the Chinese town of Sempitay. There he encountered Inez de Leyria, a Chinese Christian of Eurasian ancestry, who boldly approached him as a fellow Christian. The episode demonstrates that unofficial channels of Christianization—most likely through the Silk Road—were available prior to 1580, when the Jesuits were granted official permission to enter China, the most powerful state in the world at the time. The excerpt also shows that women played a crucial role in this early transmission of European culture in Asia. Moreover, we learn that, in contrast to Confucian mores which excluded women from major public roles, Christianity offered de Leyria a leadership role in the local community, as well as ties to a larger global identity.

How to Cite This Source
Carolien Stolte Primer: Transnational History in World History Commons,