A post from The Dustbin of History, 2 May 2013
Last Friday (26 April) I attended a workshop at Trinity College Dublin organised by the Transnational Ireland Network. It brought together members of the network, founded about a year ago, and postgraduate students to discuss definitions of and approaches to transnational history, particularly in an Irish context.
The four discussion sessions took as their starting point the following topics: transnational history so far, the futures of transnational history, doing transnational history, and transnational history in the Irish context. (As a side note, it’s going to be impossible for me to write this blog post without being incredibly repetitive and saying ‘transnational history’ far too many times, so apologies in advance.) Some of the central questions raised in the course of discussions were:
- How do we differentiate transnational history from global, international, or comparative histories? (And related to this, a question that wasn’t discussed – what is the difference between transnational and diasporic approaches?)
- Can you employ transnationalism in the pre-national era?
- If part of the goal is to move beyond grand narratives of the nation state, to what extent do narratives of globalization replace them and is this not an equal danger?
- Who has a right to call the world borderless? Is this not somewhat self-indulgent on the part of academics?
- Can transnationalism be about more than just ‘crossing borders’? How is it experienced ‘at home’ and is it possible to do a transnational micro-history?
- Is transnationalism simply new terminology for the same methods employed before, such as in Atlantic history and imperial history?
- Why do transnational history and are there certain subjects for which it is particularly suited?
- Is transnational history a challenge to Irish (or any other nation’s) exceptionalism?
- To what extent does transnational history address issues of connection vs. disconnection and inclusion vs. exclusion?
I am now realising that in my notes on the discussions I wrote down far more questions than answers! Nonetheless, without even having direct answers, the act of thinking and talking about these topics was itself very worthwhile.
Much of the first half of the workshop was devoted to defining transnationalism and its key questions, issues raised in numerous academic articles, which despite their length do not always provide decisive conclusions and when they are particularly abstract they also tend to leave questions of application. While I do think it worthwhile to define the terms we use for clarity, sometimes debates over exact distinctions can eclipse their usefulness and become somewhat pedantic. A useful short definition suggested by Enda Delaney is the movement of people, goods, and ideas across national boundaries and the effects of that movement. This is broad enough to encompass different methodological approaches: political, economic, intellectual, social, or cultural history can all be transnational and it becomes instead a ‘way of seeing’. Its intention is not completely rewriting the canon of history, but revisiting familiar sources and retelling the story.
The push towards transnational history began in the US in the early 1990s, but it has continued to retain currency. A brief search for ‘transnational’ in Perspectives on History (a publication of the American Historical Association) turns up four articles in the last six months, suggesting the approach has, if anything, gained popularity and prevalence in historiography. However, it is only relatively recently that Irish historians have begun to heed this call. Despite the large and widespread diaspora, Irish history largely developed a hegemonic ‘island story’ focused national political issues and events. As Delaney writes, ‘what has emerged over time are two separate fields of historical writing: one covering the “homeland”, or domestic history, the other concerned with the “diaspora”, or migrant communities, and only rarely do these historiographies collide’. Transnational history offers the potential to integrate these and give them more equal weight and by doing so it opens new areas of research and creates new historical knowledge. This is particularly relevant to my research, which focuses on oral histories of migration from Ireland to the United States and Great Britain between 1945 and 1970. Doing transnational history enables me to follow the life stories of migrants, connecting their point of departure with that of arrival (and sometimes with return), while offering an element of comparison between Irish communities across the diaspora. This also challenges the issue raised during the workshop that elites were somehow ‘more transnational’ than ordinary people, which is an incorrect assumption, particularly in the Irish context. Likewise, the focus on political aspects of transnationalism during the latter two sessions of the workshop also in some way suggests elitism. Many different people, from the working class up, lived transnational lives. This approach to history offers the potential to reconstruct their worldviews and the complexities of their experiences and in doing so to create a fresh perspective.
 ‘Ideally, transnational history is a “way of seeing”’, writes Sven Beckert, by which he means it can include a variety of methodologies and questions. He elaborates on this by saying, ‘it takes as its starting point the interconnectedness of human history as a whole, and while it acknowledges the extraordinary importance of states, empires, and the like, it pays attention to networks, processes, beliefs, and institutions that transcend these politically defined spaces.’ ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.111, no.5 (Dec. 2006), p.1454, p.1459.
 Matthew Pratt Guterl, ‘AHR Forum: Comment: The Futures of Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.118, no.1 (Feb. 2013), pp.130-9.
 The increasing popularity of transnational history has been referred to as the ‘transnational turn’. Luke Clossey & Nicholas Guyatt, ‘It’s a Small World After All: The Wider World in Historians’ Peripheral Vision’, Perspectives on History (May 2013); Lisa A. Lindsay, ‘The Appeal of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mae M. Ngai, ‘Promises and Perils of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mart A. Stewart, ‘Teaching Transnational American History in a Study Abroad Program: America and Vietnam’, Perspectives on History (Mar. 2013).
 Enda Delaney, ‘Directions in Historiography: Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, vol.37, no.148 (Nov. 2011), p.86.