Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference


"Transnational History: An American Perspective" by Lívia Szélpál

Lívia Szélpál is a doctoral student at the Department of History, Central European University, Hungary. Email:

Transnational histories in the American context claim for the argument that nations are invented and their boundaries are transgressive. Thus, these kind of histories make attempt to free away all kind of national essentialism and national exceptionalism. Transnational histories – instead of focusing on the phenomenon of nation-state -emphasize the migrations of people, ideas, and goods across national borderlines. They speak of borderlands and diasporas, of encounters between nations, of travels across geographical boundaries.

Ian Tyrrell, for instance, focuses on transnational perspectives in American history by analyzing the transnational origins of American historiography. He argues that paradoxically, American history with its convention of exceptionalism had, at the same time, comparative dimensions. Tyrell promotes the idea which claims that Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis was based on American uniqueness; other American academic historians of the early twentieth century – besides Turner – advocated comparative and transnational approaches in spite of the fact that their histories focused on the idea of nation. To explain the apparent contradiction, Tyrrell describes how transnational perspectives, which at first prospered, were marginalized as the relationship between professional historians and the American nation-state changed during the twentieth century. As Tyrrell states:

History with a capital H was present at the creation of nation-states. It seems more than accidental, says Benedict Anderson, that the notion of history as a critical body of thinking about the past appeared in the 1820s in Europe and that an organized discipline arose there and then to provide a genealogy for newly emerging nationalism. History became allied to the eliding of what needed to be forgotten and to the imagining, Anderson tells us, of spatially limited political communities called nations. It is hardly surprising that American scholars have participated in these acts. The nation-centered focus of historiography is a truism, and in the case of American history, it has become a common source of complaint. (Tyrrell 1999, 1015) (emphasis added)

This paper aims to focus on the issue of transnational history particularly from an American perspective by relying especially on the theoretical works of Ian Tyrell, Michael Miller and Michael McGerr. The underlying assumption of this paper is to define, firstly, the concept of transnational history and its relation to comparative history. Secondly, the study intends to highlight the connection between transnational history as a methodological framework to recent theories of American Studies.

a. Transnational and Comparative History in the European Context

In his “Comparative and Cross-National History: Approaches, Differences and Problems” Michael Miller provides a pragmatic approach to the study of transnational history. He defines the concept as cross-national history that can also be comparative history with the distinction that comparative history is not exclusively transnational history. Miller emphasizes the difference between the two approaches by stating that they have different objectives and results. His main argument is that cross-national and comparative histories are complementary rather than competing methods of writing multinational history (Miller 126). In this sense, comparative history is exclusive while transnational history is inclusive, both in their methodologies and benefits.

Miller created a multinational research on the relation between Europe and the maritime world in the 20th century by investigating the movement of peoples and goods in different port-cities from Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and Netherlands. With this research, Miller attempted to go beyond both national histories and the disciplinary ties of comparative history (the methodology of the latter being based on the binary opposition of differences and similarities). He observed that “the accent remains on specific (often national) cases” (Miller 116), while transnational history seems to follow “the pursuit of historical story across several national experiences without the impulse to make comparative evaluation” (ibid.).

Gale Stokes in his review article on macrohistories reflects upon the work of the evolutionary biologist, Jared Diamond, who analyzes in depth these issues. According to Stokes, the main argument of Diamond’s work on Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is the question of Eurocentric view in writing history. The question of Europe dominance in world history is an issue of outmost importance in macrohistorical research and Stokes argues for two general arguments for answering this question. One argument explains that this supremacy due to the fact that there is a sense of uniqueness in European history; David Landes’s work on The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor serves as an excellent example for this view. In this sense, the key factor for the Eurocentric focus in writing history was Western civilization; its dissemination was determined by the fact that Europeans invented a specific, systematic development. According to Landes, there were three unique aspects that fostered Europe’s prosperity for economic growth: firstly, due to the development of science; secondly, because of the Weberian concept about the values of work, initiative and investment that made the difference for Europe versus the rest of the world; and thirdly, it was the merit of Europeans as “learners” (Stokes 511). This threefold perspective entailed that Europeans had and still have a unique ability to put knowledge into use (as the example of ‘borrowing’ paper and gunpowder from the Chinese via the Muslim world shows).

However, according to another view on history, Europe’s dominance was accidental and happened because of its good fortune in the 19th century, when European nations had access to vast amounts of gold and silver in America as a result of colonial trade (Stokes 509). Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age is the best example for this argument. Frank observed that Europeans did not create the world-system in the Wallersteinien sense (a theory which claims that the world is connected by a complex network of economic exchange relationships established between core and periphery), and did not develop world capitalism per se; the European success was merely the result of the operation of the world economic system (Stokes 513). The critiques of the European uniqueness put aside the question of European hegemony and make attempt to write in a comparative framework by developing the new genre of transnational history. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience by R. Bin Wong and Great Divergence: Europe, China and the Making of Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz serve as examples for this new emerging genre within the field of macrohistory (Stokes 520-3). This approach moves away from the Eurocentric versus anti-Eurocentric polemics with a new style of history writing, which encounters system-neutral analysis and intercultural undertakings.

b. Transnational History: an Answer to American Exceptionalism

Ian Tyrrell approaches the issue of transnational history from the American point of view by arguing that transnational history corresponds to an international way of history writing. In his article on “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History” he argues that the new genre of transnational history offers a suitable alternative for getting away the still persisting “myth of America,” which is seemingly sill focused on the legacies of nationalism and exceptionalism. The ideology of American uniqueness in world history was greatly influenced by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis and by Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea on the America’s difference from Europe that became a determining factor for defining the very notion of American identity. J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur’s question of “What Then is the American, This New Man” (Tyrell 1991, 1032-3) greatly influenced the field of American Studies, which defined itself against the Other, that is, Europe. In the search for American identity of uniqueness, American historians have always been prominent in establishing comparative history as a genre. Moreover, in American historiography a new genre of nationalist history appeared for the sake of transcending boundaries of nationalist history in an alternative way. These were for example, the local and regional histories. Tyrrell argues for the legacy of the simultaneous existence of local, national and transnational historiographies, he also shows the need to get rid of the boundaries of nationalism. His argument, however open to transnational views, seems, on the whole to strengthen nationalist approaches, as Michael McGerr argues.

Tyrrell’s notion of transnational history encourages regional analysis on the inspiration of the French Annales School. As Tyrrell argues, American historians praised the emergence, themes and methodology of the Annales but its concepts, for instance, the long durée seemed to be irrelevant in the American context (Tyrell 1991, 1038). The very idea of transnational history was fostered mainly by the Atlantic trade system. According to Tyrrell, the most influential attempt for transnational historical analysis is Wallerstein’s world economic system theory that gets a different meaning in the American context due to its unique worldview. In his critique of the Wallersteinien world-system theory, Tyreell observes the gaps in the theory and points to the fact that Wallerstein ignores several transnational institutions, for instance, the issue of foreign trading companies or the specific financial and monetary mechanism of the international market economy (Tyrell 1991, 1042).

Tyrrell highlights three distinct transnational approaches that intend to rewrite regional projects and strike out in the direction of globalization. Firstly, he highlights the studies of systematic connections in trade, labor, immigration and the analysis of transnational commerce. Secondly, he points out that environmental history – as a new field – has the ability to describe a new social history in which the focus is not on human activities but on the investments and environmental constraints. Thirdly, Tyrrell talks about the inherently international character of transnational history by arguing for the study of international organizations, movements and ideologies, which obviously belong to this category. He mentions examples about the ideology of the “international sisterhood” developed by the International Woman Suffrage Alliance or the May Day celebrations of the working class (Tyrell 1991, 1044, 1048, 1050).

Randolph Bourne’s path-breaking essay on “Trans-National America” (1916), written at the beginning of the twentieth century, rejects the melting pot ideology in favor of a more multicultural approach to the problems of American nationalism. This idea has been resurrected today by the field of American Studies (Tyrell 1991, 1052). In this context, Tyrrell argues for a consensus between the diverging approaches by emphasizing not American exceptionalism but its cosmopolitan heritage and interchange character that involves a simultaneous consideration of national and transnational undertakings. The history of transnationalism is, thus, becomes nothing else but a hybrid form or a dialogue between exceptionalism and internationalism from which the question of nation cannot be excluded.

Michael McGerr’s “The Price of ‘New Transnational History’” criticizes Tyrrell for the above-mentioned reason. As McGerr argues, Tyrrell “creates a false antagonism between allegedly exceptionalist American historians and more progressive transnational writers” (1056). Moreover, Tyrrell fails to explore fully the potential of international historiography. In this sense, transnationalism may well be considered a new form of imperialism that merely reinforces a false ideology of exceptionalism (McGerr 1064). On the basis of Tyrrell’s three varieties of transnational approaches that include the history of international relations, global economy and environmental history, McGerr sees more potential in the global economy created by European expansionism in becoming a conceptual tool for transnational history. Global economy can create (a kind of) global society that has the ability to shift away from the idea of nation-state. According to McGerr, the potential of environmental history is also underdeveloped in Tyrrell’s argumentation. Nevertheless, McGerr attributes the present antipathy to the idea of nation state after the turbulent historical events in the post Vietnam War U.S. society. Thus, transnational history with all its advantages seems to offer just another means of avoiding the very presence and reality of nationalism and exceptionalism.

c. Recent American Studies as a Form of Transnational History

Transnational history corresponds to a kind of usable past that has been probably best redefined by Lois Parkinson Zamora. As Cyrus R.K Patell argues, it provides the “challenge of transforming American Studies into a comparative discipline by rethinking American past, searching for analogies between cultural situations rather than distinctions by seeking to eliminate the Pynchonian ‘Bad History’ that comes from the overemphasis on national boundaries” (Patell 168). Metaphorically speaking transnational history serves to cross and transgress disciplinary frameworks of national, linguistic and geographical boundaries. In search for diverging from the Eurocentric approach, multiculturalism as a critical methodology offers an alternative paradigm for transnational history.

The idea of borderlands is a useful conceptual tool by replacing the notion of frontier as a dominant site in recent American Studies. The borderland is a dynamic place of osmotic relations that has multidimensional and transterritorial character deriving from Chicano Studies (Patell 170). As Gloria Anzaldúa explains, “to survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras be a crossroads” (Anzaldúa, 5). This can be understood as an Foucauldian heterotopia, which implies the coexistence of a number of fragmentary possible worlds in an “impossible place” (Foucault 241), where several spaces with social functions live simultaneously and transforms “the traditional notion of frontier from the primitive margins of civilization to a decentered cosmopolitanism” (Patell 172). Zamora, as Patell argues, reinterprets Harold Bloom’s notion of “anxiety of influence” by arguing for the “anxiety of origins” in defining the relation the different ethnic communities within a multicultural framework (Patell 174). In this sense, the notion of borderland may serve as a conceptual tool for defining transnational histories from an American perspective that corresponds to a kind of communal usable past.

Conclusion

This paper focused, firstly, on the notion of transnational history and its relation to comparative history both from a European and an American perspective. Secondly, the underlying assumption of this essay was to highlight the connections between the fields of transnational history and the field of American studies. As a conclusion, one can say that the concept of transnational history greatly differs and its definition is very subjective by relying on its relation to comparative history. Miller and Stokes provide a pragmatic approach to the study of transnational history, while Tyrrell and McGerr approach it more theoretically, particularly as seen from the American perspective. Consequently, transnational history can be defined as a methodology on the basis of its characteristics; it is a continuously developing comparative, cross-national, international, multicultural borderland of exchange of ideas in order to go beyond the national paradigm.

The habit of self-reflection and critique in the field of American Studies urges its scholars to rethink continuously its fundamental assumptions. Transnational historiography challenges the legacies of the myth-and-symbol school and that of Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as “imagined community,” all with special attention to American exceptionalism. Transnationalism, with the growing awareness of globalization and diaspora politics, raises questions about what a post-national American Studies require in terms of history use. I will conclude with Eric Hobsbawm witty remark about history. He wrote that “[H]istorians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market. Nations without a past are contradictions in terms” (Hobsbawm, 8:3).

Works Cited

  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. “To Live in the Borderlands Means You.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol. 17. No.3. (1996): 4-5.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” In Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. The Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge, 1988. 237-244.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe,” Anthropology Today, 1992: 3-8.
  • McGerr, Michael. “The Price of the ‘New Transnational History.’” The American Historical Review. Vol. 96. No.4. (Oct., 1991): 1056-1067.
  • Miller, Michael. “Comparative and Cross-National History: Approaches, Differences, Problems,” in Deborah Cohen, Maura O’Connor, eds. Comparison and History. Europe in Cross-Natioanl Perspective. New York:Routledge, 2004. 115-132.
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  • Stokes, Gale. “The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macrohistories.” American Historical Review, 106 (2001): 508-525.
  • Tyrrell, Ian. “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 96. No. 4. (Oct., 1991): 1031-1055.
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  • Zamora, Lois Parkinson. The Usable Past: The Imagination of History in Recent Fiction of the Americas. Cambridge UP, 1997.