What is transnational history?

The following is an excerpt from a paper given at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, Paris, in January 2007.

The term is relatively new. Its vogue in the 1990s is closely associated with work in American history. Transnational history as defined and advocated by David Thelen, Thomas Bender, and others concerns the movement of peoples, ideas, technologies and institutions across national boundaries. It applies to the period since the emergence of nation states as important phenomena in world history. While this epoch can be dated from the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which set out the international law of relations between sovereign states, it is principally used to described histories of the period since the so-called age of the democratic revolutions, when the birth of the American nation occurs.

First of all, I want to sketch the history of transnational history, and argue that the efficacy of the concept has been closely tied to wider developments in politics and society. … Recent discussion of this issue in the American Historical Review (December 2006 issue) does not consider the historiographical context of the term’s development, and the historical practice of its deployment. I approach the subject rom this more reflexive point of view.


In 1992 the Journal of American History devoted a special issue to “internationalizing” American history. The journal’s editor, Thelen, also organized a special seminar on transnational approaches at the Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, in 1998, and published the participants’ work as another special issue, “The Nation and Beyond. Transnational Perspectives on United States History” (Dec., 1999). Meanwhile, the Organization of American Historians had begun, allied to Thomas Bender and New York University, another project to internationalize American history. A series of conferences held at La Pietra in Florence, Italy, led to the publication of Rethinking American History in A Global Age (2002), with contributions by key La Pietra participants. This book became the standard introduction to the new approach. Though closely associated with American history, soon work was appearing on many other aspects of transnational history. Especially important was scholarship on international migration patterns and ethnic diasporas such as the Chinese.

The new transnational history was related to, but not the same as globalization, world history, and comparative history. Globalisation is generally rejected because of its links with modernisation theory, its focus on unidirectional activity, on the homogenisation of the world and so forth. But it is recognised that global perspective should be part of transnational history. Transnational history is a broader church that encompasses global history because the US itself was so clearly from the early national period connected globally, with its traders visiting all major areas of the world, and with missionaries aspiring to global conversion of the world to Christianity and other travellers following not long after. Trans-cultural or intercultural relations were possible competitor terms but practitioners at La Pietra considered these as broader and too vague. The transnational history concept enabled scholars to recognise the importance of the nation while at the same time contextualising its growth. Advocates of transnational history generally distinguished their work from comparative history. Nevertheless, time and time again, they had to make clear that comparative history could complement transnational approaches, even though these were not exactly the same thing. One might fruitfully compare the history of two or more countries, it was argued, but comparative history tended to treat national borders as a given. According to the new view, one must be aware that what constitutes the spaces, institutions, and traditions of nations has changed over time. Transnational history aimed to put national developments in context, and to explain the nation in terms of its cross-national influences.

It was in 1989-1991 that the idea of a self-conscious agenda called transnational history first came into being, linked to a specific research program. Though closely associated with an article I wrote in the American Historical Review (1991), the idea had been suggested in a narrower form in 1989 by Akira Iriye who argued for an examination not just of nationalism but of “internationalism” and suggested the study of an explicitly “transnational cultural history” to complement purely national developments.

The new movement was the product of both intellectual and political causes. The former included the desire to synthesise the fragmented scholarship of social history, especially in the area of diplomatic history, which had lost touch with and had become marginalised by social history. New approaches in international history sought cultural perspectives on diplomatic inquiry. At the same time, social historians, particularly those working on reform movements and the history of women moved beyond the national frame of reference to study the role of non-governmental organizations and individual reform movements influencing nation-state actions. Another influence was political and intellectual in a broader sense: the impact of the changing world historical situation. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of new globalisation led historians to question the efficacy of nation-states as the framework for analysis.

Though the research project was relatively new, the term “transnational” was an older one in historical and sociological discourse. It was used in political science, for example, to describe the activities of multinational corporations and international labour unions in the 1970s. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye edited an interesting early example of this genre, Transnational Relations and World Politics (But this work focused on formal state institutions, did not incorporate the new social history, and it lacked deeper historical perspectives showing the trajectory of transnational movements, except in an interesting sketch by Alexander Field in that volume). A slightly older usage came from the field of law, where the American judge and academic Philip Jessup was using the term and developing the field of “transnational law” in the 1950s in response to the growth of new supranational institutions, notably the United Nations agencies. The origins of the term “transnational” itself can be traced back at least as far as 1916 in a seminal essay in the United States written by radical intellectual Randolph Bourne, called “Transnational America.” Historians, however, have treated the term in different ways—since Bourne’s usage was an invitation to American multiculturalism and in some ways an invocation of American exceptionalism. Historians have produced a much longer tradition of transnational historical writing than can be identified either with the current transnational movement or the intellectual agenda of Randolph Bourne.

In a broader sense a good deal of what went under the rubric of Annales scholarship also consisted of a kind of transnational history though not strictly considered so because it concerns the cultural history and regional rather than national history in an era when dynastic rule still prevailed. At the Oslo meeting of the International Congress of Historical Sciences in 1928, Marc Bloch’s address dealt ostensibly with comparative history, but also hinted at modern transnationalism, showing how transnational and comparative approaches could be combined. Comparative history was most likely to lead to fruitful explanations, Bloch stated, when it involved “a parallel study of societies that are at once neighbouring and contemporary, exercising a constant mutual influence, exposed through their development to the action of the same broad causes just because they are close and contemporaneous, and owing their existence in part at least to a common origin.” Where such conditions exist, differences of substance could be discerned within common patterns, and hypotheses more readily developed to explain observed differences than in cases that were radically unalike in the first place. The work of the Annales that developed under Bloch and Febvre’s leadership pioneered forms of both cross-cultural history and regional history greatly influenced by geography. The most famous example was that of Fernand Braudel, whose The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II (1949) dealt with geographical, economic and demographic influences. Within this framework, political influences, specially the role of European rulers, were the ephemera of history.

Though American historians became alive to Annales in the 1960s and began to think of transnational history in the 1970s—seen in the work of Laurence Veysey and even use the term by David Pinkney (supportively for European history) and Carl Degler (critically), it is true that American historians were remarkably cloistered in failing to connect with work in other disciplines that developed ideas of transnational analysis. And this remains so, with the development of transnational perspectives in world history, in sociology and in fields such as Chinese history still partly corralled from American historians and unmeasured against the American example. One difference from the work done in other fields of scholarship in those earlier decades was that mostly this was seed cast upon stony ground. The field of transnational history (and related developments going on today in sociology and anthropology) has a prospect of transforming scholarship today precisely because it chimes in with perceived changes in the world economy and social order associated with globalisation.


Transnational is a broader term, but it is less encompassing that either the deterministic and unidirectional juggernaut of globalisation, or the generalities of the terminology of “trans-border” which might refer to borders within nation states, including municipalities. The purpose of the transnational label was in fact more precise: to focus on the relationship between nation and factors beyond the nation.

It is often said that the nation holds sovereignty and self-identity. Therefore the transnational dimension is less important or not important at all. Yet it is a complete misconception to measure off these relationships as factors to be weighed. Looking at external versus internal factors in American history is a misconception, especially for the nineteenth century when the state was relatively weak and trade, capital, and labour flowed freely. Even when the nation-state becomes vital, that itself is produced transnationally. That is, the global context of security, economic competition, and demographic change means that the boundaries of the nation had to be made. They don’t exist in isolation. National identities have been defined against other identities, including the transnational phenomena that impinge upon the nation as it is constructed. This transnational making of the nation through a variety of borders from immigration controls to health quarantine to state projects of national memorialisation has occurred decisively only in very recent times—in the American case, like so many others, from the 1880s to 1940s particularly. Transnational history denaturalises the nation, and this is a theme applicable to other historiographies than the American that has given forth this research program.

jardin des plantes

Jardin des plantes, Paris, 2007. Site of acclimatization of plants, an important topic in transnational history.

12 responses to “What is transnational history?

  1. Ian,

    I have been open to the idea of transnational histroy as the best way to map out the ebbs and flows of human history ever since I read Many Headed Hydra (Lindebaugh/Rediker) .

    I just requested your new book Transnational Nation for one of my European American Studies scholars to review for our journal.


    Michael Benton

  2. Pingback: La historia transnacional: Ian Tyrrell « Clionauta: Blog de Historia

  3. grfZcg Thanks for good post

  4. Thanks so much for this, really helped my understanding of transnational history which I’m currently revising for an exam on 🙂

  5. Ian,

    Thanks for the enlightening post. I’m writing a paper about transnational history in the New Zealand context for a course I’m taking at university here in Auckland.
    Is there by chance a published version of this article that I could use for citations if necessary?

    Ollie Hutchison

  6. Pingback: Glimpses of an Extraordinary Life | Stumbling Through the Past

    • I confess I don’t understand ‘pingback’ and usually delete these messages but regarding The Lone Protestor I haven’t read this book. It’s clear from this review that it is an unusual and important contribution to transnational history, nevertheless. It must have been very hard to do, and required indefatigable research, given the multi-archival and multilingual nature of the work.

  7. Pingback: Storia globale, locale e transazionale: la proposta di B. Y. Casalilla | Storia arte e cultura

  8. Pingback: The Trouble with Transnational History | George Campbell Gosling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s