Most historians would agree that transnational history is a good thing in theory. Yet, as an article by Jeroen Duindam of Leiden University in the European History Quarterly (2010) has reminded me, many of the same historians would also agree that it doesn’t quite work in practice. There are a number of reasons for this beyond what Duindam calls ‘the strengthened need for identity and confirmation in an age of global change and insecurity’.
On a very basic level, historians find it difficult to produce work that transcends national boundaries because we simply lack the skills and time. While we would like to be specialists on more than one country and language region, access to archival sources and lack of linguistic skills might prevent us from following down that path. Besides, in order to detect parallels across regions and nation states we might need to study a broader range of issues across time as well as space, as characteristic changes (Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrialisation) might have happened earlier or later in one place than in another.
Aside from the fact that ‘nation’ meant little to people of the pre-modern age, the nation state has also been a handy category allowing us to impose some, albeit artificial, order on our sources in the same way that we use centuries as ‘convenient yet empty vessels of history’ (Duindam). These categories allow us to keep our research clearly defined and manageable, even if we realise that to understand continuity and change we sometimes might need to resort to even more slippery categories such as the ‘long eighteenth century’ (1660-1832), ‘the British Isles’ or ‘the German lands’ to explain certain phenomena of social and political change.
Finally, there is always the fear that if we attempt to go outside our national, period or linguistic specialisms, we risk spreading ourselves too thinly as dilettanti and generalists, facing the ridicule of our peers.
The worst enemies of transnational history in my opinion therefore are historians themselves, and one of the greatest stumbling blocks to successful transnational history is our reluctance to undertake collaborative research. Historians’ egos, their well-known tendency towards autism and a lone-wolf mentality as well as clashing teaching commitments and the constraints of a research assessment culture that is suspicious of collaborative efforts and expects high-quality outputs in short, regular intervals all work against successful transnational studies.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.