Reflections on Transnational History, Part 2: Globalization Paradigm

I recently revisited Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era, a historiographical whirlwind that examines how globalization impacts the ways in which we write history – as well as how the ways in which we write history potentially impact globalization.  And is this a good thing?  (I’m not a theorist by any means, but this seems like a topic that is important to keep questioning.)

When I first read the book, I remember thinking that it spoke to the ways that Paula (my lovely blogging partner) and I – as well as many of our former PhD-candidate colleagues – approached history and our chosen topics.  But what I wondered then was if our personal experiences (as international students at a Scottish university) were what drove our approaches to transnational and global history, or if it was some larger force at work in the world today influencing us: “the global era.”  Hunt questions, “Is this increasing attention to the global context of history just an effect of globalization, or might it be one of its causes?”  How did we relate to what seems to be a larger trend in our contemporary historiography?

On a personal level, I became particularly interested in the idea of parallel history during my undergrad: two events in different countries that seemed to be unrelated but actually had ties between them.  Studying Henry Grattan in Irish History class at the University of Oklahoma drove home the idea of separate-yet-intertwined events happening in two nations at the same time (Grattan was an Irish politician during the time of the American Revolution).  And certainly emphasized that globalization has no clear starting point – the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence of separate areas of the world is not something that we can place on a timeline.  When does globalization begin?

Growing up I was completely enamored with the history of the American West (and Laura Ingalls Wilder).  As I moved forward in the study of both American and Irish history, I found it fascinating and strangely discordant that American pioneers were moving out west on wagon trains and homesteading at the same time as Charles Stewart Parnell began his fight for Home Rule for Ireland.  On surface-level, these two things seem to have nothing to do with each other, but Irish unionists used the image of American pioneers and the “frontier spirit” to justify their own stances as they opposed Parnell and attempted to save the Union with Great Britain.

Hunt writes, “Where cultural theories emphasized the local and the micro-historical, talk of globalization inherently underlines the importance of the transnational and macro-historical developments.”  But to be effective, transnational history must combine the micro with the macro.  We risk using overly-individualized stories to generalize too wildly about an historical event, but it also helps us to make history a human story even while focusing on the global picture.  The challenge then becomes knowing enough about all of the separate contexts to be able to tell if our micro-history is representative.  We have to look at a wide-range of scales of analyses in both time and space, insofar as this is possible.

Toward the end of the book, Hunt questions, “Does history have an implicit goal, whether that goal is defined as freedom, progress, modernity, or globalization?”  And it seems like, no matter how we individually arrived at our topics or adopted the “globalization” approach, the ways in which we study history are 1) looking back to find traces of our modern conditions in the past and 2) somehow unconsciously looking at history in ways expressly tailored to prove that our current times are the most progressive up to this point (this might be why our paradigms shift over time).  At any rate, I suppose the only way to try to avoid this kind of teleological thinking is to keep examining our own motives and relationships to our subjects, and repeating “contingency” over and over again.

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