“All things transregional?“ in conversation with… Martin Dusinberre

What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The interview series “All Things Transregional?” addresses these issues to launch an open discussion. We invite researchers to share their experiences, assess key issues and future perspectives of transregional research.

Martin Dusinberre, Professor for Global History at the University of Zurich, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments!

Already published: Sebastian Conrad, Monica JunejaMatthias MiddellMadeleine Herren-Oesch, Thomas Maissen, Barbara MittlerMiloš ŘezníkPhilipp LepeniesMichael Goebel, Roland Wenzlhuemer, Steffen WippelJulia Verne, Birgit Schäbler, Christine Hatzky and Ulrike Lindner.


What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?

Martin Dusinberre | Photo © Dominik Golob

I’d say it was rather the other way round. I was gloriously unaware of regions as a way of thinking about the world until I went to Oxford to study history in 1995. There I had a good friend who came from Yorkshire, and when I went to see her my southern accent and everything I represented—brought up in Cambridge, educated in Oxford—made me stand out like a sore thumb. That’s the way it often is with people who don’t realise that they come from a perceived (and often despised) “centre”. They/we, too, come from a region, even though I’d never have considered saying that I grew up in East Anglia. Indeed, to that point, I would simply have said I came from England, being equally unaware that my elision of “England” with “Britain” was also an unconscious suppression of regional identities.

If that was my first taste of regional self-identifications, then my second came after graduation, when I went to Japan to work as a junior high school English teacher. There, I quickly realised that region is a key marker of Japanese identity, too. As my colleagues frequently pointed out, my “home” prefecture of Yamaguchi was actually where modern Japan began, for it had been Yamaguchi revolutionaries who had partly led the Meiji Restoration of 1868. As my colleagues much less frequently pointed out (if at all), the Inland Sea coastal counties of Yamaguchi had also been significant emigrant-sending communities in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Contrary to the expectations I had been fed by urbane Tokyo bureaucrats, there was actually a high degree of engagement with the outside world (what those bureaucrats called “internationalization”) among the great-grandparental generation of the children I was teaching. In one of the port towns where I worked, hundreds of people had emigrated to Hawai‘i, Korea, the United States, Taiwan, Canada, Peru, Brazil, Micronesia, Manchuria and China.

I began to get fed up with Tokyo-centred explanations of modern Japanese history that didn’t speak to the realities—the economic struggles—of life in my particular region. I also began to want to know why some regional histories in Yamaguchi spoke louder than others. These were two impulses that led me, quite unexpectedly, to pursuing a career in Japanese history. And then, having got a PhD and been appointed to a lectureship at Newcastle University, in a city where my “southernness” was also inescapable, I began to investigate the historical ties between northeast England and the coastal communities of Yamaguchi where I had previously lived. This was the beginning of my thinking about history through a global or transregional lens. Personally, then, transregional has always been as much about how Yorkshire, East Anglia, Yamaguchi, Hawai‘i and Newcastle—and constructions thereof—offered different ways of thinking about the world as it has about theoretical approaches; the personal has informed the academic rather than the other way round.

What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?

I find it interesting that a question about limits and misunderstandings comes before a question about how the “field” developed. For in fact, I think the language of “studies” and “field” is part of the problem. My field is history; the trans-, loosely defined, gives me a lens for thinking about history in a way that better captures (I would argue) the lived realities of the people I study. These were people, mainly poorly educated migrants from places like Yamaguchi, who left very few of their own records and whose lives therefore have to be imaginatively reconstructed with all the theoretical and methodological tools a historian has at his/her disposal.

So this is one potential misunderstanding, as I see it: the trans- is a means, not an end. For this reason, I don’t find myself particularly attached to one label over all others. The very first essay I published had “transnational” in its title; after spending three years at Heidelberg’s then excellence cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, I was convinced also of the merits of “transcultural”; these days, I have the adjective “global” in my job title. More than nitpicking over terminology (when such nitpicking often ignores the different meanings of, say, “global” in non-European languages), there’s a greater problem that all of us who employ these lenses must consider. My interest in overseas migration developed from a concern for the socioeconomic struggles of small-town Japan in the twentieth century. After the Fukushima disaster, I could have spent the next few years continuing to write about the regional imbalances of modern Japan—imbalances that led to places like Fukushima, or rural Yamaguchi, welcoming the idea of nuclear power plants in their backyard. Instead, I chose to focus more on the transpacific history of my adopted region—partly out of personal interest and partly because I thought I had more to contribute to debates about transcultural or transregional approaches than to nuclear debates. But this choice does open me to the critique that I care more about the trans- than the –regional.

I’ve called this critique “flyover history” in a recent article for Geschichte der Gegenwart, borrowing from the New Yorker’s George Packer, who has written of “flyover country”. What Packer means are the metaphorical and in many cases literal areas between the east and west coasts of America, including the “Rust Belt” regions, that Washington DC and especially Democratic Party elites have overlooked in the last few decades. The “flyover history” critique would therefore be that, in our urge to follow the trans-, global historians have ignored too much else. I don’t actually buy this critique at all. But still, if the “flyover” misconception helps us stay on our toes about what we do and why it’s important, then it’s useful to take seriously.

How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?

When I first started at Newcastle, I was the historian of Japan in our history department. This label defined in many ways who I was—or at the very least, how the students (and university management) perceived me. The most important thing that the prefix trans- has done, therefore, has been to create a discursive space in which scholars might go beyond the labels of our job titles and find common ground for research. In the case of German universities, the most important development, in my view, has been the creation of physical spaces—clusters, forums, graduate colleges—in which scholars can meet and be forced out of their comfort zone.

That applies as much to those of us trained in non-European history as to those who focus on Europe. I have been interested, for example, in the recent debates about “Swiss colonialism”, which come out of a broader attempt to think about Swiss history through a transnational and/or transregional lens. Given the political landscape here, you can well imagine how such research provokes the ire of some public commentators. But this is not just a “local” set of issues: from them comes a set of much bigger questions about how historians might conceptualize, say, “colonialism without colonies”. I find this very useful when I think about Japanese imperial ambitions in the late-nineteenth century.

There would be much more to say about developments over the last decade and longer, but one thing not mentioned by many contributors to this series is the transformative effect that the trans– has had on our teaching. The seminar room offers a wonderful opportunity to try out new transregional approaches through team-teaching, and I have the feeling that my history students are far more adventurous in developing trans- approaches than I was as a graduate student fifteen years ago. As those students find permanent jobs, they will surely have a major impact on the research, teaching and funding landscapes of history in the future—and they will surely also provoke some kind of reaction, engagement, and new historiographical agenda (for this reason, “backlash” is too negative) that will be good for my generation of scholars. That’s how a discipline retains its intellectual vigour, so I look forward as much to future critiques as to transregional research itself.

What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?

Although my thinking has been transformed in the last fifteen years through exposure to different research cultures in the universities of Kyushu, Oxford, Newcastle, Heidelberg and Zurich, one thing has remained constant: I am convinced that the best way to consider the expansiveness of the trans- is by focusing on particular phenomena at the micro level. For it is from the micro-scale that the most surprising and counter-intuitive ways of thinking about big historiographical questions and new historiographical methodologies emerge. In this sense, practitioners of microhistory have—or should have—a far greater ambition than simply to “negotiate their way through the thicket of localities” (in Monica Juneja’s characterisation).

All I can do, then, is list some of the books whose approaches I have found most thought-provoking in making me consider the trans- (and its limits) in new ways. Recently, for example, I’ve read Greg Dening’s The Death of William Gooch: A History’s Anthropology (1995), which I love for how it anthropologizes the 1780s customs of my hometown, Cambridge, as much as it does those of Hawai‘i in the 1790s. If I were to try and think of work speaking more explicitly to the transregional, I would instinctively mention John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994); Robert Harms, The “Diligent”: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (2002); Minoru Hokari, Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback (2011, a posthumous translation of the original Japanese [2004]); Emma Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (2011); and Jordan Sand’s essay, “Gentlemen’s Agreement, 1908: Fragments for a Pacific History”, in Representations 107 (2009).

For me, all this work (and much more) demonstrates the intellectual and imaginative range of individual scholarship. And this is important because, while I completely understand why Barbara Mittler suggests that trans- research demands new structures and systems of research, I disagree with her somewhat negative characterization (if I have understood her correctly) of the humanities as “caught up with the importance of the single-authored manuscript (and doctoral dissertation)”. I would rather argue that it is exactly the single-authored manuscript that makes the humanities distinctive from other sciences and, therefore, of continued relevance in a world where so many politicians and bureaucrats would have the public believe otherwise. In the works I’ve listed above, it’s the voice of the single author that epitomises the kind of imaginative humanity for which I think we should strive, imperfections and all. I’m not convinced that team-authored scholarship in the model of the natural sciences will necessarily improve this basic endeavour of the humanities. If we end up concluding that the wide-ranging ambitions of trans­- research render such work in “all things” irrevocably beyond the abilities of the single scholar, I think that would be a regressive step, both intellectually and politically.


Martin Dusinberre holds the Chair for Global History at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is a former Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”, Heidelberg University, Germany, and lecturer at Newcastle University, UK. He began his studies at the University of Oxford, where he earned his BA and MA in Modern History. In 2002, he earned an MA in Japanese Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London. After two years as a MEXT-funded research student at Kyushu University in Japan, he earned his DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2008. His research focuses particularly on migration and imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; he is also interested in experimental forms of writing history.


Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with…Martin Dusinberre, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.05.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6617.

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