“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Sebastian Conrad
What does Transregional Research mean? Who can learn from its insights? What are its limits? The new 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. Sebastian Conrad, professor of Global History at the Freie Universität Berlin and board member of the Forum Transregionale Studien, opens the conversation. We look forward to your comments!
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues transregionally?
I was originally trained both as a historian of Germany/Europe, and as a historian of
Japan. For a long time, the gap between both fields was difficult to bridge, as these two fields belonged – for practical purposes – essentially to separate disciplines. For me, transregional approaches were enormously helpful to link my two academic lives. Such approaches were some time in the making — one did not have to wait for the term “transregional” to arrive. In many ways, postcolonial studies paved the way for perspectives that focused on entanglements and did not take the compartmentalization into national units for granted.
Heuristically, what the “transregional” did for me was to enable me to follow questions, people, ideas, and things where they led me, without having to rely on pre-established entities and borders. To give an example: When researching the archive for debates about Polish labor in the Prussian countryside in the nineteenth century, I stumbled upon requests by individual landowners to recruit Chinese workers for the job. The Prussian ministry, in turn, corresponded with consuls and experts in China, but also across South East Asia and in the United States about the possibilities – the practicalities of transport, contracts, costs, nutrition, agricultural expertise, but also the potential dangers – of such a recruitment. This opened up towards a broad network of contacts, but also of labor markets and processes of migration that linked East Asia to other parts of Asia, and to places such as South Africa, Peru, Hawaii, and indeed Prussia. In the end, Chinese “coolies”, as they were called at the time, never reached Germany, but they were recruited into the German colonies in East Africa and in the Pacific. Following the lead of these transnational lives enabled me to think about the dynamics of labor in Eastern Germany, and more generally about German nationalism, in what for me were exciting new ways.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
The concept of “transregional” needs to be placed in a continuum of other perspectives that aim to perform related and overlapping analytical work. Historians also use terms such as transnational, translocal, entangled histories, connected histories, and global history. All these terms (and corresponding approaches) have their advantages and drawbacks, but while it is possible to differentiate between them, it is also important to recognize that all of them share an overall agenda, namely the objective to transcend container thinking and the fixed compartmentalization of historical reality, and aim at going beyond what are essentially internalist analyses.
One of the main challenges of approaches that define themselves strictly as “transregional” is that they may remain caught in what we could call a bilateral logic. They may thus look at connections between Asia and Europe, or between West Africa and Brazil, but essentially content themselves with crossing the borders of large political and cultural regions. In many cases, this geographical expansion may not be sufficient, as for the past several hundreds of years, larger (potentially global) structures fundamentally shaped what happened in any such region. Speaking the language of transregionalism, in other words, may lead us to avoid thinking about global structures, and to neglect to pursue the question of causality up to a global level.
So while “transregional” may, for some topics and questions, not be encompassing enough, for others it may seem like too big a term. When following Italian migrant workers to Argentina, labeling their mobility as “transregional” may seem presumptuous and too big a claim. It is therefore helpful to remind ourselves that “transregional” is primarily a perspective, and not the designation of an object of study.
How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?
“Transregional studies” is not a field with neatly marked boundaries – in particular because, as mentioned above, a host of “trans”-approaches exist side by side. One trend that we can observe, I think, is the move away from transnational/-regional perspectives that primarily aim to expand the reach of national histories. Until quite recently, much work in the transnational/-regional bracket set itself the task of demonstrate to what extent nations influenced each other, and how the world reached deep into national spaces. Ironically, then, trans-national and trans-regional perspectives were used to make our interpretations of national history more sophisticated. More recently, what we see are works that instead pose transregional questions, and explore transregional spaces, without taking nation-states as their points of departure.
In the years to come, my sense is that transregional and global perspectives will complement each other even more than has been the case so far. In many ways, both approaches essentially share the same aim; to some, the term “global” suggests a macro-perspective, and a more encompassing vision, while “transregional” – by referencing the region in its title – promises a grounded approach linked to area studies expertise. Apart from the different words used, however, the differences are slight.
In the very long run, transregional perspectives will have succeeded in altering our understanding of how to interpret the past when the term “transregional” (or “global”) can be dropped altogether. At some point, we will call all this simply “history” – as transnational, transregional and global contexts will then be factored in as standard procedure.
What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
There have been many interesting works shaping the field and the approach, some of them preceding the emergence of the new “trans”-terminology. As mentioned, the debates spawned by the rise of postcolonial studies already raised many of the important issues. Other genealogies point back to works such as Sidney Mintz’ classic work on Sweetness and Power. In recent years, there are many fascinating studies on different levels, and I can only hint at a few examples. Some of them start from small spaces and a few individuals in their attempt to tease out broad, transregional connections, such as Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa. Others start with broader transregional constellations, such as Australia in the British Empire (Marilyn Lake and David Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line) or Germany and South Asia (Kris Manjapra, Age of Entanglement). Yet others employ not only transregional perspectives, but chart the emergence of transregional spaces, such as Sunil Amrith (Crossing the Bay of Bengal), Eric Tagliacozzo (Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier), or Takeshi Hamashita (China, East Asia and the Global Economy: Regional and Historical Perspectives). Finally, some scholars very explicitly establish links to global contexts. Among the particularly inspiring works in this field are studies by Andrew Sartori (Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital) and Christopher L. Hill (National History and the World of Nations: Capital State and the Rhetoric of History in Japan France and the United States).
Sebastian Conrad is a historian and Japanologist. Since 2010, he has been Professor of Modern History and has been leading the research section “Global History” at the Freie Universität Berlin. From 1999 to 2005, he was a member of the Young Academy at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften und was Professor of Modern History at the European University Institute in Florence. In 1999/2000 he was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Sebastian Conrad has been member of the Forum’s Board since the Forum Transregionale Studien was founded in 2009.
Citation: »All Things Transregional?« in conversation with… Sebastian Conrad, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 26.06.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/2456.