Book Review: The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies

By Jeremy Adelman

Middell, Matthias (ed.): The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies, Abingdon 2018 : Routledge.

A few years ago, I organized a symposium at Princeton University. The theme was: does globalization mean that the social sciences (broadly defined) need to rethink their intellectual foundations? In the end, we came to a draw. Some felt that old models and familiar framings worked fine. Others saw global integration as an intellectual shakeup of the bedrock of methodological nationalism. This volume, The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies, is committed to the latter position: the global turn disrupts foundational precepts of the social sciences. We need different guidance systems, even new practices of collaboration, to move forward. I agree with this position, admire the ambition of the book, and learned a great deal from many of the 71 different entries that make this handbook an exemplar of the genre. The editor is to be congratulated for his feat.

Matthias Middell, The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies, Abingdon 2018: Routledge

At the same time, this volume can be, and should be, called out by the other side, those who argue that there is nothing new here and that the familiar toolkit of the social sciences will do just fine in the 21st century. Do we really need new concepts and new guidance systems? Aren’t migration, trade, or translation familiar staples in disciplines like sociology, economics, or comparative literature? By the time I reached the end of this book I was still persuaded that we do need new terms and concepts to deal with emergent realities and histories that have been obscured by the grip of national framings or traditional civilizational and racial definitions of area studies. But after reading this book, I also see more clearly the challenges ahead.

Let’s start with the organizing principle bottled into the keyword “transregionalism.” Transregionalism has, to simplify, two functions. The first is to respond to observable developments in the world that are not well collapsed into the vocabulary of globalization, which until recently has tended to accent market integration and cross-border cultural isomorphism. In other words, instead of a flat earth story of homogenization, the authors in this volume emphasize unevenness, heterogeneity, and fragility. Transregional denotes a new spatial mode of arranging the world that does not erase the significance of place, area, or region and that makes room for inequalities and resistances that give new meaning to the idea of a region in the world and a world of regions.

The second function of transregionalism is as an analytical approach that builds on and transcends the tradition of area or regional studies – an approach that builds from regional dynamics defined by historic and cultural legacies. Not surprisingly, Middell (like me, to be clear) and many of the authors come from an area studies background but have been reconstituted by upheavals in the academic landscape. If area studies and the idea of regions emerged in the nineteenth century as a response to the rise of the industrial world economy and the sprawl of European empires, and got repurposed by the Cold War, their place in new university geography has come under assault. The end of the Cold War and the triumphalism of idiographic social sciences that grasped for new universal models lumped all peoples together in a way that challenged many of the nomothetic precepts of area studies. The flat-earth narrative only seemed to confirm this powerful consensus.

Can “transregionalism” get us out of this analytic jam of the idiographic and nomothetic styles? Yes and no. First, on the yes side of the answer. The authors of this volume reply by noting that processes of integration – peace and security, migration, language policy, human rights, religion, the circulation of theatre among the many themes of the chapters – do not require sacrificing place-specific forms of knowing. Indeed, many argue that place and region acquire new valences and significance thanks to the uneven and unfair systems of global mergers. To understand this, one needs to work in a “trans” or across-the-regions format that connects and compares places involved in interactive processes with each other.

In these two ways, this volume is successful and represents a coherent framework to connect area studies with global studies – and to move beyond the often-fruitless battles over intellectual turf. The result is an ability to see new scales of interaction that don’t fit into either the “national” or domestic format or the international or global one. In the pursuit of a more complex epistemic strategy to understand how fusion re-signifies place and the ways in which places are changed by fusions, this book is a landmark.

It’s impossible here to summarize the many themes of the volume, which starts with a set of essays about the intellectual history of area studies themselves. Borders, cities, land systems, cultural activities, cross-border organizations, and especially (Part VI) migration illuminate both the “trans” and the various regional effects and expressions of integration. There is an astonishing amount of ground and sub-fields of inquiry covered in this book.

For a book over 700 pages long, it’s hard to find anything missing. Indeed, it may be churlish to worry about missing pieces. But two of them stand out and their absence for reasons that may be revealing – or at least merit discussion because their absence points to some of the potential limits or constraints on the transregional approach. Both of these missing parts reveal potential limitations to the guiding transregional concept, and thus fuel the “no” response to the question: do we need the concept?

The first is the treatment of the world economy, which pales beside the treatment of migration and culture, which is surprising given the importance of trade, capital flows, and the shifting global division of labour that so shaped the world economy since 1492. There is nothing, for instance, on financialization. Indeed, there are more chapters on resistance and protest to commerce than on commerce itself. This is a big blind spot. It may reveal something about the selection of authors. It may also say something about the hesitance of economists and economic historians – who are the most resistant social scientists to think about the place-specificity of knowledge production – to embrace new, disruptive, toolkits like this one. Not surprisingly, they are often charged with over-commitment to their techniques even if their underlying argument is that market convergence does lead to shared rules, norms, and economic isomorphism. So, if transregionalism is going to be as innovative as possible, it’s going to need to develop bridges with scholars engaged with research on the economy. Recent directions in economic geography and sociology, not to mention the renaissance of the study of capitalism, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, may be one such frontier. An example of the absence is China’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative. Surely, if there is a transregional force to be reckoned with, it’s a financial-infrastructural Chinese dreamscape of a Sino-centric Asia connected to Europe. BRI is unmentioned in any chapter until the 69th, about BRICS. Even there, it is only fleeting.

The second is the role of technology. In light of the growing scholarship on information and media, this is surprising. Middell’s own introduction (the book is first-rate in positioning essays with useful introductions) to Part VIII on “(Trans)cultural studies” mentions the Berne Convention (1886) that laid the basis for modern understandings and regulations of copyright and there is a suggestive essay by Hannes Siegrist on intellectual property rights; Roland Wenzlhuemer has a nice essay about the telegraph and a tunnel under Mont Cenis. But otherwise, there is little on the systems and the models they created for regional integration and transregional dynamics, like the ways in which news agencies from the nineteenth century carved up planet into informational economies spheres and transregional information networks. In an age in which we are feuding over internets versus splinternets, it’s an unfortunate miss. Does the long arc, from the creation of Reuters in 1851 to Facebook in 2004 imply the making of a global village (as Marshall McLuhan would argue) or a new world of regions? McLuhanites would argue that transregionalism fails to understand the basic shift that accompanied the rise of homo telegraphicus.

This book, unlike many handbooks, is therefore not just a synthesis of what we know. It is also a mapping of an emergent research agenda. In this sense, it’s peculiar for the genre and thus should also be placed at the center of a debate about how to arrange global scholarship.

In the end, for all the accent on the forces that give rise to the “trans” dynamics between regions, one is left wondering about region itself. Middell’s introduction notes that regional dynamics (like European expansion) can drive integrative processes; regions can also be the effects of integration. Latin America, the region I know best, and which is curiously absent in this book, was so clearly a construction first of Iberian empires from the late fifteenth century, and baptized “Latin” in the competition between American and French rivals in the 1850s and 1860s. Few in the region thought much about identities or categories, except as peripheries of empires, and only developed a regional identity more recently; some would say it remains a construct imposed by empires and recycled by scholars from outside the region. Curiously, there are no chapters focusing on the meaning and mapping of regions themselves (except in the first two Parts which confront area and post-colonial studies in the academy). There is a suggestive chapter on Francophonie and another on the idea (now spent) of BRICS as a kind of regional configuration. But if integration gives new meaning to regions, we need a clearer sense of the regions themselves.

To me, the most astonishing absence in this regard is Europe itself. The closest we get is an essay by Bob Reinalda about transregional organizations that includes the EU in a wider impetus to form inter-governmental organizations. I find this very surprising in a volume dominated by European scholars at a time in which the rest of the world looks upon the contested and fractured European experiment as one of the most notable constructs in modern history. Perhaps, in the effort to get beyond Eurocentrism, the organizers and authors pushed the region to the margins. Either way, transregionalism would seem to be a concept ripe for understanding the regional dynamics of Europe itself.

This book is not just a useful guide to this emergent field. It’s not just a model for how authors from so many disciplines and backgrounds can converge. It’s also a marker in the global history of the social sciences.

This review was first published at Connections.


Citation: Jeremy Adelman, Book Review: Middell, Matthias (ed.): The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies, Abingdon 2018, ISBN 9781138718364, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 09.04.2021, <www.connections.clio-online.net/publicationreview/id/reb-29134>.


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