“Moving back and forth between insider and outsider positions has shaped my intellectual development …”—5in10 with Donna Gabaccia
Donna Gabaccia is professor of history at the University of Toronto Scarborough (Canada). She is the past director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota (USA) and the past president of the Social Science History Association and the Society for the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In her research she links international migration to the US or from Italy with gender issues as well as world and global history (Gender and International Migration: From the Slavery Era to the Global Age; Women, Gender, and Transnational Lives: Italian Workers of the World; Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective). Moreover, she connects food issues with the migration to the US (We Are What We Eat: Ethnic food and the Making of Americans).
What was intruiging to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
I grew up in an intensely sociable and large extended family. Although its immigrant roots were recent and urban, my family by the 1950s lived in a rural area of New York where my relatives were considered outsiders in ways I could sense but not completely understand. From an early age I was fascinated by the remaining urban branches of my family and by my early recognition that outside my small hometown people and families lived in ways quite unlike the ones I knew. Questions that might have easily lead me to become an anthropologist devoted to field work instead eventually lead me to history. I saw it as a discipline that – to me, at least – seemed to provide the broadest canvas for understanding human difference across cultures and times. I was lucky to study history at a time when the discipline was beginning to acknowledge that human diversity and human universals played out not only in politics and political economy but also in everyday life.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator (“elevator pitch”)?
I always say “I am historian who studies international migration” rather than “I am an immigration historian.” My elevator pitch is short and sweet: “Lots of countries – like Israel, Argentina, Canada, and South Africa – have long histories of immigration but only a few of them, like the United States, call themselves nations of immigrants. Why are there so few nations of immigrants around the world? I don’t think it’s just a matter of numbers, do you?”
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
Soon after graduating from college, I hitch-hiked and traveled around the Mediterranean with a German-speaking boyfriend. I vowed to learn more languages. And I did. I learned enough Italian to do research in Sicilian municipal archives. I learned enough German to teach US history to German students when I took my first academic position in Berlin in 1979. In doing so, I learned how to consider national histories from the outside as well as from within. Moving back and forth between insider and outsider positions – and a strong interest in language – has shaped my intellectual development over more than three decades.
How is it to do research in Canada?
I applied for my first academic position in Canada in 1979 but then moved instead to Germany. I like to think that I began my life as an academic outside the US and that I will now conclude my academic life outside the US. I’ve always included Canada among the countries I study in my comparative and transnational research projects. It’s fascinating to compare the very different histories and everyday academic and linguistic practices (and immigration policies too!) of former British settler colonies that seem so much alike but that also preserve their differences.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I wish PhD students everywhere received more thorough training in at least two disciplines. Some of my most rewarding academic research projects have been collaborations with sociologists, anthropologists and demographers.
Citation: Donna Gabaccia, “Moving back and forth between insider and outsider positions has shaped my intellectual development …”—5in10 with Donna Gabaccia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10 June 2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4236.