“All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Michael Goebel
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.
Prof. Dr. Michael Goebel, Professor for Latin American and Global History at the Institute for Latin American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, continues the discussion. We look forward to your comments! Already published: Sebastian Conrad, Monica Juneja, Matthias Middell, Madeleine Herren-Oesch, Thomas Maissen, Barbara Mittler, Miloš Řezník and Philipp Lepenies.
What academic insights did you personally gain by investigating issues in general and migration and anti-imperialism in particular transregionally?
By training I am a historian of Latin America from Germany, but I hold a British PhD. So, my interests have always been transregional, although for a long time without knowing it. My first book was on nationalism in postcolonial Argentina — a phenomenon incomprehensible without references to historical processes and constellations outside the “region” of Latin America. Likewise, most of the historical migrations that I have looked at were transregional — mostly from Europe to the Americas. Finally, my second book on colonial migration and anti-imperialism in interwar Paris was by definition transregional in that European overseas empires usually stretched over various regions, and so did anti-imperialism. For this reason, imperial history has mostly been transregional in one way or another also, without necessarily using the term.
Still, consciously conceptualizing a problem as a “transregional” one can change your premises. In my view, the term has first and foremost had a healthy agenda-setting role. Among historians in Berlin, it has forced, say, Europeanists, Latin Americanists, and Africanists into the same room; something unusual for many decades. It has also increased the number of historians of non-European world regions, since transregional studies are now the fashionable thing to do. Furthermore, it is to some extent the field of research, where the little money that is available to the humanities is currently poured into.
The combination of these two tendencies has helped my understanding of a great many historical processes, often in the sense in which Marc Bloch recommended comparative history: It has helped me identify what was specific to a certain place or phenomenon that I study and what was not. At its best, transregional studies therefore free us from the national straightjackets that constrained us (particularly historians) for so long. Moreover, it might help us formulate more interesting and open-minded questions about the driving forces of historical change. I am not certain that the term “transregional” is indispensable for this. “Global history” has played a role similar to the one just described in my field. But “transregional studies” has certainly fed into these broader tendencies.
What are the limits of transregional studies? What are the misunderstandings about the field?
To make a provocative, and therefore exaggerated, point: By and large the limits of “transregional studies” as a self-proclaimed field or perspective are identical with the boundaries of universities in German-speaking lands. If you type “transregional” into Google after setting your language preference to English, the results are still overwhelmingly from websites based in Germany. It is also telling that, if I’m not mistaken, all of the interviewees so far of “All Things Transregional” have been based in German-speaking universities. This is interesting, given the avowed goal of the blog and the ease with which the format of email interviews could cross national and continental boundaries. What I want to say is that I cannot see many historians outside of German academia using the term “transregional” very much. When it is used, it sometimes designates areas of study that differ from what this blog envisages, as is the case with Princeton’s Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa & Central Asia. The term may even have a history more specific to Berlin than to Germany at large, since it is here in Berlin where the Forum Transregionale Studien is based and where it makes particular sense to bundle the city’s scholarly expertise in hitherto compartmentalized area studies.
Much of this is a matter of packaging, of course. In my impression, most of the scholarship that is being produced under the label “transregional” in German-speaking universities exists elsewhere in all but name, without differing a great deal in substance for that matter. South-South relationships are being talked about everywhere these days, for instance, and most of the time its advocates have something in mind that resembles “transregional studies”. This may be the viewpoint of an uninformed outsider, of course.
As for the “misunderstandings”, I am not sure that it is useful, or even possible, to police usage of the term — its heavy institutional anchorage in the “Forum Transregionale Studien” notwithstanding. The Princeton example I just mentioned reveals that “transregional” can mean pretty different things to different groups of scholars, which is actually quite normal and in some cases even productive. In this particular case the imprecision has to do with the various meanings of “region” and its derivatives, as in “regionalism”. As I have argued in a small book about the history of regionalism in Latin America, in my opinion “region” is almost a residual category for geographic entities that do not fit the nation label. Regions can be sub-national, supra-national, and trans-national. For many decades regional historians were the ones looking at Bavarian history, or the history of Antioquia. The “Forum Transregionale Studien” in turn aims at studying connections between regions that traditionally have fallen into the remit of a particular academic area study, as in Latin America. Understandings vary, though: While Europe qualifies for its own area studies center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it does not in Berlin or Paris. The difference between region and nation also sets transregional history apart from its older brother, transnational history. Kiran Patel once argued that there can be no transnational history without nations. There can of course be no transregional history without regions either, but then regions always have been with us, I suppose. Contrary to nation, the term lacks sustained theorization and I am not aware of many attempts at developing clear-cut definitions of what a region is.
Beyond matters of precision, overuse of the term can create new restrictions — or “limits” if you will. In my own academic surroundings, which I hasten to add are unrepresentative of German historical scholarship as a whole, I see an over-endearment with phenomena and historical explanations that cross national, and now regional, boundaries. I agree with David Bell that this can lead to unconvincing historical accounts, or narratives that drown questions of causality in a never-ending assemblage of sparkly anecdotes about “entanglement”. This has developed alongside something of an out-of-hand readiness to discard endogenous explanations of historical change. My basic point is banal: We should stay attuned to the ceilings of explanatory potential of “transregional” approaches. In hindsight, my book should have underlined these limits more clearly, for instance with regard to the very limited interaction between Latin American intellectuals and African workers from French colonies in interwar Paris. This is the kind of connection you will find if you look hard enough, but that is a long way still from making a robust point about how it mattered.
How did the field of transregional research develop in the past ten years? How do you envision its future?
As Lara Putnam has argued in an article in one of the latest issues of the American Historical Review, digitization is the one development that has most profoundly transformed our practice as historians in the past two decades. Still ten years ago, I would have been unable to trace the trajectories of the protagonists of my book about interwar Paris. Today, I read a primary source from the archive of the Paris police that mentions an obscure and almost forgotten Haitian dentist named Léo Sajous. I can then find out that through his connections with Italian and Polish diplomats in 1920s Paris he financed pan-African organizations before he became first the Polish consul in Monrovia and then the Liberian director of public health in the 1930s. It would have cost months of research to reconstruct the steps of Ahmed Hassan Mattar, a Sudan-born activist who became the official spokesman in Brazil of Abd el-Krim’s republic in the Moroccan Rif in the 1920s before presiding over the Paris branch of the League against Imperialism and eventually over the Latin American bureau of the foreign ministry of postcolonial Sudan. Previous generations of historians would have refrained from such research because it was too time-consuming, while promising little in terms of answers to concrete questions. The very ease with which today’s historians can access such information through a few mouse clicks — particularly if they have gathered significant amounts of typewritten and hence digitally searchable archival material — greatly increases not only our ability, but also our temptation, to follow fascinating transnational or transregional leads of people, ideas, and goods. This trend will likely continue unabated and further reveal — or exaggerate, depending on your perspective — the importance of transregional exchange in history.
There are serious dangers and complications to this. It may exacerbate the gap between historians working in wealthy institutions that furnish the necessary resources to pursue this kind of research and the have-nots. I can say from my own experience that only a negligible minority of historians in Argentina have ever researched non-Argentine topics. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of Argentine historians outside of Argentina are Argentinists. This situation has to do with the ongoing weight of methodological nationalism and a polarized ideological climate in which the highway to historical research is political activism, but it also stems from the lack of resources of all kinds. Again, I fear that these gaps will grow in the future, which would be particularly damaging for a perspective like “transregional studies” in that diminishes our ability for transregional scholarly communication.
Much of what I say applies for global history as much as it does for transregional history. If you ask me about the specifics of the latter, it may help to sensitize historians further to the importance of place and of geographical distance and proximity. If it does, it may even counterbalance some of the dangers I mentioned before.
What academic works (literature) would you name as ground-breaking and trend-setting for the field of transregional research?
Again, I am not sure that a field by that name is widely recognizable outside of Germany. And historical accounts of connections between different world regions have always existed, for better or for worse. As a Latin Americanist I immediately think of CLR James’s The Black Jacobins, Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves, and Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint. It is probably telling that all of these classics that spring to my mind deal with the history of African slavery in the Americas. None of them spoke of “transregionalism” of course, but today’s transregional studies are likely to revive such classics and foreground topics such as slavery, which we should welcome as a broader development in the humanities.
As for more recent work in my own field of interest, a book that has greatly influenced me, methodologically in particular, is José Moya’s Cousins and Strangers about Spanish immigrants in turn-of-the-century Argentina, which again is transregional only implicitly. More recently still, I greatly enjoyed reading Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia and Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians. But, while important and perhaps even trendsetting books in global history, as is Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, I doubt that they would use the label “transregional” very much. On a more general note, I believe that parallel to the process of digitization, which perhaps has midwifed “transregional studies,” digital-history projects and mapping will become ever more central as methods, as will collaborative databases that help empirically to establish transregional connections in the past. Personally, I have grown particularly interested in the global history of ethnic segregation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a topic for which Carl Nightingale’s book Segregation is indispensable reading.
Citation: “All Things Transregional?” in conversation with… Michael Goebel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13 June 2016 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4455.