What are transregional studies? For whom are they useful? What are they responding to?

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Dieser Beitrag diskutiert das Konzept “Transregionaler” Forschung, Grundlage der Arbeit des Berliner Forum Transregionale Studien und des vom Forum und der Max Weber Stiftung getragenen Verbundprojekts zu diesem Thema. Die deutsche Fassung ist hier veröffentlicht.

The interrelations between the economy, politics, communication, and culture that have grown ever more intense in recent decades affect all areas of life – they influence not only the politics of every country, but also the perceptions and experiences of each and every individual’s world of life. At the same time, globalization presents a challenge to the sciences, to the prevailing narrative, and – even more – to the order of knowledge itself. Exchange and interaction, entanglement and networks characterize our world, which has emerged from boundary-crossing processes. But in many respects, the academic sciences today are no longer adequately able to pose questions and generate answers that respond to the reality of a networked and globalized world.

In particular, two “birth defects” of the modern cultural and social sciences stand in the way of systematically grasping world-spanning processes. Both of them trace back to the formation of the modern science system in 19th-century Europe. First, the genesis of most of the social sciences and humanities was tied to the nation state. In their themes and questions, but also in their societal function, fields like history, sociology, and philology remained tied to a country’s own society. Beyond that, the “methodological nationalism” of the academic disciplines meant that, theoretically and beyond the individual case, the nation state was presupposed as the fundamental unit of investigation, the territorial state as the “container” of society. Knowledge of the world was thereby discursively and institutionally pre-structured in such a way that the constituting role of exchange relationships tended to be blocked from view.

Second, the modern disciplines were deeply Eurocentric. They placed the European development in the foreground and saw Europe as the central driving force of world history. And even more fundamentally: the conceptual toolbox of the social sciences and humanities stylized European history into a model of universal development. Ostensibly analytical terms like nation, revolution, society, and progress transformed concrete European experience into a (universalistic) language of theory that thought it already knew how to interpret other societies and pasts and, in a certain way, “Europeanized” them.

Meanwhile, the situation has radically changed. The world of the 21st century has become more global, multipolar, and multilayered. In the age of globalization, Europe has long since become one region among others. But the terms and methodological approaches of the sciences, as much as their narratives and the order of their disciplines, continue to bear the traces of the context of their origin: they examine the global world of the present with the nation-state concepts of the 19th century. What we need instead is a transregional perspective on the emergence of an interrelated world.

The approach of transregional studies is a step in this direction. It does not work from the basis of delimited, monadic nation states, but from a situation of exchange relationships and of entanglement. At the core of transregional perspectives stands insight into the constituting role of boundary-crossing interactions for the formation of the modern world. On the most general level, this approach therefore aims at overcoming the existing social theories, which operate as a rule within an internalistic paradigm.

In the grand récits of modernization, upon which a great part of empirical research – whether of Marxist or modernization-theoretical origin – is explicitly or tacitly based, historical complexes were explained endogenously and typically within a single society. The transregional approach, in contrast, favors interpretations that grant an important role to interactions and entanglements as well as to structures that transcend single societies.

Nations, civilizations, and “Europa” cannot be explained from within themselves: this theoretical premise gives visibility to parts of reality that have so far been blocked from view. In the German knowledge system, history took place primarily in Germany, literature and art in Europe, and ethnological studies in what was long the “Third World”. In the meantime, in many disciplines we can now observe approaches that expand the object of study: global history, discussion of world literature, and a global art history. Methodologically, these approaches are based in comparison, analysis of transfer, and the examination of processes of integration. These are often still isolated approaches, but they aim at overcoming the segregation of realms of reality – a segregation that prevents parallels and entanglements from even coming into view.

It is thereby ever more important to become aware of the diversity and multi-perspectivity of our understanding of processes of entanglement. The “world” looks different, depending on where one views it from. Knowledge is tied to position, so transregional studies must take into consideration a wide variety of perspectives. The goal is not a German or European view of the world, but dialog with differing interpretations and exchange with researchers from other parts of the world. What is transregional is not the object studied, but the process and personnel of its study.

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Citation: What are transregional studies? For whom are they useful? What are they responding to?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.03.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/661.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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