Over at the blog Transregionale Forschung (“Transregional Research”), jointly run by the Berlin-based Forum Trasnsregionale Studien and the Max-Weber-Stiftung, a new interview project has launched, featuring conversations with historians working with a trans-regional or trans-national methodology. The first guest to the feature, “All Things Transregional,” is Sebastian Conrad, Professor for Global History at the Freie Universität zu Berlin.
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.