People often ask scholars of history what, exactly, the discipline constitutes–what its unique methodologies are, what precisely its subject of study is, and what contemporary questions it offers to clarify. As our recent Global History Forum interviews have shown, one of the joys of the field is that it rejects the reassuring but often illusory national containers of traditional historiography, and that, precisely by doing so, it can help us, a twenty-first century readership, understand problems that exceed the boundaries of the nation.
Look through the headlines today, or follow the reception of recent works in the field, and potential points of intervention and debates already launched are everywhere. In the United States, for example, President Barack Obama’s November decision to grant “deportation relief” to millions of illegal immigrants has revived a heated debate about American identity and obligation. From all across the political spectrum, commentators and activists put forward arguments about the role race does, does not, should, or should not play in American identity. The argument that many illegal immigrants have entered the country unfairly while tens of thousands of more “deserving” non-Latin American immigrants wait in line raises all sorts of questions about the shifting moral sentiments towards Latinos, Asians, and Europeans as “good” and “bad” future Americans. Even the counter-use of the the term “undocumented immigrant” as a term opposed to the more judgmental “illegal immigrant” reminds us of the entire regime of documentation that accompanies the immigration process in America today.
As global history at its best–and our guest to this edition of Global History Forum–reminds us, however, debates like these have a long history. More than that, debates like these are also inevitably entangled in networks of ideas that go beyond the nation-state itself. In his work to date, historian Robert Julio Decker, a scholar at the Technical University in Darmstadt, has explored the history of immigration regimes, while his future work promises to contribute the exploding literature on the history of capitalism. Speaking with him earlier this year during his tenure as a fellow at Harvard University, we discuss his path to global history, his early work, and his ongoing research on the global history of capitalism in the United States and the German Empire.