The Blog March 4, 2022

How to write interdisciplinary global history: Collaboration as method

Japanese image of a "Chinese junk" (Tozen 唐船)

Kristie Patricia Flannery and Guillermo Ruiz-Stovel recently co-researched and co-authored an article about Thomé Gaspar de León, the South Asian man who became one of the most important merchants in eighteenth-century Manila. In addition to building a thriving merchant career in the intra-Asian trade, De León became a crucial agent of the Spanish empire, trafficking commodities and information to Manila from Batavia and other port cities throughout maritime Asia.   

Collaboration makes sense for global historians. When two (or more) scholars bring different training, sources, and methodologies to a historical problem, they make discoveries that a solo researcher would miss. In contrast to other fields in the humanities and social sciences, historians usually pursue research projects independently rather than as part of a team. We found it exciting to share and develop ideas together, and collaboration inspired and motivated us to put words on paper.

Our experiences show that scholars from different yet intersecting fields, located at opposite ends of the globe, and who have never met in person, can write together. The low costs of virtual engagement break down some of the barriers that have historically prevented scholars in the global north and global south from writing together, in addition to facilitating south-south collaborations, and in this sense can be seen as important to efforts to decolonize global history.

Shared and complementary research interests

We met virtually/were introduced by mutual historian friends in 2017 when we were PhD students (Kristie at the University of Texas at Austin and Guillermo at UCLA). As graduate students in 2014–2015, we were both in our dissertation research year, visiting the same archives, but somehow never managed to coincide in the same place and time. Fortunately, we were introduced by mutual friends and colleagues who knew our research overlapped. We were both researching and writing about global history in the Eighteenth Century - flows of people, ships, commodities, and ideas - through Manila, the center of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, and the Indian and Pacific Ocean worlds or Maritime Asia and colonial Latin America. The differences in our training and research methods meant that we approached studying this history in distinct ways. Guillermo is trained as an economic historian of China focusing on the Manila junk trade, and much of his analysis builds on the database that he developed of ship arrivals at Manila in this era. Kristie’s training was in colonial Latin American history, and she uses social and cultural history methods to shed light on the lived experiences of empire and globalization in this part of the world. Our shared interests inspired lively exchanges initially on Facebook messenger, sowing the seeds for a sustained intellectual exchange.

Sharing sources and ideas

Our collaboration arose naturally as we began to share copies of manuscripts that we had collected from various archives. As we discussed our archival finds, we realised that we were encountering and being intrigued by the same fascinating people that were appearing in the piles of papers that we were sifting through.

Kristie became intrigued by the recurring figure of Thomé Gaspar de León and asked Guillermo if De Leon was also appearing in the shipping data, and if so, would he be interested in co-authoring an article about him for the upcoming special issue on Philippine connections in Vegueta. Though his research focus had been on the Chinese junk trade, Guillermo immediately recognized the name, since De Leon was the captain with the most Manila voyages on record. Cargo manifests showed that León made a total of 16 journeys between 1736 and 1768, mostly to Dutch Batavia. Kristie’s sources, including De León’s petitions to be made a vecino or lawful permanent resident of Manila, added layers of information to De León’s biography. In fact, was not Portuguese as his name might have implied, but actually a South Asian man from southern India, and was as important as an agent of the crown as he was as a maritime merchant. In Manila, vecino status came with privileges including the right to load goods on galleon ships bound for Mexico. The Crown denied De León’s application on the grounds of his calidad (an early modern concept of status that encompassed (skin colour and appearance, place of birth, religion, and economic status), which made him a poor candidate for vecindad in the eyes of the Crown.

Combining different methods and sources pays off. Learning more about De León’s life sheds light on the expansion of European empires and global capitalism, how these massive phenomena operated on the ground. His actions and experiences shed light on the ways in which ordinary people contributed to these developments; how these meta-changes changed their lives, creating opportunities for geographical and social mobility but also limiting them. In this case, collaborating led us to new insights and discoveries.

The Nuts and Bolts of Co-Writing

We co-authored our article in record time, within about a month. Having a deadline to submit our paper to the editors of the special issue of the journal helped. At the point when we started writing, we had collected and read all of the primary sources that we required to develop our narrative and argument. Additionally, we were familiar and engaged with the relevant literature in the field, thanks to the recent completion of our comprehensive exams that are integral to US Ph.D. programs, and being deep in dissertation writing.

We began co-writing by discussing and sketching out our core arguments in conversations over zoom. In the first stage of writing, we divided the paper into sections that each of us would draft in google docs, a ‘living’ document that allowed us to share evolving writing in real-time. We both had a very concrete idea of the sections that we could and wanted to write, and the structure of the paper came from adapting these to fit with each other. In the second stage we read and edited each other’s sections, sharpening the argument and smoothing over bumps. We made final revisions after our article went through a rigorous peer-review process.

Fellowships for Research Collaboration

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, scholars can research and write together without physically being in the same city, or continent. Yet several research libraries and institutes fund residential fellowships for global historians undertaking collaborative projects. The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) located in Amsterdam offers theme-group fellowships to international groups composed of up to five scholars “to work together on a daily basis, in an environment free from distractions, interruptions, and other commitments.” The Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) have established a new joint interdisciplinary Fellowship program that supports pairs of researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds to conduct collaborative research in the field of the history of knowledge.

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