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Paul Kramer discusses transnational history and historical perspectives

The University of Maine’s Department of History held an online talk on Monday, Sept. 18, surrounding themes of transnational history and past historical perspectives as part of the History Department’s Symposium Series of online lectures.

Paul Kramer, associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, specializes in U.S. national history. His upcoming book “Transnationalizing Modern U.S. History” tackles the current assessment of transnational global history, which is defined as a more modern approach in historical analysis, focusing on historical phenomena that are not shaped within the molds of a national state. 

Kramer has written several books and academic articles to help highlight transnational history for a wider audience. For the online lecture, Kramer introduced an overview of current trajectories in transnational history and also touched on criticisms of Eurocentric perspectives and methodological nationalism. Both of these viewpoints are known to portray historical phenomena from a less accurate perspective. 

In today’s political atmosphere, criticism has been made towards transnational history for not shedding light on specific values. From Kramer’s perspective, the roots of transnational historical critiques run much deeper. The three critiques brought up involve scholarly agendas revolving around globalization, the enterprises of transnational global histories and how these connections are related to social and critical thought.

The first critique involves transnational history and its relationship with globalization. According to Kramer, one of the defining features of transnational history is its reliance on globalization and the discourse that results from it. While it has sparked many opportunities to rethink many social sciences, improper engagement with globalization discourse has also led many to believe that transnational historical accounts are viewed to be trendy and contemporary.

“If the project of global and transnational history is anchored in the idea that we are somehow in one moment in time, when that moment, at least according to pundits and headlines, has passed, do we still have to do it?” asks Kramer. “This has been a major debate within global history over the last seven years.”

The second critique mentioned is that transnational history has no defined mission. Kramer states that transnational history has a multitude of different field applications, but each one conflicts with the other. Some historians study people crossing borders, while others interact with individuals who are based in multiple national spaces. In each of these cases, the historian is classified as a transnational historian.

“This definition of global and transnational histories, as a kind of epistemological critique, opens up the space that’s necessary to explore alternative subjects, contexts and containers for history,” says Kramer.

The third critique relates to transnational history and its applications to critical thought. Kramer defines a revised version of critique and context building in order to better interpret historical phenomena for historians of all fields to engage with. Inspired by the work of American historian Joan Wallach Scott, Kramer defines “critical history” as history that denaturalizes, problematizes and historicizes existing power relationships with an eye towards the opening and reopening of futures in which these realities may be transformed. 

Critical transnational history aims to challenge the unchanging foundations of the present social and political landscape that is seen today. The Eurocentric perspectives and methodological nationalism are also being deconstructed with new trajectories in transnational history being formed. One major trajectory involves the connections of histories across national borders, defined by Kramer as “connectionist history” allows for more historically accurate accounts and aims to challenge the idea of the nation state itself. The ability for histories to connect on a more global scale can potentially allow for global and transnational power relationships to transform. 

“I feel like that is something that global and transnational history has unique skill sets and unique abilities to take on pressing political, ethical and moral problems that involves both the question of getting history right, and also takes on the question of global equality and justice,” says Kramer.

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