By Clara Oxley and Hannah Speed
On 26 May 2022 students on the MSc Gender History at the University of Glasgow were treated to a wide-ranging discussion and workshop with Jocelyn Olcott, Professor of History, International Comparative Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. The workshop followed on from a lecture that Professor Olcott had hosted the day before, ‘Sexing Development: South-based Women’s Networks and the Politics of Feminism after 1975.’ The workshop’s aim was to examine the methods, sources and contexts of transnational and global historical study, to allow us to think about how we might apply such approaches to our own research. The fifteen or so of us in attendance created a cosy and conversational atmosphere within which we could discuss transnationalism on both a broad and personal level, particularly as we went around the room, sharing our names and our research interests. The diverse range of academic specialisms from which we all came, such as history, language and translation, music, education and literature, demonstrated from the beginning the interdisciplinary nature of transnationalism, as well as the importance the field holds in allowing us to view our own research in a new light.
Professor Olcott began the seminar by asking us to think about what we thought transnationalism meant. A range of answers cropped up, but the one we all agreed upon was the idea that transnational study meant the study of connections: connections between places, across places, across political boundaries (although without disregarding them altogether). We discussed the most ‘obvious’ cases of connections that transcend ostensible boundaries, such as organisations and businesses which proliferate across borders, as well as the likes of the internet and how the digital age could be considered a transnational movement in itself, allowing people across the globe to connect on unprecedented levels. Yet there were also less obvious examples, such as the spread of music genres, jobs and commodities. Indeed, Professor Olcott demonstrated that transnational study is unique in the way it allows researchers to look at case studies both synchronically and diachronically. She drew upon a useful analogy for understanding such phenomena, first used by Cindi Katz to describe the links between place, time and political differences. This was the idea that transnational study was like topography, and that discovering transnational connections was similar to following the contour-lines of a map, connecting ideas and themes across the borders of would-be obstacles in our research.
An interesting point that was mentioned was the idea that transnationalism did not even have to be about multiple countries or nations, but could be applied to the study of just one nation. An example of this that was drawn upon was the issue of nuclear politics and weaponry: a single nation may have access to such power, but this access has global implications. In order to do this, we should attend to the specificity of time and place, while at the same time linking evident tendencies and similarities across such physical and temporal borders, following the flow of ideas—in short, transcending the traditional boundaries which we normally use in our research. One point that Professor Olcott was quick to point out, however, was that we should avoid accidentally reducing transnationalism to a comparative study, something which maintains and strengthens the very boundaries of nation, politics and people which transnationalism strives to overcome.
We then turned to the practicalities of transnational research. The discussion centred around one of the key issues of transnational history: scope and coverage. Many transnational projects are, by definition, projects with a large geographic scope. Historians always want to ensure that we give accurate context and factual detail and avoid making sweeping generalisations, but equally, with a project of this nature, it is impossible to be totally comprehensive. We discussed how to balance these considerations in practice.
Professor Olcott encouraged us to think through the process of conducting archival research step-by-step. Firstly, we considered how to assemble your own source base for a transnational project, which may require drawing on multiple archives or collections. Professor Olcott advised us that the body of sources we choose does not need to be totally comprehensive as we need to keep the work focused and manageable. We discussed ways to select sources, such as following one particular movement, organisation, text or idea through the archives. For example, Professor Olcott’s lecture explained some of her new work tracing the activities of south-based women’s networks such as Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era, starting with their published and online records then working outwards. Further selection criteria might include focusing on under-studied sources supported by good-quality secondary literature rather than revisiting the whole source base. We concluded that there are many effective ways to select sources; the most important thing is to justify and explain whichever methods you choose.
We then considered how to locate archival materials. For transnational history, this requires taking into account additional practical considerations like time and funding to travel abroad, proficiency in other languages, and gaining access to archives which may be restricted. On the other hand, transnational research is being supported by archive and museum digitisation projects which increasingly make materials accessible online. Our discussion so far had emphasised careful planning and structure, but Professor Olcott also reminded us to allow space in research plans for serendipitous discoveries in the archives leading our research in new directions.
Once you have built an archive, you then need to analyse it. We started by sharing the techniques we all use for taking notes or other records (such as photographs) at the archives, online, and when reading secondary literature. Professor Olcott reminded us of the importance of being systematic and having clear processes in place to organise notes and citations, particularly over the course of a large project or long career.
We then came back to the issue of how to write sufficiently detailed transnational histories without the project morphing into a comprehensive history of the world! Professor Olcott suggested it can be helpful to focus on one very specific topic in a transnational context, to give you a clear thread to follow. For example, if you were studying the history of feminism, this might mean tracing a particular organisation, its members, their movements and networks, or the circulation of books, journals and ideas. Alternatively, you might anchor your research by primarily focusing on a topic in one country, then working outwards to explore transnational links. Professor Olcott pointed out that even using these approaches, transnational history takes a long time. A full project may be more suited to a PhD or book project than to a master’s dissertation. However, if you are interested in transnational history, you can look out for transnational links in your current research to help you build a larger transnational research project at a later date.
As the workshop drew to a close, we reflected on the insight we had gained. The workshop highlighted the ability of transnational gender history to disrupt traditional boundaries and categories: it can help lift history out of national borders, challenge conventional periodisation and generate fresh perspectives on gender. We came away from the workshop with plenty of new ideas, questions and practical advice for transnational research, as well as some of Professor Olcott’s infectious enthusiasm for its interest and importance.
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Olcott, Jocelyn, ‘A Happier Marriage? Feminist History Takes the Transnational Turn’, in Making Women’s Histories: Beyond National Perspectives, ed. Pamela Nadell and Katherine Haulman, (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 237-258.
Olcott, Jocelyn, ‘Transnational Feminism: Event, Temporality, And Performance At The 1975 International Women’s Year Conference’, in Cultures in Motion, ed. Daniel T Rodgers, Bhavani Raman and Helmut Reimitz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 241-66.
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