Research

Comparative and transnational historiography

The national movements in Europe present common characteristics. 
From the 18th century on, national identities emerged within a new kind of community of equal citizens: the nation. This was the result of a series of objective (political, social and cultural) conditions as well as of national mobilisation efforts. On the latter, ‘subjective’ part, there is considerably less consensus than on the former. It implies the presence of so-called nation-builders as well as a conflict of interest and a language conflict. It also involves historical construction (the cultivation of myths and memories) and cultural construction (the nation as an imagined community).

In spite of the numerous local specific conditions and the historical variables, there are parallels between the national movements. National symbols, discourses and practices migrated across national borders and were adapted to and appropriated in specific local contexts. The discourses of national uniqueness were forged in a context of intense international exchanges and a common matrix of producing difference: transnational discourses shaped and legitimated nations across Europe and established their supposed differences. Moreover, national ideologies cannot be understood but in relation to and interaction with each other, only to be defined through their dialectical relationship with one another.

The fact that national movements are pre-eminently transnational however has so far been insufficiently reflected in scientific research, notwithstanding it taking off with a vengeance, leading to a vast flood of theoretical and empirical publications. There are relatively few studies among them about transfers and transnational influences in the construction of nations and there is a lack of empirically based comparisons.

Even when comparisons are made, they are choosen from the same geographical area or are founded on cultural reasons, such as linguistic affinity. Researchers from other linguistic regions often remain unaware of the results across the language barrier. This prevents many studies from penetrating the international arena and limits researchers to only carrying out comparative research within their own linguistic community. Even in the rare cases of multilingual approaches to national movements, the theoretical framework cannot avoid being conditioned by the own empirical starting point for a particular case study and/or the own familiar national approach. Even with partitioned nations, the unit of the nation-state remains the study framework most of the time. Also, studies that do have a comparative goal more often than not are impregnated with taking certain (West European) forms of nation (state) building as ‘normal’ standard. And the theoretical background of these writings often has to be based unsufficiently on the results of empirical research. In addition to all this, much information on the sources for the study of national movements is based on uncontrolled data, which are not presented in a systematic way.

All these elements make for a precarious basis for the historiography of national movements and enhance the need for comparative, transnational historiographical methods and means. Transnational history deals with evolutions transcending national and international contexts; it is about cooperative links (trade, exchange of ideas, mobility etc.) between individuals, communities and states without paying attention to borders. Comparative history applies analytical instruments to compare parallel and/or diverging developments in separate areas; it requires selection, abstraction and reduction, with much depending on the initial research question, so as to be able to discern general patterns or specific developments. However, national identity has been mainly studied within separate nations. This is not really surprising as this implies mastering two or more historiographies as well as carrying out extensive archival research. Moreover, it is not a matter of simple comparisons or the writing of parallel histories. It involves systematic comparisons between two or more communities and requires a very precise methodology. However, contributions, also within the same volume, most of the time do not engage in straithforward comparative enquiries, but in the best of cases only succeed in building an inherent dialogue, with inbuilt cross-references, intertwining themes and juxtaposed concepts.

See a selective list of publications on comparative, transnational historiography (of national movements).