A Project on Internationalizing the Study of American History


A Joint Project of the Organization of American Historians and New York University


Villa La Pietra, New York University
in Florence, Italy

July 5-8, 1998

What follows is a report on the second meeting of the joint project on Internationalizing the Study of American History. The meeting was organized under the joint auspices of the Organization of American Historians and the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University. Its participants included academic and public historians from Europe, Latin America, the Asian-Pacific region, and the United States. It also included two graduate students from New York University and a secondary school teacher.


The conference agenda was taken from the Report of the planning conference that met in the summer of 1997. The aim was to imagine American historical narrative(s) that situate the United States more fully into its larger transnational and intercultural global context, with the intention of revealing more clearly the multiple narratives, time scales, and geographies that constitute the American past.

While the ambition is to move beyond the uncritical acceptance of the nation as the "natural" unit for historical study and of the nation as the "natural" audience for the historian, there is no intention to displace or discard the nation as a category of historical analysis. But it is proposed to historicize the nation itself, to locate it in time and space, so that its historical career and its work of making and unmaking identities, national and otherwise, can be better understood as part of a history 1arger than the nation itself. This means that the historian must be able to position herself so as to be able to get a perspective that relates American history to larger histories (and smaller histories) as well as to a variety of processes, structures, and institutions operating at scales larger than the nation. Such a history makes the historian a nomad/cosmopolitan, crossing boundaries and confounding established and unexamined categories.

The nation is made in a field of social practices, all imbued with power of varying magnitudes and types, that are brought into some continuing relation, practically and imaginatively. Once created, the nation partially, but not completely, shapes future social practices and identities in the space it claims and seeks to delimit. To some extent, national affiliation and identity is the result of an agreement, partly coerced, partly voluntary, to find unity in diverse personal memories and public historical narratives.

At first our discussions seemed to assume that the nation somehow inherently represented a narrow tradition and domain of power (Eurocentric, male, etc.), but the more one probes the meaning of the nation, the more one realizes that it can be (and has been) a weapon of the weak as well. The task of the project is thus oddly double: to reduce the exclusive claims of the nation on historiography and to expand the nation, enhancing its protean qualities, thus making it available to a more various public.

Over the course of the discussion it became increasingly apparent that the phrase "internationalizing the study of American history" partly obscures and distorts the intentions of the project. This naming of the Project suggests goals of either greater participation by non-Americans in the writing of American national history, or it suggests a focus on the nation among nations as the frame for historical inquiry. Certainly the project seeks to enhance the participation of historians trained or based outside of the United States in the writing of American history, and it wants to encourage greater awareness of the place of the United States in the community of nations. But these are not central purposes. Rather, stimulated by a growing global consciousness and a heightened awareness of various processes and structures both larger and smaller than nations that are fundamental to the circulation of people, knowledges, and money, the project aims to encourage an approach to American history that is less bounded, that appreciates both multiple time and spatial scales and interaction between them.

The question of what to call this initiative, what name to give it as a historiographical strategy was raised in the conference. A variety of rubrics were offered at the conference and in subsequent communication: simply the Next History, Cosmopolitan history, Transnational history, National History without Boundaries, Intercultural history? Deprovincialized history? None seems quite to capture the complex work to be done. Perhaps naming should be avoided, in so far as naming it might make merely another specialization or, worse, the latest fashion. In fact, the agenda at hand is not the instigation of a movement, but rather encouragement and some guidance for deepening and expanding the contemporary historical imagination.

One cannot confidently--or before empirical inquiry--rule any history as beyond the ken of the Americanist. Such a limitless expansion is certainly daunting. But in fact to de-provincialize the study of American history is not to write the history of the globe every time one sits down at the computer. The Project aims only to make the American story more ample. If history is a contextualizing discipline, a discipline whose claims to knowledge consist in locating events, ideas, and persons in explanatory contexts, our next task is to widen that context spatially--a move that, as the papers reveal, also complicates our temporal assumptions, forcing a more self-critical attention to the meaning of the axis of time in historiography. In doing this work historians must be more than descriptive geographers; the complex relations of space and time to be identified and explained are inscribed with relations of power.

Why should such a historiographical project emerge now? It is prompted in large part by a sense that we are living through a new phase of capitalism that needs to be understood historically. But other transnational phenomena surely contribute to our present awareness of the importance of the transnational dimensions of national experience (an international human rights movement, for example). And 1989 has significance too, for events associated with that moment have to a degree de-naturalized the nation-state. Whatever the precise causes, a global media are important here, there is a heightened awareness of global simultaneity (the compression of time and space) and difference (the marking of temporal and spatial distance), and the whole process has been unsettled enough to require efforts to locate the present historically.

Many of the papers cited some of the current literature on globalization. American historians should attend to that literature in the social sciences more than they presently do, but they ought not as historians emulate it. This contemporary social research is historically thin, embarrassingly so, and historians can contribute to a much richer and persuasive story of the history of global phenomena and relations by being more precise, more empirical, and more chronological in their of analysis. The other current scholarship that speaks to the expansion of America being proposed is cultural studies. There too historians can learn, but without emulating. Again, the historical depth and empirical evidence is more often than not absent. Historians can address the questions raised there in a much more compelling way.

Some of that historical deepening has already been supplied by historians of international relations and what is increasingly called international history. This project seeks to move the study of American history more generally in the direction of exploring the relations of "inside" history to "outside" relations, recognizing the continuity of the two and the way in which this relation helps explain large historical change as well as the fixing of historical subjectivities.

The question of internationalizing the study of American history is unavoidably connected to the issue of "American Exceptionalism." That old debate need not be re-entered, though this Project puts a new kind of pressure on it. But the work associated with this project must be careful not to construct a new mega-exceptionalism, with the American global city upon a hill the new model for a global culture and economy. There is a danger of a triumphalism that this history could fall into, thus becoming the ideological justification for the latest phase of capitalism.

The Relevance of the Current Area Studies Discussion

Thinking about the future of American history as a field of inquiry might benefit from closer attention to Area Studies and the transformation that project of social inquiry is undergoing, particularly since there has been a kind of mirror image relation between Area Studies and American Studies in the Cold War era which has now come to an end, with implications for both fields. For American Studies the response has been largely to examine the subnational elements of national history, while Area Studies has acquired a new interest in transnationalism. This project seeks to move in both of these directions and to attend to the linkages between the two in lived experience.

Even before 1989, for a variety of reasons, but mostly the recognition of the postcolonial moment, Area Studies has been rethinking two key aspects of its institutionalization: first, the notion that we in the West, in the U.S. more specifically, make knowledge about, even define, the colonial or postcolonial or nonwestern other. Second, each area has been assumed to be a kind of container. The assumption that these spaces were self-contained is odd; after all, most of them were implicated in global empires. Neither of these assumptions any longer prevails.

The future of area, regional, and international studies (note the change in terminology now used) is not yet clear, but it is more interactive, less isolated. The development of scholarly agendas in the areas being studied and the increasing presence of diasporic intellectuals in a variety of settings has made for the possibility of a much more dialogic approach to Area Studies. More voices are contributing knowledges. And areas are increasingly focal points both for networks of scholars and for historical actors, processes, and ideas.

The rethinking of Area Studies responds to political concerns, particularly a fear of "orientalism" There is good reason for that worry, but that is not the whole of the matter. There is a more fundamental issue: unless the lens of social inquiry is opened up, scholarship will not achieve verisimilitude. The principal justification for rethinking historical and social scientific inquiry at this point is quite simply to achieve a better description of the world, past and present.

International for Americans, whether academics or not, whether Americanists or internationalists, means the "other." It is "we," here, and "them," over there. Opening up the study of American history to the world should help scholars and the public to overcome this extremely limited representation of the U.S. and the world.

A Cosmopolitan History

This initiative seeks a new relation for historians to nations in general and their own in particular. It seeks to escape the nation, not as a subject but as a limiting ideological construct. Put more positively, it aims to encourage a cosmopolitan attitude and more complex narratives that will better capture the relations of time and space that current global conditions have accented. The cosmopolitan historian, in the logic of the Project, is one who can grasp and capture the strangeness in all pasts, including one's own. Such is a cosmopolitan historical imagination, one that is always aware of the possible distance of the self and the possibility of dialogical knowledge of the other. Put differently, it is an error to think of the cosmopolitan as one who is comfortable in the world at large; rather the cosmopolitan is always aware of the world's unfamiliarity, always slightly uncomfortable, even at home. The nation, its parts and its surroundings, thus become objects of inquiry, objects of curiosity, not a set of assumptions.

Tzetvan Todorov, in his book, The Conquest of America (1982, 1984 Engl. ed.) seeks to define a cosmopolitan relation to both the past and to contemporary social life. He observes:

The man who holds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is a foreign country is perfect.[p. 250, Conquest]

The history of this statement by itself suggests the cosmopolitan ideal he--and this project--seeks. Todorov, a Bulgarian living in Paris, took it from Edward Said, a Palestinian living in New York, who had taken it from Eric Auerbach, a refugee German Jew living in Istanbul. The Project seeks to achieve for American historiography a perspective that can, in the best sense, make American history strange (and thus fresh) but not alien to the American.

Participants and Presentations

Because of the Project's complex sponsorship, the selection of participants combined invitation and competition.1 The invited participants were Richard White (US), Mia Bay (US), Charles Bright (US), Marcello Jasmin (Brazil), Reynaldo Ileto (Philippines/Australia), Francesca Lopez Civeira (Cuba)2, Ian Tyrrell (Australia), Roy Rosenzweig (US), Mary Ryan (US). Winfried Flück (Germany), François Weil (France), while those selected by competition were David Engerman (US), James Mohr (US), Ellen DuBois (US), Barbara Clark Smith (US), Mary L. Dudziak (US), Patrick Hagopian (Wales, UK), Alessandra Lorini (Italy), Dolores Janiewski (New Zealand), Willi Paul Adams (Germany), Carl Guarneri (US) and Victoria Straughn (US) were selected in consultation with the President and Executive Director of the OAH. Walter Johnson, Martha Hodes, and Thomas Bender represented New York University, as did two graduate students, Betsy Esch and Fanon Che Wilkins.

Prasenjit Duara of the University of Chicago delivered a keynote address to the conference. Duara, who was born in Assam, educated in India and the United States, and is a specialist in the histories of China and Japan, enacts in his biography a form of contemporary cosmopolitanism that must in some way contribute to his particularly illuminating insights into the relation of history to the nation in, among other works, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (1995). His keynote, "Transnationalism and the Challenge to National Histories," spread before the participants a variety of theoretical, disciplinary, and geographical orientations to the questions before us. His point was to rethink the place of the nation in historiography and in the making of historical subjects. Acknowledging that the nation is a profoundly important historical fact, he urged, precisely for that reason, to treat it historically, not as a natural fact. The nation is a product of history and an actor in history. Historians will continue to study the nation, but in doing so they must find a position that frees them from the ideological hegemony of the nation-state.

Following that introduction, Richard White and Charles Bright offered various ways of relating the continental expansion of the nation to its extra-continental dimensions, thus offering a historical analysis of the production of national space and, especially in the case of White's paper, the place of an individual in it. Both material and projected space, as in Tocqueville's notion of "L'amerique," produce a web of relations, social and imaginary, that leave a legacy of complex and multiple locations of power, identity, and meaning. The extent to which Tocqueville's analysis can be opened to a general narrative of modernity, the relation of the particular national history of America to L'amerique, a presumably universal promise of modernity, was explored by Marcello Jasmin.

The extension of American power overseas and the ways of understanding the implications of such extension for identifying the boundaries of the nation and of the colony or "quasi-colony" were examined in a broad way by Bright and with a more particular focus in papers by Reynaldo Ileto in regard to the Philippines and by Francisca Lopez Civerira in the case of Cuba.

Opening the container of the nation undermines not only the presumption of homogeneous space, but it also questions the singularity of time, which itself poses difficult questions for historiography that were addressed by Walter Johnson and David Engerman. The discussion of time, with its relation (as we usually understand time) to progress and modernity, opened a discussion of alternative modernities, a theme that recurred, perhaps centrally, through the remainder of the conference. Can alternative modernities be parallel, or must one be measured against the other? Is co-modernity (both simultaneous and related to other modernities) possible? Or is the relation always defined by the difference in phasing and power?

This project is often confused with the related but distinct endeavor of writing comparative history. At the first conference there was some tenseness on this point, but here the movement between the two and the relation of the two to each other seemed more relaxed. Carl Guarneri presented an especially careful and sensible analysis of the differences and potential overlaps between the two modes of doing history, pointing out that the work of David B. Davis, for example, has been at once national, comparative, and transnational. Ian Tyrrell, Ellen DuBois, and James Mohr offered examples of ways into transnational histories that are also national and comparative, keeping in focus the asymmetries or inequalities of social relations and systems of exchange both within and beyond national boundaries. Were the project more radical and were it devoted to subverting or deconstructing the nation as a historical subject, it would have directly challenged comparative history, since the nation remains the key unit of comparison.

One of the central tasks of the Project is to identify narrative structures that can communicate the complexity of a history of multiple spatial and time scales, a history the unites narratives even while it acknowledges differences, a history that respects the ways historical subjects insert themselves into history even as it constructs a history attentive to dimensions not subjectively relevant to them. Nearly all papers entered into this domain, but Richard White, Martha Hodes, Mia Bay, and Mary Ryan particularly probed these issues, offering specific and concrete narrative possibilities. In each instance, a seemingly local, even biographical, focus pressed toward a de-provincialization of American history.

The final sets of papers addressed in a variety of ways one quite central issue: the relation of the historian to the public. What in fact constitutes the public for professional history--in what locales does one find the public, within the nation and beyond? Barbara Clark Smith and Roy Rosenzweig each offered accounts of history outside of the academy, both of which were rather pessimistic about the role and impact of professional historians who do not connect with the highly personal and familial focus of history on the one hand, and who cannot easily compete with commercial and donor-driven productions of history on the other. Mary Dudziak raised the issue of "official" histories produced for foreign consumption in the interest of global politics, while Francois Weil tried to assess the degree to which American history does or does not travel abroad. Though many particulars complicate any argument, it seems that the narratives of professional historians of the United States are not readily absorbed abroad, whether by historians, journalists, or the general public.

Willi Paul Adams introduced the factor of language into this discussion, and Dolores Janiewski, Patrick Hagopian, and Alessandra Lorini offered different perspectives from abroad about the politics of American historiography. More challenging (and causing some discomfort) was the presentation of Winfried Flück, whose paper raised sobering questions about the social conditions and practice of contemporary professional scholarship in the humanities, including American history. Indeed, the subtheme was quite Tocquevillian: the competitive practice of professionalism under modern, democratic conditions best represented by the United States encourage a pattern of innovation and fragmentation that increases the volume of scholarship and reduces the volume of available knowledge. Insofar as one might call this the "Americanization of knowledge" the United States as the most modern nation shares intellectual practice with the world but at the price of not knowing itself or the world.

Themes and Conclusions

The Project so far offers what one participant called a "postmodern manifesto:" one urging reform but not proclaiming a new and all-conquering truth. The papers and the discussion converged on what we called a "moderate" position. The aim is to augment current practice, not dismiss it. The proposition the Project advances is that the nation is a socially produced historical space and institution. The nation. as it was used in the conference, referred to at least three things, all of which are historically constructed: the nation state (the Weberian state), the ideology of the nation-state (nationalism), and a form of identity (produced by the nation-state). The historical significance of the nation--in any of these forms--is at any given moment or context an empirical question. More important, the nation does not contain all the narratives, all the movements of people, goods and capital, knowledge, and structures that constitute an American history.

The aim is to relativize (or de-center) American history in time and space, without losing that history. Americanists must look for the ties that bind a multiplicity of historical narratives to each other under the canopy of American history, even as they explore the ways in which these histories connect the United States to yet other histories.

Historians will be pressed to understand the relative significance of different forms of convergence and non-convergence of histories. They must attend closely to and understand the relations of these histories within contingent and permeable borders to histories (some continuous) beyond those borders. It is a project, as we recognized in our discussions, that could reunify the discipline, for it undermines those departmental divisions that separate historians and histories. And it offers a common historiographical problem of great importance to all fields of history, one that in its fullest extensions touches them all and invites dialogue, even collaboration.

This point is important because, as François Weil pointed out, the great size of the United States history profession, its "continentalism," there is little incentive to look beyond the continent either for colleagues or contextualizing histories. Such continentalism, a kind of isolationism, inhibits the capacity of American history to "travel" and link itself to larger histories. That incapacity represents a serious defect in the American historical imagination. The continental market encourages a very high degree of specialization that further discourages large-scale contextualization and interpretation of American history.

The discussions did not point toward the displacement of the nation in preference of some global or intercultural perspective. Rather the conversation kept noticing, more amply than is usually the case in current historiography, the multiple narratives that are either larger or smaller than the nation, that may or may not coincide with the nation, whether the reference is to its present or retrospective territoriality. Assumptions of national homogeneity and of firm boundaries were repeatedly set aside and converted into historical questions. The capacity of the nation to frame time and space was understood as a historical variable. It can never contain all historical narratives, but one might suppose that at any given moment (or in a given context)it might claim in a compelling way to contain the important ones. But that claim and its persuasiveness is a matter itself for historical investigation.

Put as simply as possible, historians must consider the significance (always embedded in multiple spatial and temporal contexts) of internal heterogeneity and transnationalism. It helps to think of writing history in terms the relations of different scales of time and space. These are mutually constituted. While it is likely that one will think of these scales as somehow layered or concentric, it is important to recognize that they are interactive. None of these categories (space or time) or scales (large or small) can be uncontaminated by the others--a fact that may in any given instance be of historical significance or not.

The object is to study social motion--and the processes and networks that channel that motion and the resulting identities and political subjectivities. The historical subjects of the narratives that might result is likely to be complex with multiple identities and creolized cultures. Such a historical formation of cultures, identities, political subjectivities, and economies, we may gradually recognize, is historically typica1 rather than atypical.

In writing such a history, it helps to keep always in mind the Four C's: Comparison, Connection, Contextualization, and Categorization. To take an example offered in discussion: Would it not be better to refer not to slave revolts, but rather to a struggle among peoples for control of bodies and labor in the new world? This simple rephrasing derives from being sensitive to each of the four C's.

Sites of historiographical entry are multiple. A historical terrain may be defined by a space, a population (down to the singular person), a process (diaspora, capital flows), an institution (slavery, a profession), a form of knowledge (street car technology, religion), or an object (cotton, steel, a book, or work of art). All will work, but only if the inherent tendency of all categories toward self-enclosure is challenged.

There is a domain of the imaginary whose motion deserves tracking. L'amerique is a phrase identified with Tocqueville that represents the imaginary projection of America. It can be positive, signifying the promise of modernity, in so far as one accepts the emancipatory promise of modernity, or it can be an object of fear, as the imaginary of the U.S. as awesome power must intrude itself into local historical imaginations, as Francisca Lopez indicates it has in Cuban historiography.

The problem of temporal convergence--and non-convergence--was a recurring concern in discussions. Is a non-imperialist or noncolonialist synchronization of time possible? What of modernity? Is a universal modernity a form of imperalism? Or does the vision of modernity now belong to the globe? Are there alternative or multiple modernities? If so, how does one bring into a single history such modernities?

The relation of the universal and the particular is an issue raised by temporalities and modernities. But that in turn raises questions about universal standards of other sorts. Can, or must, the historian as a moral critic and cosmopolitan have some extended, if not necessarily universal, notions of and commitments to justice, emancipation, human rights, autonomy and self-determination? Ironically, the postmodern impulse to deconstruct the nation and other fixed categories may invite a return to other, perhaps more generous, categories of rights and subjectivities upon which a more general notion of justice and moral commitment might be based.

Does a history characterized by multiple time frames and differentiated spatial scales require novel forms of representation? Must one adopt more innovative narrative forms? Can we learn from literary experimentations with narratives that openly explore versions of cosmopolitan history--for instance Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon? Will CD-ROM hyper-text be more suitable than presentation in book form? How will a cosmopolitan history find its public? Are contemporary lives self-consciously cosmopolitan enough to recognize and engage a cosmopolitan history were historians to offer it? Is there a risk of creating a history so complex and layered (and perhaps abstract) that it bears little relation to common experience and makes no connection with the ways in which ordinary people insert themselves into history? Or might the new narratives being proposed in fact touch them more than the present ones do?

What happens to the civic role of the historian as cosmopolitan? Professional history in the West has been deeply implicated in state-making. Historians have not always been apologists for the state, but they have been tethered to it. If that tether is loosened, where do historians locate themselves and their audiences? Will they have more success in finding an American audience than the survey data Rosenzweig reports suggests they are presently doing? Would they gain more foreign readers than Weil's report in the case of France suggests they have at present? Will existing forms of institutional and other support accommodate the writing of a cosmopolitan history of the United States?

An Agenda for Conferences III and IV

Before outlining the next conference, something should be said about anticipated results of the whole series. Two kinds of products are envisioned. First, there will be a publication (one or two volumes) containing scholarly essays. These would be highly focused samplings of the many essays that will have been presented over the course of the series of conferences. They would address theoretical or conceptual issues, explore issues of the sociology, and politics of historical knowledge, and, finally, provide exemplary works that actually re-interpret important themes, periods, or events in American history.

In addition to such a scholarly product, it is anticipated that there will be a report to the OAH, and through the Organization of American Historians, to the History Departments of the United States and abroad. This report would put forward the case for widening the lens of American history, developing the need and possibilities, but also--as several papers here do--pointing out the pitfalls. It would also make recommendations concerning the training of students, the shape of curricula, and our relations to scholars and scholarly institutions abroad.

Conference III

Conference I was a planning conference and Conference II addressed conceptual issues and various dimensions of the sociology of historical knowledge. Conference III is intended to focus on exemplary work, on examples of the way the modest manifesto would enrich our understanding of well recognized periods, themes, and issues in American historiography.

The rubrics are fairly familiar, not at all notable for their novelty. This listing represents one of two possible approaches. One approach would be to subvert existing ways of framing American history, rejecting conventional periodization and themes. The other approach is to work out from existing periods and themes. Although the discussions in both conferences have moved in both directions, the aim of the Project, from the first planning meeting, has beer to pursue the second, more moderate option. It proposes expanding, complicating and revising existing historiographical foci rather than displacing them. Hence the topics that follow. However, the Project would welcome proposals for papers that would subvert these categories and suggest more radical approaches to the widening and deepening of American history.

A. Themes

Nationalism and Identity

Democracy, Freedom, and Unfreedom

Migration and Immigration

Social Movements

Empire: The Relations of Power and the Contact of Cultures


Elite and Popular Culture


B. Periods

[These are not entirely clear, but they are intended to at once describe American historical periods without being uniquely American--as in Jacksonian Period, Gilded Age, etc.]

European Expansion, Conquest, and Settlement

The Age of Revolution

The Age of Social Politics (1880-1980)

The Age of Global Power

Conference IV will concentrate on producing a report; its participants will be drawn from previous participants, and it wild be as representative as possible of the earlier meetings


This project has been generously funded. The planning meeting (in 1997) was funded by NYU and the American Council of Learned Societies. The funding for the sequence of conferences in 1998, 1998, and 2000 has been provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation (for 1998 and 1999), The Rockefeller Foundation (for 1998, with encouragement concerning continued funding), The Ford Foundation (1998-2000), and the Mellon Foundation (1998-1999).

1. The Selection Committee for the competition were Thomas Bender, representing New York University; Mike Hogan, representing the OAH as chair of its International Committee; Linda Kerber, representing U.S.-based historians at the Planning Conference; Christiane Harzig, representing non-U.S.-based historians at the Planning Conference.

2. For reasons not entirely clear, Professor Lopez Civeira was at the last minute not able to leave Cuba. Her paper was distributed and discussed at the conference.