Publication Date

December 1, 2017

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Adam McKeown

Adam McKeown

World historian Adam McKeown was born in San Francisco, but he spent his life roaming the world and helping the rest of us see the world in startling new ways.

Before Adam, most historians studied immigrants without inquiring much about the places from which they came. They focused on struggles over the adoption of laws rather than their application. And the few who asked what they meant in practice, to individual people, limited themselves to a single national case.

Adam’s first book, Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change (2001)—his revised University of Chicago dissertation—showed how migration flows must be understood as transnational phenomena. In the case of the Chinese diaspora, the relevant points of reference were not “China” or “Peru,” for example, but particular villages and families, “nodes” of transit in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Singapore, and sophisticated systems of credit involving merchants, bankers, and employers on four continents.

A hallmark of all of Adam’s work was its ambition, the scope of which became apparent in his influential 2004 article for the Journal of World History, “Global Migration, 1846–1940.” Estimating the scale of global migration over nearly a century, he showed how Asian migration was comparable to the heralded Atlantic migrations, in timing and in magnitude.

In Melancholy Order, winner of the World History Association’s best book prize in 2009, Adam went deeper, investigating border control as a ritual. Although migration restrictions usually failed, they made people accept that states and individuals were the only legitimate actors in migration’s ambit. Whenever we meekly queue up with our passports, we participate in a practice that exalts this social relationship over every other.

Adam’s multinational research led to several discoveries. Rather than elevating the state over the individual, procedures to define the polity were essential to preserving democracy. Identity documentation, dictation tests, and consular visas did not prevent migration flows; they facilitated them. The evasive maneuvers of migrants and entrepreneurs only made these procedures increasingly elaborate, bureaucratic, and uniform. Eventually, this became an inexorable process: every country was expected to identify its citizens and police its borders.

Adam’s ultimate vision was to show how transnational phenomena like migration and nationalist campaigns to enforce state sovereignty are mutually constitutive. He illuminated the particular people and institutions, the decisions and events, that drove this global process. At the same time, he showed an acute sensitivity to local context and the particularities of each case.

Adam’s strength and sensitivity were especially clear in the way he advised his students at Columbia. He loved misfits and rebels, and gently guided them through the perils of academic politics. He also played a pivotal role in creating new curricula in international and global history, so that professors would not have to divide up the world and students could more easily find their own place in it.

Adam did it all in a disarming, mischievous manner. He never went in for professional self-promotion, but neither did he begrudge colleagues who played the game. He resisted the kind of socialization that helps academics get along but can also alienate them from the rest of society. Rather than complaining about e-mail, he composed hilarious haiku for his vacation messages. Rather than lamenting missed summer work deadlines, he returned from rural Thailand with stories about the amazing flavors he discovered eating lizards and insects. Rather than compete for a trophy apartment near Columbia’s campus, he biked in from Queens, much preferring this cosmopolitan entrepôt to the small world of Morningside Heights.

Adam left the academy in 2013, giving up a tenured full professorship. He was fed up with the pettiness of academic politics. He worried that if his heart was not in it, he could not be a good adviser to students. He never expressed regrets and was able to explore new places and new experiences, following his curiosity wherever it would lead him.

He finally crossed that last border through a tragic accident. By all accounts, he was happy and fulfilled right up to the end. He left behind a proud mother, Gerri McKeown, a strong daughter, Gina—his “treasure of coerced migration”—and a roaming horde of friends and admirers who circle the globe.

Columbia University

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