Publication Date

February 1, 1996

Research on American history is undertaken in many areas of the world, often in response to U.S. influence intellectual, economic, or military-in a particular country or region. Some scholars concentrate on the dissemination of knowledge about the United States in their countries; others want to contribute new research or join the debate among U.S. scholars about interpretations. All non-American scholars engaged in this particular internationalization of history face a number of problems, some of which are specific to American history. Scholars from several countries gathered to discuss these problems at a session that took place during the Organization of American Historians (OAH) 1995 annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.

Teaching and Politics

One problem stems from the position of the United States in the world and the particular relations between the United States and a scholar's country. Such political positions should never be excluded from the assessment of scholarly relationships. Scholars in countries with a colonial legacy or with the experience or perception of American intervention sometimes face charges of being tools of the Central Intelligence Agency merely for having studied in the United States or for considering the United States a subject worthy of attention in the education of their country's youth. The study of American history is, in fact, often related to encouragement by the United States Information Service (USIS). This is part of the cultural foreign policy of the United States. While cultural aims are part of any country's foreign policies, provided the country is not too poor to afford them, the hegemonic position of the United States in world affairs makes for a larger and more controversial influence.

The problem is, however, at least two-sided. The influence of the USIS is partly explained by the lack of funding for academic area studies, in this case American studies, even in "rich" countries of the European Union. Depending on the cultural agenda of the respective U.S. administration or U.S. perception of a particular U.S. event—celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution, for example—U.S. "encouragement" may imply intervention, and sometimes almost dictates "acceptable" subjects of study. Yet, at other times, U.S. encouragement is indeed support of whatever topics scholars choose to address, within a certain spectrum.

I want to illustrate the complexity of this issue with a personal note. Born in Germany in 1943, I grew up in a country liberated by U.S. troops and learned the preamble to the Declaration of Independence by heart in school. As a student I considered the democratizing moves of the military administration an important contribution to German political culture. My student year at the University of Minnesota was a liberating experience from the confines of pre-1968 German academia. I was "pro-American" by upbringing and choice. On the other hand, I never shared the tenets of American Cold War policies, and I opposed the Vietnam War. In the climate of those days such positions resulted in charges of an "anti-American" attitude, which—according to some German gatekeepers—would preclude my teaching American studies "objectively." USIS officials at that time were nervous about a generation of possibly "anti-American" (that is, anti-Vietnam War) teachers entering German schools.

When such issues were discussed at a session during the 1995 DAH annual meeting, European, Canadian, and East Asian scholars attended, but very few U.S. colleagues showed up. Session organizers, speakers, and participants had hoped for more interest in this rare opportunity for international scholars to meet face-to-face to discuss problems of communication involving complex issues of discourse and cultural context. I was particularly disappointed because my own experience in fostering international scholarly communication through the Labor Migration Project at the University of Bremen from 1980 to 1991 had been both challenging and productive.

International Scholarly Communication and Choice of Language

Through the Labor Migration Project, I brought researchers from all European countries west of the Soviet Union and Romania together with colleagues from the United States and Canada to study the transatlantic and intra-European migration of workers from the 1850s to the 1920s. The project addressed questions related to the interaction of class and ethnic culture, the influence of gender, and the transfer of cultural customs and political experience. Issues of language, politics, hegemonic position, and national discourses obviously had to be addressed in order to pursue the collaborative effort. Men and women from almost two dozen different countries, including multiethnic ones like Great Britain and Yugoslavia, representing some 40 ethnic or—from another point of view—national groups had to arrive at joint questions, common terminology, and comparable approaches.

First, the language of communication in international exchanges related to American history is usually English. Since languages are cultural artifacts, any language has its own set of connotations and underlying assumptions. A5 is the rule with any foreign language, shifting to American English means conscious or unconscious usage of these cultural implications. A large number of U.S. historians of American history are monolingual and can neither understand the subtexts of other languages nor incorporate non-English-language scholarship into their own work. Their inability often results in a certain self-centeredness, even one-sidedness. To avoid this, the labor Migration Project teamed up scholars from the cultures of origin with scholars from the American and Canadian receiving cultures. Processes of cultural change and interethnic relations as characterized by Old World affinities or conflicts could thus be studied as a complex whole.

National Scholarly Discourses and the Limits of Internationalization

A second issue, of even greater import than the choice of language, concerns the differences between national scholarly discourses (or, in multiethnic countries, among ethno-cultural discourses). For historical, intellectual, and often emotional reasons, the academic community of each country or cultural region develops its own conventions and standards. Within countries as well as between them, boundaries of discourse place scholars in gatekeeper positions. Raymond Williams has referred to "selective traditions." Foucault relates control over knowledge dispersion to self-defined boundaries, outside of which lies alleged partisanship. The function of gatekeeper includes the "delimitation of a field of objects, the definition of a legitimate perspective … and the fixing of norms for the elaboration of concepts and theories. Thus each discursive practice implies a set of prescriptions that designate its exclusions and choices," This concerns (a) the question of topics not raised in American scholarship, interpretive concepts that a priori exclude certain categories; (b) the equation United States = America that disregards other North American or continental experiences; and (e) strategies of scholarly argumentation that devalue alternative approaches. Many of the problems involved are already being discussed in comparative sessions with participants from several national discourses at AHA, OAH, and SSHA meetings.

Non-American authors interested in reaching U.S. colleagues face a dilemma (and vice versa). They think, argue, and write according to their own particular national approach, or perhaps according to a supranational one (e.g., a European discourse or a West African one). The implicit assumptions of non-American discourses are not known to the U.S. Scholarly public, which—like any other monolingual nation- centered group—remains enclosed, perhaps imprisoned, in its own assumptions and discourse strategies. If, to avoid remaining outside the enclosure, non-American scholars switch to American ways of writing and arguing, they lose the specifics of their own national approach and sometimes face exclusion from their own scholarly community.

The labor Migration Project illustrated the varieties of national approaches in research on international migrations. The study of moves from one society to another is immigration history in U.S. terminology, emigration history from the view of the societies of origin. The original impetus behind the cooperative effort of the project was the recognition that, although most U.S. work presumed that newcomers (a Canadian term used to avoid the word immigrant) carry their cultural baggage with them and that their primary socialization in the culture of origin should be investigated, few could do so, language and funding constraints usually precluded this approach among U.S. scholars, the exception being some of the work coming out of ethnic groups, which, however, was often filiopietistic. (It should be noted that we began our work in the late 1970s.)

On the one hand, emigration researchers began at the other end of the process, but sometimes were caught in concepts of loss of men and women for fatherland or mother tongue, in notions of exile (from Erin) or expatriation (from Italy). On the other hand, knowing that there were many-directional migrations (e.g., of Italians or Poles world-wide), they usually did not fall victim to the assumption that each and every migrant tried to reach "America." In fact, with access to letters from emigrants to friends and kin describing living and working conditions after migration, emigration researchers never fell for the now-outmoded U.S. discourse strategies of unlimited opportunities, the openness of the one-and-only frontier society, or American exceptionalism.

To pursue the implications of national approaches, we have to remind ourselves that the U.S. immigration-freedom-opportunities paradigm resulted in total neglect of return migration. Only from 1907 on were statistics collected. By then, shipping companies had advertised eastbound passages for European labor migrants for decades. Stieglitz's often-misread photo, "The Steerage," does not show immigrants but return migrants, From the 1880s to 1914 about one third of the European migrants returned. Due to the societal constraints on discourse, little or ne research was undertaken on return migration until the 1980s.

Another example of the distortions introduced by national discourses is the concept of minorities. In Europe (and North America), the national frame of research became de facto nationalist and resulted in conceptual differentiations between the main nationality and minorities (e.g., in the case of historic Hungary). The "minorities" are, of course, majorities on their own territories unless they live dispersed.

A Supranational Approach

In the field of labor migration research the emigration-immigration dichotomy of national discourses may be integrated into a supranational form by migration history which incorporates many-directional moves, migration in stages, European or Asian internal migration, and African forced migration. In addition, practitioners of migration history see historic empires and present nation-states only as entities that set regulatory frameworks and provide some of the push and pull factors in migration because of political systems and patterns of investment. A comparative approach to historical research is imperative if we are to become aware of limitations of single-nation questions, concepts, and approaches.

During the Cold War, the different national discourses were placed in one of two camps, one "communist," one "capitalist," both "free" from the shortcomings of the other by self-description. Thus the statement by a Hungarian colleague that "the artisan class was the vanguard of capitalist transformation of the peasant village" was considered empty phraseology. In historic Hungary, village artisans, however, did have a social position different from that of peasants. Their ties to urban markets introduced them to new forms of everyday life (e.g., dress and furniture). When peasants wanted to emulate the artisans, they needed cash and had to migrate into wage labor, into a capitalist mode of production elsewhere. The critique of the original statement was made out of ignorance of developments in a different cultural world and was probably aggravated by a social environment that placed (places?) the concept of class outside the accepted boundaries.

The next step in developing a supranational exchange is to facilitate publication of research results. Research published in English in a European country seldom reaches U.S. scholars, given the state of the international book trade and national viewpoints. To publish with a U.S. press, university or commercial, may easily lead to conflict with the manuscript's reviewers. In order to understand a non-U.S. scholar's work, the reviewer would have to be familiar with the discourse strategies of the author's culture of origin. The press has to be willing to underwrite the additional investment in language editing. The copyeditor, too, has to be able to understand non-American subtexts and allusions.

Non-American authors have to consider whether their intended U.S. public will accept their discourse strategies, which are "foreign" strategies from the U.S. point of view. For example, a European-edited volume of essays on immigration and labor in North America included one essay on Canada. The reviewers for a U.S. university press were unanimous in stating that an essay on Canada should have no place in a volume on "America." In some countries weighty documentary volumes with limited interpretation and analysis are preferred. Authors who do not conform to this pattern lose the support of their own colleagues and may not be able to get a job. For scholars in the former socialist countries, documentary publications permitted more leeway because they allowed scholars to present data while avoiding interpretations that did not conform to party positions. In other cultures (e.g., in Central and South America), an emphasis on interpretation, viewpoints, and debate favors essayistic reinterpretations of known data from a new point of view. Fascinating perspectives on U.S. foreign policy and class relations face hostility from U.S. reviewers as "ideological," although they are merely following a different ideology. "Forums" and multiple reviews of influential books in the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History are now beginning to take up such discursive strategies and need to include “foreign” respondents and reviewers. The JAH's strategy of internationalization is to be welcomed.

In the past, U.S. reviewers were wary of manuscripts from the former socialist countries that began, "as Lenin already said." While I happen to agree with this critical stance, the whole consensus approach to U.S. history also merely applied a preconceived frame onto history, as the invention of a middle-class democracy in some of the 13 colonies shows. The sudden emergence of specific interpretations in particular intrasocietal or worldwide contexts—democracy or free world vs. totalitarian regimes—has to be viewed' with critical detachment and scepticism in the review publications and forums of scholarly debate within a national discourse to prevent one-sidedness.

Where Do We Go from Here?

First, historians have to be more aware of the varieties of approaches available in other countries. U.S. labor and working class history, for example, profited from incorporating concepts of the British New Left—E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams—and the Italian Gramsci-inspired debates. On the other hand, an acceptance of U.S. approaches can be stimulating for research elsewhere, as it has been—in my opinion—in women's and gender history.

Second, professional positions and committees that include explicit gatekeeping functions (e.g., program development for annual conventions and book or manuscript review), have to be internationalized, just as they had to become gendered. Internationalization increases options, viewpoints, and diversity. The basic principle of historical writing—to critically evaluate sources and to place them in context—also applies to discourse strategies. Alldiatur et aliter pars—”listen also to the other side.” This will include compromises and the loss of “innocence” or naivete.

To be able to listen and to detect preconceived notions requires awareness of implicit, subconscious ways of thinking. Having published my research in several countries, mostly in the United States, and having taught in Germany, Canada, and the United States, I considered myself cosmopolitan (the proletarian discourse would say internationalist) and was certain that I could move between discourses, aware of their implications. Then opinion polls pointed out that the majority of Europeans favor government involvement in the reduction of income inequalities, while more than 70 percent of Americans oppose it. I fully support government involvement-without being aware of it, my Europeanness shaped my approach. Only unrelenting examination of one's underlying assumptions will open the way to an understanding of historical phenomena and prevent self-imprisonment in national or even nationalist assumptions that not only exclude others but label them as "biased."

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